Willing Israel into life: As Expo Dubai opens, a look at Zionism and World Fairs – The Times of Israel

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.
David Matlow, owner of the world’s largest collection of Zionism founder Theodor Herzl memorabilia, was excited to learn that Israel was invited to participate in Expo 2020 Dubai, the first World’s Fair hosted by an Arab country. (The event was postponed a year because of the coronavirus pandemic.)
Starting October 1, Israel will welcome visitors to its open-concept pavilion in Dubai, which is future-focused and highlights the ways in which the Jewish state can cooperate with other nations to solve the many challenges facing the global community.
“I was really struck by this. This invitation was extended before the Abraham Accords. It occurred to me that the presence of Israel’s pavilion in Dubai is a continuation of more than 100 years of aspiration — initially of the creation of the Jewish state, and now for it to live peacefully with neighbors and be more accepted among the nations of the world,” Matlow said. 
While the presence of an Israeli pavilion in an Arab country is novel, Israel’s participation in World’s Fairs and other international exhibitions is not. In fact, this participation predates Israel’s establishment by several decades. Major exhibitions were an important way for Zionists to show off positive social, economic and cultural developments in what was then British Mandate Palestine, and to advance the case for the creation of a Jewish homeland there.
“The idea was to basically will the country into existence. The purpose of having these pavilions was to imprint on people’s minds either the possibility that Jewish people could have their own nation, or that it already existed — even if it didn’t,” Matlow explained.
Seven years ago, Matlow, 60, came across a postcard from the Israeli pavilion at New York’s 1964 World’s Fair. It piqued his curiosity and led him down a collecting sub-path focused on Zionist and Israeli representation at exhibitions, including World’s Fairs dating back to 1904.
Since then, the Toronto lawyer has purchased at auction a variety of artifacts related to the presence of Jewish Palestine (pre-state Israel) at regional and international exhibitions, and at World’s Fairs. He will be sharing them in an online presentation hosted by the American Zionist Movement on October 6.
Matlow plans to speak about a number of expos from 1904 until World War II, but he will place special emphasis on the 1939 New York World’s Fair.
“Starting in 1933 [Chicago] and 1935 [Brussels] there was a knowledge of what was happening in Europe with the rise of Nazism. By 1937 [Paris], it was really to try and demonstrate that we were sufficiently advanced in the Land of Israel that it could be a home to the Jewish people who were desperate to find a place to go. By the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, the situation was absolutely dire,” Matlow said.
In the following interview, which has been edited for brevity and clarity, Matlow shared with The Times of Israel some highlights of the history of Jewish Palestine at World’s Fairs.
There was no Palestine pavilion at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, but it was still a significant event for the Zionist movement. How so?
It was the presence of Zionist flag. A local Zionist leader named Michael Stifelman had the idea of having the Zionist flag fly among those of the nations of the world, and through a journalist, he prevailed upon the fair’s organizing committee to have the flag fly. It was the first time the Zionist flag flew among flags of other nations. It had previously flown only at Zionist congresses, parades, and meetings.
Prior to this, Jews and Judaism had been represented at World’s Fairs and other expositions. Palestinian crafts and products had also been shown and sold, but this was the first time that the national movement of the Jewish people was represented.
Before Israel achieved statehood, there were pavilions representing a Jewish homeland in Palestine at World’s Fairs for decades. Who created and funded them?
The British mandatory government of Palestine didn’t support these. These were national pavilions of an entity that wasn’t yet a nation, so local Zionists funded, planned, executed and ran them.
Mischar v’Ta’asiya, the pre-state chamber of commerce, had a department that designed the exhibitions and pavilions for the fairs. The funding for the pavilions was raised by international Zionist organizations, as well as Zionist organizations in the cities where the fairs took place.  For example, with the 1939 pavilion in New York, it was seed funding from the Jewish National Fund and Keren Hayesod [The Foundation Fund] with support from Hadassah and the Zionist Organization of America.
Was there resistance from the organizers of World’s Fairs to include a pavilion of an entity that was not yet a state?
There was always a bit of a tension, but ultimately it resulted in the Palestine pavilion being included. Local Zionists living in New York, Brussels and Paris knew the fairs’ organizers. They were businesspeople who used their political capital to encourage it, and probably sold it by saying that there was an economic interest in attracting Jewish and other clientele to come and see it. The Jewish Palestine pavilion in New York was the second- or third-most attended pavilion at the fair. It attracted 2 million visitors.
At the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, in place of a pavilion, supporters of a Jewish state in Palestine made an event called Jewish Day, culminating in the staging of an elaborate pageant involving 6,000 actors, singers and dancers called “The Romance of a People.” What was the rationale for this?
