Oriental Institute policy comes under criticism

By Meredith Meyer

After the University’s Chabad Jewish Center was abruptly denied the rental of Breasted Hall for their High Holiday services this fall, members of the University community raised concerns about the nature and possible inconsistencies in the application of the Oriental Institute’s rental policy.

Chabad booked the Oriental Institute’s Breasted Hall for September 27-28 and October 5-6 to hold Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services, respectively. After the plans were finalized and advertisements were printed, the Institute denied the group the agreed space, citing their rental policy’s exclusion of any religious services or political activities from the space.

Gil Stein, director of the Institute, called the cancellation a “very embarrassing situation” and pointed to an oversight on the part of his administrative staff, which experienced a nearly complete turnover in the past year. He said that Chabad’s proposed events never should have been booked in the first place.

“The Institute never admitted religious services of any denomination,” he said. “To maintain archeological sites [in the Near East], we have to be very carefully secular in everything we do.”

Stein sits in a precarious position. The Institute, which houses the largest collection of Mesopotamian art in the U.S. and is nationally renowned as the most important center for ancient Near East studies, has a lot to protect. Through its Near Eastern partners, the Institute has led prestigious and exclusive excavations in Egypt, Israel, Turkey, Iraq, and Iran, and is currently excavating in Syria.

Stein, who is the Institute’s first Jewish director, must protect the Institute’s fragile relations with its Near Eastern partners. These relations might have been threatened by hosting Jewish services only weeks before the opening of The Edgar and Deborah Jannotta Mesopotamian Gallery. This important gallery brings together the largest collection of Iraqi artifacts outside of Baghdad.

“The key thing is where we work—the fragility in other parts of the world—things are delicate. Think about all the oppositions in the Near East between Iran and Iraq, Armenians and Turks, Jews and Arabs. Just the act of prayer can be interpreted as supporting a particular point of view,” Stein said.

Connections with these politically turbulent countries, including Turkey, which saw the bombing of two synagogues this weekend, make it necessary for the Institute never to espouse specific opinions, Stein said.

However, a record of Breasted Hall’s 2002-2003 bookings reads as a near laundry list of controversial, political, and potentially religious events. The Institute hosted the group Campaign to End the Death Penalty, a talk on America’s New Security Strategy, a No War in Iraq film series and a Fifth Ward Meeting.

The Institute, reserving the right to judge whether an event is appropriate under its policy, hosted a talk this past year by Daniel Goldhagen called “Moral Reckoning.” Goldhagen, whose dissertation espouses a revisionist view of the Holocaust, won the American Political Science Association in 1994. Goldhagen’s book, Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, caused a palpable stir in the academic world, according to Richard John Neuhaus, who wrote a comprehensive critique of it on firstthings.com.

Simon Schama of Harvard said that Goldhagen’s work would “permanently change the debate on the Holocaust.” His work was subjected to sharp criticism by many Holocaust scholars, who felt that he did not do justice to the evil of the Holocaust.

Some members of the University community see this incident as one example of a larger incongruity stemming from an ambiguous and, they argue, inconsistent policy.

The rental policy has recently evolved after coming under scrutiny last spring. Members of the community, including Law School Professor Lisa Bernstein, put pressure on the Institute to evaluate its policy last year. The Institute’s policy seemed to conflict with the University’s Kalven Report, a document that forbids the administration from making business decisions based on politics.

This report describes the University’s role in political and social action, and states “a university, if it is to be true to its faith in intellectual inquiry must embrace, be hospitable to and encourage the widest diversity of views within its own community.”

The Institute submitted a new policy to the University’s General Council for review, which, besides raising the cost of renting the available facilities and allowing for the new galleries to be rented, no longer specifically prohibits “controversial topics.” Stein said the policy needed to be revised merely to include the new galleries and new costs.

The proposed policy still disallows religious services and political events. While not officially approved, this is the policy to which the Institute now holds its renters.

Stein insisted that the Institute needs such a policy. “Each institute or school will have policies that protect its particular concerns,” he said. “However unique this policy is, it is in keeping with the University’s mission. Scholarship is the primary goal; there is no room for politics or religion.”

Bernstein noted a sentiment among some members of the University community that the Institute has a record of bias against Israel, foreign policy interests, and conservatives.

Stein found this view extremely offensive, and said that he tries to maintain a rigorously apolitical and secular environment. Some wonder whether his interests in maintaining Near-Eastern connections create pressure to apply the rental policy inconsistently in order to facilitate the Institute’s complex global relations.

Sam Peltzman, a professor in the Graduate School of Business, said that the current policy leaves too much to Stein’s judgment.

“I have no trouble with a consistently applied policy that upholds the University’s tradition of tolerating a wide spectrum of discussion,” he said. “However, I would worry about how they are going to define religious and political. For example, the last event I can recall attending there was a Klezmer music concert sponsored by Hillel. Would that have become religious if the Hillel rabbi mentioned upcoming events in his intro? I would worry whether their no-religion rule is being enforced capriciously.”

Norman Golb, Ludwig Rosenberger Professor of Jewish History and Civilization in the Oriental Institute and a close colleague of Stein, said that some political and religious events might be hosted while others are denied a forum simply because “it is difficult for the Institute to monitor speakers—any exceptions to the policy are incidental and not intentional.”

Some on campus find it implausible that hosting a talk by a scholar whose work was so controversial and publicized—featured on PBS, The New York Times best-seller list, and numerous academic symposia—was a mere oversight.

The Institute offered to reimburse Chabad for its advertising expenses and found another location for its services, a remedy that satisfied Chabad’s rabbi, Yossi Brackman. Brackman declined to comment extensively for this article, but wished to make clear that he was not upset with the Institute.