On Muir’s inane anti-Semitic Oriental Institute critique

By Tim Murphy

The other night, as I strolled down 58th Street on my way to Ida Noyes, I noticed a peculiar sight. Across the street from the Theological Seminary were three mujahideen with AK-47s slung over their shoulders and turbans on their heads, speaking in a peculiar tongue as they burnt an American flag on the sidewalk. The Oriental Institute had been taken over by Islamo fascists!

At least that’s what George Mason University historian Diana Muir would have you believe. In an article entitled “Muslim Propaganda at the University of Chicago,” Muir accuses the Oriental Institute of attempting “to satisfy a political agenda” on the basis of one overly scrutinized caption in a museum display.

I’ll admit it; I jumped on the George Mason bandwagon last spring when the school’s men’s basketball team made an improbable run to the NCAA Final Four. I looked past the fact that they destroyed my bracket and that their star guard was suspended for the squad’s first-round game after punching an opposing player in a place that I dare not speak of. The thought of a little team that could chug its way past the heavyweights was too tantalizing to pass up.

Well, the storyline is continuing now, only the venue has shifted from basketball games to Near Eastern archaeology, and the heavyweight under assault is our own Oriental Institute.

In the opening salvo of her article, Muir accuses the museum of attempting to deny the existence of an ancient Jewish kingdom in the Levant, thereby propagating a major argument against the existence of a modern Israeli state. Her point is meticulously outlined, carefully quoting passages from captions in the museum. Had Ms. Muir bothered to pull her magnifying glass away from the fine print and looked at the actual exhibit in question, perhaps she would have noticed that the Haas and Schwartz Megiddo Gallery is devoted almost exclusively to artifacts from ancient Israel.

I’m sure the esteemed Muir is probably, like, 10 steps ahead of me on this, but if you were the Oriental Institute and you wanted to make a major statement about the autonomy of a Jewish state, wouldn’t you start by, oh, I don’t know, denying the existence of an ancient Israeli state? Changing the gallery’s title from its old name, “Ancient Palestine,” seems like a counterproductive move as well.

The explanation, as NELC professor Fred Donner stated in Tuesday’s Maroon, is simple. They made a mistake in a particular caption. It would make sense then, that an institute that manages to piece together the day-to-day life of civilizations that existed 5,000 years ago in detail from tiny tablets of cuneiform would not be so inept as to sacrifice their objectivity over a relatively modern religious conflict. It would be like accusing the head of the Biological Sciences Department of favoring creationism.

Sure enough, a quick glance at similar captions in the exhibit clarifies what the caption in question left open—namely, that the Oriental Institute does not endorse Islam as the singular religion of the Levant.

The irony of the situation is that Muir herself is a practitioner of the fine art of typos. Admiring a particularly impressive piece from the Persian gallery, she describes it as an “astonishing giant head of a bull made of polished black.” Unless there exists some element “black” that I am unaware of, she omitted a key word, “limestone.” I don’t mean to single out Muir for making typo (see, I just made one too!); I only want to point out that interpreting a typo as implying a greater political or religious bias is foolish.

It is unfortunate that after spending millions to renovate the gallery, any mistakes were made at all. But after 77 years at the top of its field, not to mention serving as the inspiration for two excellent Indiana Jones movies, the Museum and the Institute as a whole has earned the benefit of the doubt.

Along with the Economics Department and Professor Doug Macayeal’s Phy Sci class, the Oriental Institute is one of the University’s great academic treasures. Thanks to the Rockefeller-financed expeditions in the ’20s and ’30s and the continued field work throughout the Middle East, the Near Eastern Languages and Civilization Department has an advantage over nearly every other such institute in the world, both in the number of genuine artifacts in its collection and in the quality of research that it conducts.

Muir’s attacks should be taken seriously, not for the ridiculous claims that they make but for the slander they wish to perpetuate.