French rejection of Tel Aviv students echoes 1942 Benzion Netanyahu episode

June 19, 2015 by Rafael Medoff -
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The world-famous Louvre art museum stands accused of discriminating against Israeli students, after being exposed by some clever amateur investigative journalism that echoes a 1940s incident involving the father of Israel’s current prime minister.From: Rafael Medoff/

The glass pyramid at France's Louvre art museum, which stands accused of discriminating against Israeli students. Credit: Hteink Min via Wikimedia Commons.

The glass pyramid at France’s Louvre art museum, which stands accused of discriminating against Israeli students. Credit: Hteink Min via Wikimedia Commons.

The episode began last month when Prof. Sefy Hendler, who teaches art history at Tel Aviv University, contacted the Louvre’s reservation department to arrange tours for 12 of his students during their trip to Paris in late June. Hendler proposed three different dates that his students would be available, but was turned down for all three.

“It surprised me that a place that receives nine million visitors a year didn’t find room for us — even though we asked to tour in the middle of the week,” Hendler told the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz.

So Hendler tried again shortly afterwards, this time identifying himself not as a faculty member at Tel Aviv University, but claiming affiliation with schools in Italy and Abu Dhabi. This time the Louvre suddenly had space available—on one of the same dates that were supposedly booked solid when Hendler had identified himself as Israeli.

The same thing happened when Hendler tried to book tours for his students at the Sainte-Chappele, a 13th-century royal chapel in central Paris that is famous for its Gothic architecture and stained-glass windows.

Spokespeople for the Louvre blamed it all on a computer error. The Sainte-Chappele administration has admitted “irregularities” in the handling of the Tel Aviv students, but would not concede discrimination. Francois Heilbronn, president of the French Friends of Tel Aviv University, has rejected the Louvre’s explanation, as has Prof. Hendler, who said, “It’s clear to me that when you say no to Israelis, it’s a discriminatory and racist act.”

The episode may remind some of an incident in Laura Z. Hobson’s famous novel “Gentleman’s Agreement,” a number-one New York Times bestseller in 1947 that was later made into a movie starring Gregory Peck and John Garfield. It chronicles the experiences of journalist Phillip Green, a non-Jew who poses as “Phil Greenberg” in order to explore antisemitism in postwar America.

Benzion Netanyahu in 1940. Credit: Courtesy of The David S.Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies.

Benzion Netanyahu in 1940. Credit: Courtesy of The David S.Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies.

Green’s secretary has no trouble making a reservation for Green—under that name—and his fiancé for their honeymoon weekend at a posh New England resort hotel. But when Green subsequently calls the hotel, the proprietor realizes that he’s Jewish and tells him that there are “no rooms available.” The original reservation was made by mistake by “a new clerk,” the hotel manager insists.

The Louvre’s cancellation also brings to mind a peculiar incident involving the late scholar and Zionist activist Prof. Benzion Netanyahu, the father of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. When I interviewed him some years ago, Prof. Netanyahu mentioned some of the inconveniences he experienced in the United States in the 1940s because of his name, which was entirely unfamiliar to American ears. He would, for example, receive mail addressed to him as “Mr. Natan Yahu” or “Mr. Hu.”

But most jarring was what happened when he telephoned a resort in upstate New York in 1942, to make reservations for the weekend for himself and his wife. When Netanyahu stated his name, the hotel clerk said no rooms were available. “But my wife, Cela, became suspicious and called back a little while later, using a Gentile-sounding name,” he told me. “Suddenly there were plenty of rooms available. The problem was that they thought we were Japanese—and this was just a few months after Pearl Harbor.”

Blatant social discrimination against minorities should be a thing of the past in enlightened society. One hopes the behavior of the Louvre and the Sainte-Chappele does not indicate that such bigotry has returned, with Israelis as the new targets.

Dr. Rafael Medoff is the author of 15 books on Zionism and Jewish history, including “The Historical Dictionary of Zionism.” He recently won a Simon Rockower Award for Excellence in Jewish Journalism.

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