In the latest incident of suspected French anti-Semitism, Israeli students set to visit Paris at the end of the month were denied reservations for guided tours at two important cultural sites, reported Haaretz Monday. The group, from Tel Aviv University, was told at each location that there were no spaces available.
Professor Sefy Hendler, an art history professor at the university, called the world-famous Louvre and nearby Sainte-Chapelle cathedral last month. Both institutions told him they were booked solid and could not reserve tours for his 12 students, despite offering multiple date options at the Louvre. Hendler then called back under a false name, pretending to be from fictional institutions based in Italy and Abu Dhabi, and was able to make the reservations for the same dates.
“It surprised me that a place that receives nine million visitors a year didn’t find room for us,” Hendler told Haaretz, referring to the Louvre, “even though we asked to tour in the middle of the week.”
Hendler considered cancelling the planned trip, but ultimately turned the matter over to Francois Heilbronn, president of French Friends of Tel Aviv University, the group sponsoring the trip. Heilbronn contacted both institutions, as well as French Culture Minister Fleur Pellerin.
Heilbronn was told the reservations system at the Louvre is almost entirely automated, but the administration responded saying it was “disturbed” by the incident nevertheless and was launching an internal investigation.
In a communique cited by The Times of Israel, museum officials said an overflow of reservations in the computerized system led to the initial refusal, a situation which was resolved by the time Hendler called back under false pretenses.
“In a way, we are victims of our success. We receive on average 400 reservation requests per day and offer 15-minute-long visits. But demand is twice as large as supply,” the statement said. It noted, too, that a request from Hebrew University in Jerusalem, made later, was accepted by the system.
Sainte-Chapelle’s reservations, by contrast, are handled by human beings. Philippe Belaval, the president of the National Monuments Center, which administers Sainte-Chapelle, said an investigation revealed recurring irregularities, but it was as yet unclear whether discrimination was involved in the denial.
Belaval said “disciplinary measures” would be taken, but that the individual responsible had “never expressed hostility towards Israel.” He apologized for “compromising the treatment of requests” and a lack of “rigor and professionalism.”
Hendler sees both responses as excuses. “It’s clear to me that when you say no to Israelis, it’s a discriminatory and racist act. They don’t care whether you’re left- or right-wing. They simply don’t want the Israeli in the narrow sense through which they view him. It’s an incident that I simply don’t understand,” he noted.
Meanwhile, Jean-Francois Carenco, the governor of the Ile-de-France region, which includes Paris, has asked the prosecutor’s office to launch its own investigation into the suspected illegal discrimination.
“What was the idea? That if we don’t see the ‘Mona Lisa’ then the occupation would end? It’s completely foolish,” Hendler said, adding: “Beyond the Israeli question, France has extraordinary cultural treasures, and the French conception is a universal conception – that we are opening culture to everyone, including Russians, even though there are those who don’t like [President Vladimir] Putin, and to Israelis, even though there are those who don’t like [Prime Minister] Benjamin Netanyahu.
“From the moment that you start choosing whom you are opening the museums to,” he noted, “ultimately, you will admit only citizens of the Western democracies who think exactly as you do.”