A Lesson From the Power Broker
I dont care what they say, I love, and loved, the 196465 Worlds Fair in Flushing Meadows, Queens. This week is its 50th anniversary, and as usual the nay-sayers are in the saddle. A series of articles in the Times alleges that the fair was derivative and uninspired, it couldnt hold a candle to the 1939-40 Worlds Fair, left no legacy, helped make the whole notion of a worlds fair obsolete, was a simple-minded celebration of capitalist excess, and was one final exhibition of Robert Mosess megalomania before his long overdue superannuation.
I dont buy any of it, or at least, I dont care. When I was ten years old, and living in Queens, the Worlds Fair was a magical place. I dont know how many times I went thereabout 15, I suspect. It was inexpensive, and always endlessly entertaining. I was minus 15 years old in 1939, so I never got to the earlier fair, and I was in no position to make invidious comparisons. I loved the fair I had.
What are my memories? All of those rides in the IBM and GM pavilions, with their radically off-target views of the future. Those animatronic computers, singing Its a small world, after all, or the animatronic Lincoln in the Illinois pavilion. The Continental Insurance Companys wonderful exhibit about the Revolutionary War. The panorama of New York City (which is still there, and still worth a visit to the Queens Museum. The now badly decayed map of New York State the size of a football field. My outrage at being charged a whole quarter for a slice of pizza, well above the just price of 15 cents.
What I do not remember are any of the international pavilions, except for the Vatican pavilion, with Michelangelos Pieta, and for some reason, the Philippines pavilion, plastered with large pictures of Ferdinand Marcos, then at the beginning of his odious reign. I must have gone to the Israel pavilion, but have no memory of it. I dont know if I went to the Jordanian pavilion. Thereby hangs a tale, one I became acquainted with many years later, as part of research on a different project.
When the Jordanian pavilion opened, to the dismay of many, it contained a mural dedicated to the Palestinian refugees, dominated by a mother and her young son, insisting that the world remember the Palestinian refugees. Admittedly, the text accompanying the mural was not entirely accurate. Ever since the birth of Christ, and later with the coming of Mohammed, Christians, Jews, and Moslems believing in one God lived there is perfect harmony. (I suppose there was no reason in angering Christians by bringing up the Crusades, or the less than ideal treatment of Jews over the centuries under Muslim or Ottoman rule.) And the account of the history of Zionism was certainly provocative. Strangers from abroad began buying up land and stirring up the people. Today there a million of us, wasting our lives in exile and misery, waiting to go home.
The reaction of the Jewish community in New York City to the mural was to condemn it as anti-Semitic offensive and malicious propaganda, wholly out of keeping with the spirit of the fair. Soon every major politician in the city, from Mayor Wagner on down, was insisting that the mural be removed. Suits were filed. Protesters from the American Jewish Congress, inspired by Martin Luther King, engaged in protests and civil disobedience, and were arrested by policeman at the fair.
As for Robert Moses, he wasnt having any of it. He was not in the habit of being told by others what to do, and a lifelong antipathy to Zionism and rejection of any Jewish identity (hardly uncommon for persons from his upper class German-Jewish milieu) gave him very little sympathy with the protestors. (The only Jewish organization he had any connection to was the vehemently anti-Zionist American Council for Judaism.) And had he listened to the protestors, no doubt every pavilion from an Islamic country would have left, and he would have had a bigger problem on his hands. So Moses stood his ground. The protests ebbed. The Jordanian mural was not removed. Moses later complained of a burst of simulated indignation by pro-Israeli groups, and the efforts of fanatics and professional religionists to disrupt the fair, the incident proving only that there were no Arab votes in New York. (For his efforts, King Hussein awarded Moses the Star of Jordan Decoration of the First Order
What can we learn from this incident? It is often said that relations between Israel and Palestine are worse than they ever were, and, with the apparent scuttling of the Kerry negotiations, it has been a field day for pessimists. Perhaps they are right, but in at least one way, the mutual understanding between Israelis and American Jews and Palestinians has definitely improved. In 1964 American Jews, and very liberal American Jews at that, simply could not listen to any claim by the Palestinian refugees. Any attack on Israel was simply an instance of anti-Semitism. There was no general recognition that, as we now say, there are two narratives, two histories, two more or less equally valid ways of looking at the same set of tragic histories. .
The leader of the American Jewish Congresss protests at the World Fair was Reform Rabbi Joachim Prinz, a refugee from Germany, long one of my heroes, a stalwart supporter of civil rights and many other good causes in his many decades in America. Among those arrested at the fair was Theodore Bikel, who still, in his 90s, is a leading voice for Israeli-Palestinian understanding and reconciliation. The basic legitimacy of the Palestinian refugees cause is now an article of faith among liberal and progressive Jews. (How to solve it is another matter altogether.) And even moderate and many conservative Jews acknowledge that without some attention to legitimate Palestinian grievances, dating from 1948 on, there will be no lasting solution of the problem. And Palestinians recognize that Israel is not going anywhere, and cannot be wished or wiped away. This is of course an all too common occurrence in the history of politics between peoples. An understanding that would have been useful in an earlier time, comes too late, and is too delayed, to be of any use, because the conflict has moved on. If only Netanyahu and Abbas, or their predecessors half a century ago, could have tried to negotiate their differences in 1964, instead of waiting until 2014!
And what of Robert Moses? He had an op-ed in the Times in 1971, Harness the Jordan, in which he suggested, as was his wont, the Israeli-Palestinian problem could be solved through building things, in this case, the damming the Jordan and releasing its full hydroelectric capacity. Rather than the current situationconflicting claims of race, religion and government. Both Israelis and Arabs are raking old ashes, stirring smoldering fires and fanning fanaticism. Each side refuses to yield an inchMoses wanted negotiations. Moses concluded that obviously Israel must give back some of the land recently acquired, but should have viable frontiers. Other than the recently Mosess comments remain as apposite today as in 1971. Moses understood that the reason to acquire power was not to hoard it, but to use it, and use it to make a deal. Netanyahu could learn a lesson from the power broker.