Israeli expo in Holland celebrates past and future

Agricultural exhibition puts positive Dutch-Israeli relations on display.

Floriade agricultural exposition (photo credit: Courtesy)
Floriade agricultural exposition
(photo credit: Courtesy)
VENLO, Netherlands – A few iPhone-wielding photographers were all that betrayed the current year at events belatedly celebrating Israel’s independence on Sunday at the Floriade agricultural exposition in the south of the Netherlands.
The rest of the show – including a concert by the Israeli oldies band “Hakol Over Habibi” – could have happened in 1975. Similarly reminiscent of earlier times was the unabashed adoration that local politicians showered on Israel at the event near Venlo.
The Floriade is an international agriculture exhibition held once a decade. It attracted over a million visitors from across Europe and the world.
Israel, one of 44 countries represented at the event this year, was the first nation to celebrate its national day there.
The time-capsule effect during the celebration was no accident. The organizers said they wanted to speak directly to the “ordinary European from the countryside, who have always liked Israel” – and over the heads of the elites and their revisionist attitudes toward Israel.
Israel filled two separate spots at the exhibition: An interactive hi-tech lounge covered in touchscreen computers, biblical writings on the wall; a solar-powered water-filtration system and rocks from Israel; and a garden boasting the seven species traditionally considered to defining characteristics of the Holy Land – wheat, barley, grapes, figs, dates, olives and pomegranates.
“This two-point presence allowed us to simultaneously offer Israeli history with a religious motif, alongside innovation,” Joseph Alfassy, the commissioner- general of the State of Israel to the Floriade, told The Jerusalem Post. Israel was one of a few countries offering more than one pavilion at the Floriade.
At Israel’s high-tech lounge, visitors were encouraged to create an imaginary fruit or vegetable using an application, as they read about Israel’s feats in genetic engineering of plants. For each new fruit – which is displayed on a big screen – Israel pledged to donate 100 seeds to be sown in hunger-stricken countries.
Other attention-grabbers at the Floriade exhibition included the artistic South Korean pavilion. Built as an oriental garden, it used rusty debris arranged around grassy patches to create a rustic effect. At the center stands a modular white sphere whose interior hall is fitted with flat screens.
Outside, performers dressed as alien-looking red birds pranced on stilts, croaking as they entertained delighted tourists.
The park was spread across 66 hectares, checkered with tropical gardens, ponds, cooking and tasting corners and displays on innovation in agriculture.
Overhead, a cable car runs the park’s entire length.
The Chinese pavilion featured a large and placid pagoda compound with fishponds and bonsai trees for sale.
Many countries, including Thailand, Pakistan, Yemen and Sri Lanka, used their Floriade pavilions to sell merchandise.
“This is exactly what we wanted to avoid,” said Alfassy. “We wanted to donate, not peddle goods.”
Israel allocated four million shekels for the Floriade effort.
Alfassy said that currently, the Israeli pavilions registered a total of 3,500 visitors per day and a total of 60,000 people since the Floriade opened on April 5. The exposition closes October 7.
At the Floriade, Israel will try to profile itself among professionals in the horticultural industry, while at the same time speaking to the general public and attracting tourists.
The Israeli delegation to the Floriade on July 16-22 will hold a series of events entitled Israel National Week celebrating the Jewish state.
“The attempt to reach beyond the elites to the common person is a good idea,” said Ronny Naftaniel, who heads the Hague-based Center for Information and Documentation on Israel. “There was a positive attitude toward Israel. The affection for Israel that used to exist everywhere in Europe is very much present in the countryside. A similar event in Amsterdam would’ve invoked less sympathy.”
However, Naftaniel found the hi-tech lounge too highbrow for the target audience.
“I think most visitors would enjoy a free fruit snack far more than the chance to fight world hunger or create an imaginary fruit.”
Dszingisz Gábor, the Dutch government’s commissioner-general for the Floriade, believes otherwise.
“The touchscreens at the Israeli lounge are very popular with the visitors,” he said, calling the donation of seeds “a great gesture.”
“The Israeli participation in the Floriade underlines the traditionally good and strong relations between the Netherlands and Israel,” he added.
Gábor, a Dutch former deputy minister, congratulated Israel on its technological and agricultural feats, noting that Israel exported 35 times more flowers to the Netherlands than vice versa.
An exuberant Haim Divon, Israel’s ambassador to the Netherlands, thanked Gábor but reminded him that the Israeli expertise in growing flowers partly owed to tutoring by Dutch agronomists. Divon did agree, however, to take full credit for “importing the sun” that Sunday, Holland’s first truly sunny day in weeks. Gerd Leers, the Dutch immigration and integration minister was one of the politicians who attended the celebration.
“Performing for the Dutch at the Floriade felt like time stood still since the 1970s,” Shlomit Aharoni, the lead vocalist for the band “Hakol Over Habibi” told the Post.
The band’s name – which can be translated to “This too shall pass, friend” – proved a bit too much for organizers and guests, who referred to it simply as “Habibi.”
The band, which was formed in the 1970s, has been to the Netherlands several times.
“We do feel we represent something all-Israeli, something basic and apolitical. And that’s how we feel we are received by the crowd,” Aharoni said.