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January 26, 2007

Oriental Institute turns down CFI event

The Chicago Friends of Israel (CFI), a registered student organization, was denied use of the Oriental Institute’s Breasted Hall for an event scheduled for next month featuring Richard Perle, the conservative and oft-controversial former Reagan administration official.

The lecture, entitled “Middle East Peace: Illusion or Reality,” was to address “policy and steps that all sides could take in achieving peace in the Middle East,” said fourth-year Jonathan Hirsch, president of the Chicago Friends of Israel.

An e-mail sent to Hirsch on behalf of Oriental Institute director Gil Stein cited the lecture as conflicting with the Institute’s Facilities Rental Agreement Policy, which prohibits “events of a religious or political nature.”

“Please understand that this is not an attempt to pass judgment on your group’s activities but instead to maintain the impartiality of the Oriental Institute as a scholarly research institution and museum,” the e-mail read.

“I reviewed the request with senior staff members of the Oriental Institute and concluded that, as a politically charged event sponsored by a political advocacy group, it was not in keeping with the University approved rental regulations for Breasted Hall,” Stein said in an e-mail interview with the Maroon.

Perle has a history of stirring controversy because of his conservative stances on American and Israeli policy in the Middle East.

Perle served as Ronald Reagan’s Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Policy and went on to work on the Defense Policy Board Advisory Committee.

This is not the first time that the Oriental Institute has refused to host events of a political or religious nature. In 2003, the Institute denied used of Breasted Hall for the Chabad Jewish Center’s High Holiday services.

Stein explained the Institute’s policy as a function of its relationships in the Near East. “The Oriental Institute has been able to work successfully in virtually every Near Eastern country from Israel to the Islamic Republic of Iran only because we remain absolutely apolitical in our commitment to scholarship,” he said.

The Oriental Institute holds the country’s largest collection of Mesopotamian art and is recognized as an important institution for Near East studies. Its relationships with Near Eastern nations have made many of the Institute’s overseas archaeological projects and loans possible.

The Institute’s rental agreement for use of its facilities states that “the Institute retains the right to deny the use of our facilities for any event if, in its sole judgment, the event could endanger the Institute’s collections, be inconsistent with its educational and research mission, or conflict with other University commitments.”

But Hirsch doesn’t believe that the fine line that the Oriental Institute must walk in dealing with these nations should influence its discretionary policies regarding student events. He also sees contradictions in the Institute’s application of its policies.

In recent years, the Oriental Institute’s Breasted Hall has been used to host a variety of speakers and events that Hirsch contends took a decidedly political tilt.

In 2005, the Harris School of Public Policy rented Breasted Hall for an event featuring King Abdullah of Jordan, and last year hosted Prince Turki Al-Faisal, the Saudi Ambassador to the United States.

Other past events at Breasted Hall include an event hosted by the group Campaign to End the Death Penalty and a screening of the film No War in Iraq.

“That’s all well and good,” Hirsch said of the Oriental Institute’s need to maintain political neutrality. “However, if you’re going to have some political events, you have to have all political events.”

Hirsch cited the U of C’s Kalven Report, which was drafted in 1967 and addresses the University’s role in political and social action.

The report states that the University must not take political stances and that it is “the obligation of the University to provide a forum for the most searching and candid discussion of public issues.” Hirsch believes that in its decision, the Oriental Institute disregarded the Kalven Report’s core principles of freedom of expression and inquiry.

“It’s pretty obvious that this decision was influenced by political considerations,” Hirsch said. “My theory is that they need to maintain good relations with certain interests. If they hosted this [event], it might damage those interests. That is a valid concern for an institution whose job it is to get governments to let them come in and dig on their land. At the same time, [the Oriental Institute] is an organ of the University and it must abide by University rules…. You can’t have an organ of the University that applies arbitrary standards.

“The point here is that if parts of the University are going to choose how to apply standards, there can’t be any open dialogue and debate, which is what the University is about,” Hirsch said.

Hirsch has appealed to Stein requesting that he reconsider his decision. Hirsch has not considered further action, but he acknowledged that “people will find out about it, especially given all of the history.”

The history that Hirsch referred to is of the Oriental Institute’s somewhat contentious past with the Jewish community.

An article published in November by historian Diana Muir accused the Oriental Institute of an anti-Semitic bias after plaques at an exhibition claimed that the religion of Islam developed in the Southern Levant. The Institute dismissed the allegations as being politically influenced.

A lawsuit filed by several Jewish-American citizens last year demanded that the Oriental Institute hand over several Iranian artifacts in its possession as restitution for injuries suffered by a 1997 terrorist attack in Israel, which was later found to have been funded by Iran. Decision on the case is pending.

Hirsch rejected the suggestion that the Chicago Friends of Israel chose Breasted Hall as its venue in order to test the willingness of the Oriental Institute to allow its event.

Despite the availability of both the International House and Ida Noyes Hall, both within short distance of the main quadrangle, as possible sites, Hirsch insisted that the Oriental Institute’s more central location was vital in order to attract participants who might be unwilling to go out of their way to attend the event at one of the alternative locations.

The CFI has secured Bond Chapel as an alternate location for the event, but Hirsch said he is still holding out hope that his appeal to Stein will be seriously considered and the decision reversed.