Posted on September 27, 1999 in Washington Watch

When Walt Disney World’s Millennium Celebration opens this week in Florida it will include a controversial Israeli exhibit that focuses on the city of Jerusalem.

When word first leaked out of Israel about the exhibit and its contents, it provoked an angry and justified Arab reaction. An Israeli Foreign Ministry official described the project by noting that its title would be “Jerusalem, the Capital of Israel.” This announcement, coming as it did on the every eve of the beginning of final status negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian National Authority, was, at best, an act of incitement and provocation.

Some Arab officials threatened to boycott Disney products, some Arab American organizations demanded that Disney eliminate the exhibit, and the Arab League was prodded to take up the matter at its ministerial meeting in September.

Disney, a giant U.S. entertainment conglomerate, was caught off guard by the dispute. Most company officials were unaware of the significance of and the facts behind the issue of Jerusalem; others were furious that the Israelis had attempted to suborn an entertainment exposition to make a controversial and confrontational political point.

In a letter to the Arab League, Disney’s head wrote that the company “does not take political positions.” He further wrote that, “we have become keenly aware that we inadvertently find ourselves in the midst of a controversy surrounding one of the most sensitive issues in the Middle East peace process. We understand that Jerusalem is a sacred city, holy to Muslims, Christians and Jews…We also want to reassure you that we believe the ongoing pursuit of an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord is in everyone’s best interests. It has never been our intent to provoke or intentionally hurt any group of people and/or organization.”

The Arab League then asked a group of Arab Ambassadors, accompanied by some Arab American leaders, to meet with Disney officials and preview the Israel presentation.

In fact, the controversial portion of the Israeli exhibit was patently offensive. It was about Jerusalem and it presented the city through Israeli eyes. The material also included a distorted telling of Christian and Muslim history.

In response to the concerns detailed by the Arab League committee, the Disney officials provided the following commitments. Disney indicated that it had already secured removal from the presentation of all reference to Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. They also secured some other script changes in the Israeli presentation. And finally, Disney agreed to issue a number of disclaimers that established that the company did not endorse any political claims in the Israeli exhibit.

While some groups were not satisfied by this outcome, others noted that what was important was that the combined Arab American and Arab world reaction to the entire matter had succeeded in establishing the Israeli presentation as “controversial,” a definition that has repeatedly been used in the U.S. press to describe the exhibit.

Some American Jewish groups reacted to Disney’s news with hysterical outrage. One group accused Disney of “caving in to political expediency and [Arab] economic blackmail, while misleading the public.” What was most troubling about this reaction was the extent to which it sought to shift blame for the controversy onto the Arabs. Arabs were depicted as engaging in anti-Israel propaganda and in “resorting to old tricks” in attempting to punish Israel.

What was infuriatingly missed by these American Jewish groups was that the Israeli exhibit itself was an act of incitement that ran counter to the peace process. It was, of course, totally unjustified for Israel to introduce this most sensitive and deeply emotional issue into an entertainment exhibition.

Disney, limited as it was by a contractual agreement and by the realities of life in the United States, moved, nevertheless, in the right direction and it is to the Arab League’s credit that it recognized this and acted to defuse the matter by resisting further escalation.

There are now calls that the Palestinians be allowed to establish a presence in Walt Disney World. This is an appropriate call and it should receive support and encouragement from all quarters.

But before seeing this or any other proposal as solutions to problems posed by this Israeli exhibit, it is important to put the entire matter in perspective and examine the desirability of all future options.

At the end of the day, the issue is not a Disney exhibit, but the future status of Jerusalem. Israel’s act of incitement in establishing a fantasy land film at an entertainment park, while infuriating, is only a distraction from the real issue.

Even if Disney had removed the Israeli exhibit, which, contractually and realistically, it could not do–Israel’s occupation of Jerusalem would remain a persistent problem that must be addressed in negotiations. Conversely even if Disney had not acted to remove references to Israel’s political claim to the city and had not agreed to issue disclaimers–Israel’s hold over the city would still not be justified or recognized by any government.

Remember Israel’s provocative “3000 year” Jerusalem celebrations? In the end, these events have been forgotten, and did not move even one nation anywhere in the world to recognize Israel’s occupation of the city.

Arabs were right in protesting Disney’s Israeli exhibit, but they must use their resources and collective actions to focus on the real target–insuring a just resolution to the final status negotiations on Jerusalem, that guarantees Arab rights to the city.

It is significant that Arab protests have succeeded in delegitimizing the Israeli exhibit (now commonly referred to as “controversial”) and it is important to continue pressure in support of the effort to give the Palestinians a presence at Disney and other similar expos–but more must and can be done independently of the Millenium Celebration to educate Americans about Jerusalem.

Already U.S. public opinion is open to a fair resolution to the city’s status. A recent poll showed that 68 percent of Americans favor taking no U.S. action with regard to moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem until negotiations have resolved the status of the city. The same poll shows that by a ratio of two to one Americans favor a “shared Jerusalem” as opposed to Israel’s exclusive claim to the city.

This base of positive public opinion should be built on. More popular educational outreach work should be done to strengthen these basic American attitudes of fairness. Arab Christian leaders should be urged to come to the United States to encourage their coreligionists to support their historical rights in the Holy Land, and Muslim Americans should intensify their important educational outreach efforts.

Why not also promote a national advertising campaign (including television and billboard advertisements in Orlando, scene of Disney World) promoting the Arab heritage and rights in Jerusalem? Other similar creative educational campaigns should also be considered.

Finally, Arab states should continue to strengthen the hand of the Palestinian negotiators by making it clear that this mini-tempest at Disney was a wake-up call that demonstrated tremendous depth of feeling that Arabs universally feel for the holy city of Jerusalem. It should be made clear to the Israelis that no further incitements should occur, that unilateral actions in and around Jerusalem must stop and negotiations must proceed on the basis of securing what is just and right. Both provocative amusement park games, and dangerous and damaging practices in Jerusalem should end, and the real serious work of peacemaking should begin.

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