It was American Zionist leader Meyer Weisgal‘s idea. He noted in his memoir that at the time — the early 1930s — Zionism was moribund in Chicago, so this helped to create interest. Putting on this major spectacle for Jewish Day at the fair was really quite brilliant. He wanted to use it as a way of organizing and involving many members of the local Chicago Jewish community.
It was modeled on a recent outdoors production of [the opera] “Aida,” and actually borrowed some of the sets from it. The script told the story of 4,000 years of Jewish history and aspirations, ultimately leading to the Zionist pioneers working the Promised Land. Weisgal wanted to involve as many people as possible and ensure that it would be a sellout, so he organized schools, youth groups and community organizations to be in the show. It was a massive spectacle involving thousands of people on Soldier Field, which was then Chicago’s football stadium.
Jewish Day at the fair, July 3, 1933, turned out to be one of the most popular days, with 130,000 in attendance. Some people were turned away, so they had a second show on July 5. [The future first president of Israel] Chaim Weizmann, who was raising funds to save German Jewry, was there and made a speech. A version of the show went on tour to other cities, including New York.
So why was the decision made to return to a pavilion for the 1939 World’s Fair in New York?
Again, Meyer Weisgal was at the forefront, and he felt strongly that a pavilion was needed this time to emphasize Jewish Palestine’s presence. By 1939, it was further advanced in terms of the crisis, the terror in Europe. People suspected war was coming, and war did break out in the middle of the fair.  It was important to have a physical focal point for Jewish Palestine. The need to prove the Zionist story was greater.
As it happened, the pavilion opened in April 1939, when the British announced the White Paper that curtailed Jewish immigration to Palestine and prohibited Jews from buying land. This was around the same time that the St. Louis ship was sailing around the Eastern seaboard of America with the 900-plus passengers looking for a place to go. So the pavilion became a rallying point for the Jewish people of America to protest, to find strength in one another, to fight as best they could against what was happening.
Also, there were more committed Zionists in New York than in Chicago. More funding and resources were available to build something. The fair’s organizers would not allow the Jewish Palestine pavilion to be in the Nations Zone, but Weisgal lobbied to have it built just across the street. He also insisted that the Zionist flag fly among the flags of nations.
This was the first time that the World’s Fair organizers dictated that the pavilion be called the Jewish Palestine Pavilion, and not the Palestine Pavilion.
The fair’s organizers thought this was appropriate because there were populations in Palestine other than Jews.
Historically, the pavilions were primarily organized by the Zionist movement, so they were therefore focused on the cause of Zionism and the aspirations for a Jewish homeland from the Jewish perspective.
There was sensitivity toward other populations, who were never denigrated in the exhibits. I found evidence in historical records related to the 1939 pavilion that “the Arab question in Palestine” was raised in a planning meeting led by Justice Louis Brandeis, and that the matter was referred for further discussions with Moshe Shertok of the Jewish Agency. One organizer was quoted as stating that the emphasis on the achievements of the Jewish people in Palestine was not a demonstration against others living there.
What happened to all the artworks and installations from the 1939 pavilion, including the monumental sculpture by Maurice Ascalon above the entrance titled, “The Scholar, The Laborer, and the Toiler of the Soil?”
Everything in the pavilion came from Palestine. In 1940, at the end of the second year of the fair, the items could not be returned to Palestine because shipping was difficult and dangerous during the war. An auction was held to sell off all the items.
I am aware of the location of two pieces. I suspect that some of the other art exists in private collections, and the owners may not even know that the pieces were in the pavilion.
A philanthropist bought the 14-foot-tall Ascalon sculpture and gave it to the Spertus Institute in Chicago. It was displayed there for many years until about 30 years ago, when it was taken down as part of a renovation. It hasn’t been reinstalled or restored. But there is an initiative I am involved in to repatriate the sculpture to Israel with the kind participation of the Spertus Institute. It is an iconic sculpture that is illustrative of what the aspirations of Jewish Palestine were in 1939. Hopefully it will be back in Israel in the next few years and in a place people can see and enjoy it.
Almost a decade after the 1939 World’s Fair, its New York location played a significant role in the creation of the State of Israel.
The fair’s New York City pavilion was for a period of time home to the United Nations. In that building, the UN Partition Resolution of November 29, 1947, that called for the establishment of a Jewish state and an Arab state in Palestine took place.
The theme of the 1939 fair was “Building the World of Tomorrow.” Eight-and-a-half years later, the goal of the Jewish Palestine pavilion literally came true just 200 meters away from where it stood.
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