Latest Battle over Jerusalem Surfaces in Mickey’s Backyard
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Latest Battle over Jerusalem Surfaces in Mickey’s Backyard

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The latest round in the battle for Jerusalem is being waged, not in the Middle East, but in the Magic Kingdom.

The Arab League and Arab American groups are planning to meet with representatives of Walt Disney World to discuss their concerns that a special exhibit at Disney’s EPCOT Center in Orlando, Fla., will depict Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry, which contributed $1.8 million to the reported $8 million project, says the criticism has no basis in the actual plans for the Israel pavilion at EPCOT’s Millennium Village.

The exhibit, the exact content of which is being closely guarded by Walt Disney World, is slated to open to the public on Oct. 1.

Even Arab groups who have raised questions about the exhibit say they have learned about it only through news reports.

Plans revealed by Disney executives last month in Jerusalem indicated that Israel’s exhibit will trace the religious history of Israel and showcase Israeli technological advances.

“Journey to Jerusalem,” a simulated tour of the holy city through different historical periods, will be the exhibit’s main attraction.

Israel maintains that the exhibit presents Jerusalem as “a center and a sacred site” for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike.

But, said a senior Israeli diplomatic official with knowledge of the exhibit’s content, “Jerusalem is, of course, the center of Jewish dreams and Israel’s existence. This centrality is emphasized in the EPCOT pavilion.”

He said that at no time in the exhibit’s planning was there an attempt “to make political statements.”

In addition to contributing financially, Israel was responsible for the content of the 24,000-square-foot exhibit, with Disney’s “creative input,” say officials with Disney and with Israel’s Foreign Ministry.

EPCOT’S Millennium Village will feature exhibits from 24 countries, including Morocco, Saudi Arabia, China and Japan.

A spokesman for Disney said in a telephone interview that he would not reveal details of the exhibit’s contents, citing a confidential agreement with Israel.

What has remained constant “from the beginning,” said Bill Warren, the head of public affairs for Walt Disney World, is Disney’s intent for the exhibit “to be interesting, entertaining, a tribute to Israel and its people and apolitical.”

But Middle East politics have found their way into Disney’s small world after all.

With the final-status talks having just begun, the question of Jerusalem still remains unresolved. Israel claims the undivided city as its eternal capital. The Palestinians want eastern Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state.

Arab groups in the United States and overseas who read news reports about the Millennium Village exhibit were concerned that “Disney World is making a political statement about an issue that has not been settled yet,” said Khalid Turaani, the executive director of American Muslims for Jerusalem, a Washington-based group among those leading a campaign to review the exhibit before it opens.

These groups have been pressing the Disney company for a preview of the exhibit.

“With Disney so tight-lipped about it,” said Turaani, the director of American Muslims for Jerusalem, “there was something fishy right there.”

According to news reports, Disney assured one of the large shareholders in the Paris-based Euro Disney, Saudi billionaire Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal, that the EPCOT exhibit would not depict Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

On Monday, the Arab League closed its two-day meeting in Cairo by voting to form a committee to investigate the exhibit.

Disney’s chairman and chief executive, Michael Eisner, and the president of Walt Disney World, Al Weiss, wrote letters to the Arab league explaining that the exhibit was not meant to give offense and to offer to meet with an Arab League delegation to discuss the situation, Warren said, but added that the terms of the meeting have not yet been determined.

Although the Arab League resolved to see the exhibit in advance of the public opening date, there are no firm plans for such a visit, the Arab League’s chief representative in Washington said.

Khalid Abdalla said the Arab League’s main objective is “to be sure that Walt Disney is not bringing politics into its commercial activity in a way that will hurt the Arab and Islamic rights in Jerusalem.”

Abdalla is the Arab League’s representative on the Disney committee, which also includes representatives from the Palestinian Authority and from Muslim American organizations.

If the committee is not satisfied by Disney’s response or its handling of Jerusalem, however, the entertainment company can expect a “real reaction,” Abdalla said. He said he could not confirm whether a boycott would ensue.

Last month, the Arab League called off plans to vote on a boycott of Burger King when the company withdrew its license from a franchise in the West Bank.

On Monday, Palestinian legislator Hanan Ashrawi told the Reuters news agency that “we will continue to press to ensure that Arab East Jerusalem is not portrayed in Disney’s exhibit as part of Israel either.”

When asked whether there were any plans to change the exhibit because of Arab pressure, Disney’s spokesman said only that “all exhibits are under development and in a constant state of change.” But he implied that nothing would happen without Israel’s approval.

For their part, Israeli officials say plans for the exhibition have not changed.

American Jewish groups watching the situation say the Arab groups themselves are injecting politics into an exhibit meant to entertain.

“Some of the allegations and claims that they are making don’t seem to be relating to the nature of the exhibit itself,” which focuses on Israeli culture, science and society, said Jess Hordes, the Washington director of the Anti-Defamation League.

“In the end they claim victory for something that was an illusion to start with,” he said in an interview. The ADL has written to Disney in support of the exhibition.

Warren said he felt the exhibit was being “prejudged.”

The Disney company now finds itself “in the middle of deeply political controversy that certainly didn’t start with the concept of having an Israel exhibit,” he said.

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