The World of Tomorrow's Civics Lesson
No exhibit at the fair provided a better contemporary civics lesson than the Jewish Palestine Pavilion.
During the tumultuous world war in the early part of the century, British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour sent a letter to Baron Walter Rothschild, a leader of the British Jewish community, expressing the government's interest in establish a Jewish homeland in the Middle East at the conflict's conclusion.
With the Balfour Declaration as a working basis, the newly formed League of Nations granted Britain a mandate to oversee the territories of the former Ottoman Empire. The Mandate came into effect on September 19, 1923. At the time of its implementation, Jews accounted for only 11% of the population and Arab Christians about 9.5%.
Still without a national existence in the region, the Twenties brought an additional 100,000 Jews to Palestine. The rise of Nazism in the Thirties saw immigration rates climb by over a quarter of a million. Tensions grew and an Arab revolt between 1936 – 1939 saw ten percent of the adult male Palestinian Arabs killed, wounded, imprisoned or exiled. With Hitler's increasingly restrictive policies and a world – wide resistance to allow further immigration, the Middle East became a tinder box of political intrigue that played itself out in "The World of Tomorrow."
A Jewish Palestine pavilion seemed a natural fit for the 1939 world's fair. Located in New York City, the metropolitan area housed the largest Jewish community in the United States. Organizers of the pavilion sought support from the fair's planning board, requesting space in the international zone. However, following the strict guidelines of only recognizing established countries, the committee rejected the application.
In a major compromise, the fair's organizers suggested Jewish Palestine participate under the broad spectrum of Great Britain, due to the Mandate. However the British declined the offer. In another context, Sir William McLean explained: "Palestine is a costly hobby and returns nothing but trouble." With no other options left, the fair granted Jewish Palestine exhibition space – in the Community Interests Zone.
A major fund drive ensued and Dr. Thomas Mann, Nobel Prize winner and German refugee, dedicated the pavilion's cornerstone on May 13, 1938. Hanita, the most recent Jewish colony in Palestine, supplied the cornerstone. Citing present-day persecution and oppression, Dr. Mann concluded: "For in this work loyalty to tradition is united with loving concern for the future of mankind."
The Jewish Palestine pavilion opened its doors to the public on the evening of May 13, two weeks prior to its formal dedication. Mayor LaGuardia welcomed the exhibit because of its "special significance at this time, when the problem of a refuge for Jews persecuted by the totalitarian governments is growing more acute from day to day."
The exhibit pleasantly surprised everyone. Rather than extolling the region's commercial interests as most pavilions in the foreign zone deigned proper, the Jewish Palestine pavilion provided a review of Palestine's development and reconstruction due to Jewish immigration and ingenuity.
Three 14 – foot hammered copper relief figures dominated the exterior wall. Maurice Ascalon, "father of modern Israeli decorative arts," designed the figures: The Toiler of the Soil, the Laborer, and the Scholar.
A flagged courtyard centered the pavilion. Fifty varieties of trees and plants native to Palestine graced the court. Among the horticultural wonders were orange, lemon, lime, fig and date trees which served as the principal agricultural resources of the region. In a pool, lotus and papyrus grew. Cited as one of the largest trees on the fairgrounds, the pavilion's horticulturists planted a sixteen – foot high date palm with a fourteen-foot spread within the courtyard.
Ten exhibition halls highlighted Jewish Palestinian history and achievements. Emek Jezreel created one of fair's most interesting displays. Through the use of a complicated system of mirrors, the Bedoin Valley of Death turned into a fertile landscape in the wink of an eye. One grey-haired visitor stood for almost an hour trying to figure out how the designer rigged the effect. Finally, shaking his shaggy head in bewilderment, Alfred Einstein wandered away.
Perhaps the most moving exhibit within the pavilion was the Ner Ha-Tamid, "the eternal light." On April 9, Easter morning, Rabbi Moses Ornstein, custodian of the historic Wailing Wall, kindled the flame in Jerusalem. Mrs. Ellen Yaardi carried the flame in a bronze oil lamp on the Cunard White Star liner Aquitania to New York City. Officials placed the flame prominently in the pavilion's Memorial Hall.
A two-story photomural dominating the entrance to the pavilion's Hall of Agriculture and Resettlement did provide, however, an ominous note. A Biblical quote hovered over a watch-tower and watchman: "Everyone with one of his hands wrought in the work, and with the other hand held a weapon."
The photomural proved prophetic as on May 23, all hell broke loose.
As a follow-up to the London Conference on the Middle East in February, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's government presented a White Paper to the House of Commons. The most controversial element of the detailed policy paper limited Jewish immigration to the region from 1940 - 1944 to 75,000: a 10,000 yearly quota and a flexible supplementary quota of 25,000.
The American news media had a field day in its analysis of the White Paper. Time magazine: "The British long hesitated to make a choice, preferring to muddle along without a policy. The Jews had the money. The Arabs had the numbers." Newsweek: "In terms of power politics, the British scheme simply means that London considered Arab hostility more dangerous than the indignation of world Jewry." Life: "Many Jews think that the Arabs, in themselves, are no serious problem. It is only Arab-plus-British Empire that is the problem. Mr. Chamberlain has bolted the door. But some day the key may be in someone else's pocket."
On the fairgrounds, ten retired rabbis, ranging in age from 70 to 81, marched into the British pavilion chanting psalms. They prayed for twenty minutes and then left at the request of the pavilion's guards.