Academic journal article American Jewish History

It's the Real World after All: The American-Israel Pavilion-Jordan Pavilion Controversy at the New York World's Fair, 1964-1965

Academic journal article American Jewish History

It's the Real World after All: The American-Israel Pavilion-Jordan Pavilion Controversy at the New York World's Fair, 1964-1965

Article excerpt

In November 1962, upon learning of the State of Israel's decision not to participate in the 1964 New York World's Fair, the editors of the National Jewish Post and Opinion warned its American Jewish readers of the crucial opportunity about to be squandered. "Money is being spent to win public opinion in one way or another," they observed. Furthermore,

   We hope ... that some way will be round to include an Israeli
   exhibit at the World's Fair.... The Jews of the U.S. are
   inextricably bound up, most certainly from a goodwill standpoint,
   with whatever Israel does. This means that American Jewry stands
   to gain from an outstanding Israeli pavilion at the World's
   Fair. (1)

The editors, it is clear, were well attuned to the heightened possibilities for visibility, education, and interaction that the public space of world's fairs afforded. Indeed, from the time of their formal inception with London's Great Exhibition in 1851, world's fairs have functioned as highly symbolic arenas in which local, national, and international elites stage nationalist visions and utopian vistas for a global audience. Selective distillations of the world-as-a-whole, world's fairs and expositions both shape and are shaped by the societies that nurture them; doubling as both simulacra and synecdoches of the "real" world, world's fairs are idealized universes constructed, paradoxically but necessarily, from the stuff of contemporaneous reality. Thus, world's fairs are not simply mirrors of their times and places, but laboratories for actively shaping politics and culture, history and identity. It is in this sense that world's fairs are "performative," as performance studies scholar Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett has demonstrated. (2) The supranational and international context of such fairs creates a "highly charged space for the negotiation and enactment of mutual recognition" (3)--not only among nations, but among groups and individuals at the fairs, in their capacities as exhibitors and visitors and as local, national, and global citizens.

Although Israeli officials declined to sponsor a national pavilion at the New York World's Fair in 1964, visitors eager to learn about Jewish history and the State of Israel could satisfy their curiosity at the American-Israel Pavilion. At this privately-sponsored pavilion, the fruit of American Jewish money and effort, guests could wander from Solomon's Temple to medieval Spain, to colonial America and Hasidic Eastern Europe, ending their journey through Jewish history in the bustling port of contemporary Haifa. The pavilion exhibition was comprised of dioramas stocked with authentic relics and historically-outfitted mannequins, as well as documents, maps, quotations, music, photographs, painting and sculpture--and Israelis, performing Yemenite-inflected pop music, serving up falafel, or guiding visitors through the eclectic displays.

Along with the ever-growing main exhibition, and replete with gift shops, a cafe, and a nightclub equipped with a pool and "Hora platform," the American-Israel Pavilion punctuated more than a century of Jewish participation in world's fairs. Often, that presence was bound up with historical and symbolic associations of Jews with the Holy Land, itself a pervasive subject of display at world's fairs and expositions, although usually seen through Christian eyes. Lacking a national imprimatur, Jews were initially largely invisible participants at world's fairs, acting as behind-the-scenes promoters or appearing as the undifferentiated subjects of other national displays. (4)

The debut of the Jewish Palestine Pavilion at the New York World's Fair in i939, directed by Zionist impresario Meyer Weisgal, marked a significant departure from this tradition of invisibility. Though it offered a fresh opportunity to educate the world at large about Zionism and the Jewish settlement in Palestine, it accomplished in fact much more. …

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