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Disney World exhibit links Jerusalem to Israel, without a mention of capital

ORLANDO, Fla., Oct. 4 (JTA) – Visitors to the gold-hued stone building that houses the Israel exhibit at Walt Disney World”s Millennium Village are warned that “Journey to Jerusalem” – the eight-minute video that is its centerpiece – “is a mildly turbulent simulator ride.” The opening of the exhibit itself has been something of a roller coaster for Disney representatives, who in the last few weeks faced the specter of an Arab boycott if the exhibit, developed in conjunction with Israel, portrayed Jerusalem as Israel”s capital. In fact, while the exhibit makes no explicit mention of Jerusalem as Israel”s capital, there is no doubt that the exhibit inextricably links Jerusalem with Israel and that Israel intended that message to come across loud and clear. Some of the first visitors to preview the exhibit, which opened to the public last Friday, said they were hard-pressed to find the source of controversy in the finished product. “I thought the message was good: Peace for all people, regardless of religion,” said Christine Perning, an Orlando, Fla., resident and native of Sweden. “After all the fighting there has been, I kept looking for something sensational,” said Perning, who visited Israel earlier this year. The 2,200-square-foot exhibit – designed to evoke Jerusalem”s Old City – aptly conveyed the history and culture of the place as she had experienced it, she said. In remarks delivered Sept. 29 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 gathered at EPCOT. The special preview answered the $1.8-million question whose answer had been shrouded in secrecy – how exactly would Jerusalem be depicted? The figure is how much Israel contributed to the reported $8 million exhibit. 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. The Arab League threatened to take unspecified measures if it detected a political message in the exhibit, but after a meeting between Disney officials and Arab League representatives, the Arab League said it was satisfied by written assurances from Disney Chairman Michael Eisner 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. Ya”akov Levy, the Foreign Ministry”s deputy director for public affairs, who worked on the project throughout its 18-month development, said that mostly technical adjustments were made right up until the Sept. 29 Israeli reception. He said the exhibit is “not lacking because of an extra visual or an absent audio or symbol that could have been there.” Symbols of Judaism, he noted, are “abundant” in the details of the exhibit: menorahs, stars of David, sacred music. The idea, Levy said, was to give the average viewer – a non-Jewish American from the South – an “overall impression” of Jerusalem”s importance to Jews “historically, emotionally, culturally and politically.” 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 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 intends to distribute leaflets to Disney visitors to counter what it calls the “misleading” impression that Jerusalem is Israel”s undivided capital. More than 50 countries will be represented in some form in the Millennium Village, which opened to the public for 15 months last Friday. One million people per month are expected to visit the pavilion. Eight of the featured countries have a more substantial, walk-through experience rather than a smaller display. Those countries are, in addition to Israel, 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 hear – in the video presentations that make up the centerpiece of the exhibit – is that Jerusalem is “the capital of the millennium” and the “heart of the Israeli people.” They also hear a disclaimer that says the exhibit is 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. The video underlies a secondary thrust of the exhibit beyond any question of culture or politics: tourism. The video is hosted by a tour guide named Tali who promises to give visitors “an insider”s tour like no one else.” Whizzing through the Old City”s Arab market and into the ancient shopping center of the Cardo, she notes that people have been shopping there for thousands of years: “And when you see the great deals you”ll understand why.” Even Shoval touched upon this aspect of the Disney endeavor. “Jerusalem is not only for us, the Jewish people, to cherish and to behold; as many non-Jewish pilgrims and worshipers have found out – and more will find out during the millennium year.” Once in the exhibit, visitors are strapped in for the eight-minute virtual ride – 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 last week, 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 at last week”s opening included hardy 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.” Most of the people who got a sneak peek at the exhibit said they felt it did a good job of paying tribute to Christianity and Islam alongside Judaism. Bobby Gregg, a resident of central Florida – an area at the base of the Bible Belt where an estimated 50 percent of the population is Southern Baptist – said he saw the exhibit as giving the three religions “equal representation.” Visitors at the Israeli preview expressed delight at the idea of having Israel represented at Walt Disney World and 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.” ””