ORLANDO, Fla. (Sep. 30)
The Israel exhibit at Walt Disney World’s Millennium Village makes no explicit mention of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
But there is no doubt that the exhibit inextricably links Jerusalem with Israel and that Israel intended that message to come across loud and clear in the 2,200-square-foot exhibit designed to evoke Jerusalem’s Old City.
In remarks delivered Wednesday at a special opening reception attended by officials from Disney and the state of Florida, the director-general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, Eitan Ben-Tsur repeated three times, “Jerusalem, the capital of Israel” — to the rousing applause of hundreds of Jewish community representatives who had also gathered at EPCOT for the event.
Wednesday’s special preview answered the $64,000-question whose answer had been shrouded in secrecy — how exactly would Jerusalem be depicted.
The question had sparked international controversy when Arab groups charged the entertainment company with taking Israel’s side on the status of Jerusalem — a matter that is still on the table in Middle East peace negotiations.
Riled by reports that Israel had agreed to participate in the project only if the exhibit emphasized Jerusalem as its capital, some Arab and Muslim groups, including the Palestinian Authority, threatened a boycott against Disney.
Israel contributed $1.8 million to the pavilion, which cost a reported $8 million, and worked with Disney to develop its content.
The Arab League threatened to take unspecified measures if it detected a political message in the exhibit, but last Friday, after a meeting between Disney officials and Arab League representatives, the Arab League said it was satisfied by Disney’s written assurances that the exhibit was strictly entertainment.
Israeli officials admit the exhibit changed in the wake of the Arab protest, but by all accounts the changes were minor.
There were no “substantive” changes, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Zalman Shoval, told Jewish organizational officials in a recent conference call.
All along, Israel said publicly that while the exhibit would show Jerusalem’s centrality to the Jewish people, it would also present the city as a holy site for Christians and Muslims.
Shoval indicated in his public address at the opening on Wednesday that Disney had not caved in to Arab pressure.
“Any blackmail is objectionable because it affects the lives of people,” he said. “Political blackmail is objectionable because it affects the lives of many people. Political blackmail is another word for terrorism.
“We praise Disney for not letting it pass.”
Although the controversy seems to have largely died down, at least one Arab American group said it intended to distribute leaflets to Disney visitors to counter what it called the “misleading” impression that Jerusalem is Israel’s undivided capital.
Fifty countries are represented in the pavilion, which opens to the public on Friday and will run for 15 months.
Eight of those countries, including Israel, have a more substantial, walk- through experience rather than a smaller display. Those countries are Saudi Arabia, Sweden, Scotland, Eritrea, Easter Island, Chile, and Brazil.
What visitors to Israel’s exhibit see is an arched structure made of gold- colored stone, situated next to an international food court and a gift shop.
What they heard — in the video presentations that make up the centerpiece of the exhibit — was that Jerusalem was “the capital of the millennium” and the “heart of Israel.”
They also heard a disclaimer that says the exhibit was sponsored by Israel’s Foreign Ministry and “is based on their perspective.” In addition, a general disclaimer at the entrance to the pavilion says the stories at all the exhibits “represent the views of our exhibitors and sponsors.”
On the way to the simulated “Journey to Jerusalem,” young Israeli guides – - posing as Disney “cast members” — point out landmarks of the three monotheistic religions on a wall-sized photograph of the Old City.
“Where is Rehavia?” one visitor asked.
“Where is the King David Hotel?” another shouted to Galit, one of the guides, who helpfully pointed out the Hyatt hotel as well.
The “Journey to Jerusalem” begins with a stationary video tour that races through modern Jerusalem to set the stage for a simulated ride through the city’s history.
Then visitors are strapped in for an eight-minute virtual roller-coaster – - which gives the sensation of movement using specially designed motion platforms — that takes them through “Stories of Faith,” a dizzying dash to scenes of Abraham and Jesus and references to Mohammed.
The American group protesting the exhibit, American Muslims for Jerusalem, issued a statement Thursday, saying that after viewing the exhibit, it was particularly concerned about a video “showing the Dome of the Rock, one of the holiest mosques in the world, fading away to be replaced by the Star of David.”
The experience ends with the words “Faith, Hope and Peace” emblazoned on three screens in Hebrew, Arabic and English.
Outside the auditorium, visitors enter a room displaying some of Israel’s technological and agricultural advances. There they can send e-mails to be inserted in the cracks of the Western Wall.
The crowds Wednesday evening included hearty travelers from Atlanta who had risen at 5:30 a.m. to make it to Orlando, as well as a delegation from New York and a handful of leaders of national Jewish organizations.
Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, said he found the historical presentation to be “sanitized” so as not to offend, and was “deeply disturbed that evidently reference to Jerusalem as the capital of Israel was intentionally deleted.”
He said that when he questioned the Israeli army graduates who make up Disney’s “cast” on the status of Jerusalem, he was told that “Israel believes Jerusalem is its capital.”
But asked directly, another crew member said, “In my own opinion, of course,” Jerusalem is the capital, but at Disney, “we are here to share it.”
But most of the people who responded to the Israeli invitation to get a sneak peek at the exhibit expressed delight at the idea of having an Israel exhibit at Disney.
Those interviewed said they felt it did a good job of paying tribute to Christianity and Islam alongside Judaism. Mostly, though, visitors saw the exhibit as a source of Jewish pride.
“I’ve been to EPCOT many, many times,” said Marcia Greenberg, a tour operator who has also been to Israel 51 times.
“I always missed having our country here,” said Greenberg, who was part of the 130-strong delegation from the Jewish Federation of Palm Beach.
Cara Ginsburg, a senior at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla., was there with a dozen members of her contemporary Jewish literature class.
“It was obviously Jewish, definitely, but I didn’t mind,” she said of the exhibit, noting especially a dance performance of a stylized Chasidic wedding that is Israel’s contribution to the cultural performances at the Millennium Village.
“Finally,” she enthused, “we can teach other people the beauty of our culture.”
Anne Krautman, also of Palm Beach, said she was impressed by new Israeli methods of growing square vegetables for more efficient shipping.
She said she told the Israeli cast member, “I’ll take a little piece of pepper, a little piece of tomato and some low fat dressing.”
“He said, `You can’t: It’s plastic.’”