(photo credit: PR)
Fifty years ago this week, American Jews were up in arms over a deeply offensive art-and-poetry display at the World’s Fair – but unlike some of today’s aggrieved protesters, they responded with bologna rather than bullets.
The controversy began when the government of Jordan set up a harshly anti-Israel display at its Word’s Fair pavilion, in New York City in early 1964. It featured a wall-size mural of a Palestinian Arab child, flanked by the text of a long anti-Zionist poem.
“For centuries,” according to the poem, Christians, Muslims, and Jews all lived in harmony in the Holy Land, “Until strangers from abroad / Professing one thing, but underneath, another / Began buying up land and stirring up the people...The strangers, once thought terror’s victims, became terror’s fierce practitioners.”
The poem also sympathetically portrayed the attempt by five Arab armies to annihilate the newborn state of Israel in 1948: “Seeking to redress the wrong, our nearby neighbors tried to help us in our cause / And for reasons not in their control, did not succeed.”
American Jews deluged the World’s Fair organizers with angry letters, the Anti-Defamation League denounced the mural as anti-Semitic, and Israeli prime minister Levi Eshkol canceled his visit to the World’s Fair in protest against the Jordanian insult.
The escalating controversy took an unusual turn when the American Jewish Congress applied for a permit to picket the Jordanian pavilion. The application was denied, but twelve AJC leaders – including folksinger Theodor Bikel and Democratic congressional nominate James Scheuer – showed up with picket signs anyway and were arrested.
“I have been arrested before, by the Gestapo – so I am not afraid of that,” declared AJC president Joachim Prinz, a refugee from Nazi Germany. The spectacle of mainstream Jewish leaders knowingly breaking the law in a political protest was so unusual in 1964 that the story made the front page of The New York Times. The charges were eventually thrown out by New York City judge Bernard Dubin, who ruled that the World’s Fair grounds were quasi-public territory – comparable to city streets – where peaceful demonstrations were perfectly legal.
As the controversy dragged on throughout 1964 and into early 1965, anti-Zionist Jews and Arab-Americans mounted a counter-offensive. Elmer Berger, leader of a Jewish anti-Zionist group, the American Council for Judaism, wrote to the World’s Fair authorities to endorse the Jordanian mural and denounce American Jewry for supporting what he called “a foreign nationalistic campaign to establish a foreign state.” Mohammed Mehdi, head of the American Arab Relations Committee, requested permission to picket the American-Israel Pavilion, which he saw as a symbol of “Zionist totalitarianism, which is as intolerant as fascism or communism.”
On April 30, 1965, two members of Mehdi’s committee positioned themselves in front of the American-Israel Pavilion and began handing out leaflets urging passersby to refrain from purchasing Israel Bonds. That provoked a brief scuffle with some of the Israeli dancers and singers at the booth. Pinkerton security guards quickly separated the two sides.
Reflecting on that unpleasant flaring of tempers, somebody in the pro-Israel camp evidently decided that the way to bring the controversy to a conclusion was with a friendly flourish.
When the Arab protesters showed up the next afternoon, they were surprised to find a luncheon table waiting for them, loaded with bologna sandwiches and bottles of Israeli beer. A sign on the table read: “For your misguided pickets – kosher food, compliments of the Israeli-American Pavilion.”
The gesture did not resolve the basic issues at stake, but in the public relations war, it was an achievement, especially because of the Arab protesters’ churlish response – “Fair Arabs Spurn Kosher Luncheon,” the Times reported. Those bologna sandwiches reminded the public that in a civilized society, there are creative ways to address disagreements without resorting to one’s fists – or worse.
The author is founding director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, and author of 15 books about Jewish history and Zionism, including the Historical Dictionary of Zionism,