NEW YORK, May 17 (JTA) — The sign above the white-washed doorway prepares visitors to meet “distinguished and diverse world citizens whose lives and achievements have had dramatic impact on the affairs of our planet.”
Upon entering the bright, airy rotunda, the eyes settle on wax figures of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and a freshly cast George W. Bush, his right hand offered in a frozen gesture that seems to say, “I’m a uniter, not a divider.”
To the left, standing before a row of Roman-style columns, is a pantheon of world leaders: Mahatma Gandhi, Pope John Paul II, the Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela, Fidel Castro, Yasser Arafat, Mikhail Gorbachev and Golda Meir.
None was universally beloved.
But it’s Arafat — the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize winner, smiling benignly with his hands clasped behind his back — who on Thursday sparked protests outside Madame Tussaud’s New York, and extra security measures inside.
“Yasser Arafat is a symbol of terror and violence; he should not be glorified,” said New York Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who led the two dozen or so protesters.
“Some people say, ‘What’s the big deal? It’s only wax,’ ” Hikind said. “But it is a big deal. Thousands of visitors go through there, and to have him in that hall sends a message that he is kosher. And Yasser Arafat is not kosher, with all the Jews and Palestinians he’s willing to sacrifice for his vision of peace.”
Hikind and 58 fellow state legislators from across the political spectrum called this week for Madame Tussaud’s to remove Arafat from its Times Square branch.
The museum, which opened in October, occupies prime real estate that Hikind says is jointly owned by the city and state.
New York Gov. George Pataki also took aim at the wax figure, arguing that “a flattering portrayal of Yasser Arafat has no place in New York City.”
But Pataki immediately was criticized by the National Jewish Democratic Council for forging ahead with a planned $100,000-per-head fund- raiser at the museum in June to benefit the Republican Governors Association.
Elsewhere, Hikind’s actions drew mixed reactions from New York Jews.
Some expressed hostility, saying the protest makes Jews appear silly, hysterical or paranoid.
Others viewed it as a masterstroke of public relations. Local and national media were all over the story, highlighting what Jews say is Arafat’s direct role in instigating violence and bloodshed.
With “hasbarah” — a Hebrew term that falls somewhere between explanation and propaganda — assuming a central role as Israeli-Palestinian violence rolls on, Hikind used the uproar to disseminate his pro-Israel view in dozens of interviews.
Madame Tussaud’s, for its part, said it has no plans to oust the waxy PLO leader.
“The decision to portray an individual is irrespective of any political or religious stance,” Janine Scarpello, the museum’s general manager, said in a statement.
A spokeswoman for the museum, Terry Wills, said the museum’s attractions are designed for “the personal experience, which encourages individual consideration and reflection. Some of the statues make you happy, some may make you sad, depending on your personal frame of reference.”
The London Tussaud’s, for example, includes statues of Hitler and Yugoslav despot Slobodan Milosevic.
Museum-goers generally were nonplused by the situation.
The giggly teens and tourists from middle America who roamed the museum Thursday were less interested in the political figures on display than by photo opportunities with a hunky Brad Pitt replica, a slimmed-down Oprah Winfrey or a wheelchair-bound Christopher Reeve.
Yet the crowd couldn’t help wondering why a CNN camera crew was hovering around the rather stumpish man in the checkered headdress.
The Arafat rendering is remarkably life-like: in addition to the military fatigues, there’s the scraggly beard and the dark rings beneath his eyes, even liver spots on his temple.
While the descriptions of other historic figures offer flowery adjectives and quick summaries of their accomplishments, the Arafat description is innocuous — perhaps a reflection of politically correct sensitivities.
“The Madame Tussaud’s artists traveled to Tunis, accompanied by a BBC film crew, for this sitting with the President of the Palestinian Authority,” the sign reads, ignoring allegations that Arafat masterminded Palestinian terrorism for years — and may continue to do so.
Yet none of the passersby got worked up about it.
“You don’t have to like Malcolm X, but he’s history,” one woman told a CNN reporter. “You may not like JFK or Billy Graham, but they’re history. So I think” the Arafat statue “should stay.”
Another observer said, “I would never assume that I could go to any museum and ask for a certain piece to be removed” because it was deemed offensive.
Mary Sansom of West Virginia, however, told JTA that Arafat “shouldn’t be in the same place with people who are trying to do good.”
As for the demonstrators outside, “I think they have a reason to protest,” said Vicky Rohan of Akron, Ohio. “The whole thing over there in that country is such a mess. It’s so sad that all those poor Palestinian children are being killed.”
Hikind, meanwhile, vowed to continue his push to have the statue removed. But he also proposed an alternate solution.
“I’m not saying you can’t have someone controversial or who does not represent a democracy,” he said. “But if they want to have Arafat in the museum, they can put him in a different section, with” Libyan leader Muammar “Gadhafi and” Iraqi leader “Saddam Hussein. That’s the kind of company he fits into nicely.”