Israel at the World’s Fair

Architectural image of the Israeli pavilion at EXPO DUBAI 2020
Architect's rendering of the Israel Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai. Copyright MFA

World’s Fairs (also known as World Expos) showcase the technology, resources, business, and tourist potential of the participating countries and corporations. In addition, they provide opportunities for people from different lands to interact, exchange ideas, and learn to appreciate each other’s culture, art, music, and food. Fairs leave behind infrastructure that are used as parks, universities, museums, research centers, and communities (the Eiffel Tower,  Chicago Museum of Science and Industry, Washington University in St. Louis, Flushing Meadows Park, and Habitat in Montreal are all legacies of fairs).

Since 1965, the closest most Americans have come to attending a large scale World’s Fair is at Disney World’s EPCOT, a permanent fair whose design and theme are based largely on the 1939 New York Fair (there were U.S. fairs in 1974, 1982, and 1984, but these were tiny compared with large fairs). However, since everything at EPCOT is designed by one company and little has been substantially updated since it opened 40 years ago, it does not have the currency or variety that is found in modern day Expos.

Many Americans think that with television and the Internet, world’s fairs are passé.  However, there is a qualitative difference between watching a video and seeing first hand the new technologies that revolutionize the world. Elevators, television, florescent lighting, nylon, computers, fax machines, portable phones, touch screens, maglev trains, Ferris wheels, hydrogen-powered cars, high-definition TV, and even the ice cream cone all were first presented to the public at World Expos, and seeing them in person has an impact that goes beyond those who actually attended (people are still talking about attractions from fairs of the 1930s and 1960s).

While North America has not had a major Expo since 1986 in Vancouver, fairs have been held every few years in Europe and Asia, and each attracts between 40 and 70 million people for their three to six month runs, far more than EPCOT’s 10-12 million annual visitors. Expos are the third-largest international event after the Olympics and the World Cup, and they have grown in participation. Expo 67 had 62 participating countries (along with corporate and organization pavilions; Expo 2020 (postponed to 2021-22 due to the pandemic) had over 210 pavilions, with 192 countries (in comparison, EPCOT has nine corporate and eleven country pavilions).

The Palestine Pavilion at the 1939 New York World’s Fair (postcard image)

Israel has participated in Expos as a country since 1958 (there was also a Jewish Agency-sponsored Palestine pavilion in 1939). Israel’s pavilions typically highlight its history, land, and people, archeological finds like the Dead Sea Scrolls, and its progress as a small, developing country. The pavilions range from modest to space age design and often heavily utilize technology, but they are not known for telling compelling or engaging stories about the culture, history, or people of Israel, or its technological contributions.

Israel at Expo 2010 in China. Photo by Chaim Dotan, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In 2013, when it was announced that the 2020 Expo would be held in Dubai, there was considerable speculation as to whether Israel would be welcome. But even before the historic Abraham Accords were signed, Dubai announced that Israel was indeed invited to participate. Here was a unique opportunity, the first time Israel could directly communicate with tens of millions of people, mostly from the middle east, who otherwise only know Israel from the BBC and Arab news outlets. I, for one, could not wait to go.

Abba Eban is famously quoted that the Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity, but sadly Israel has fallen into the same trap when it comes to Expos. The Expo’s themes of Communication, Sustainability, and Mobility seemed lost on the pavilion’s designers. There was nothing about advances in sustainability and ecological preservation. Nothing about its humanitarian efforts in crisis zones. Almost nothing about cultural, religious, and racial diversity (especially in the Knesset and Supreme Court ). Advances in agriculture, desalinization, medicine, cybernetics, or chip design? Nada. Demonstrations of the exoskeleton that enables quadriplegics to walk? Nope. Cafes with celebrity chefs featuring 3D printed steaks grown from cells or created from plants (or any kosher food at all for that matter)? Not a chance. The vibrant art scene in Tel Aviv? Religious freedom? Historic sites? Eco-tourism? Nowhere. A mini-market of Israeli foods, fashion, and crafts? Sigh. You could find all of the above at Uzbekistan, Seychelles, Bahrain, Belgium, and nearly every other pavilion, but not Israel. And if you wanted a virtual visit to Jerusalem and its markets, you had to go across the street to the Palestine pavilion.

Expo 2020 boulevard with Israel in background decorated for Israel National Day. Italy is to the right. Photo by the author

What Israel actually presented was a difficult to navigate largely empty open space lined with video walls that had little of relevance. Downstairs there was a video presentation that was at best puzzling and at worst bizarre, with a live DJ (unsuccessfully) trying to engage the audience in a dance party (something about we all move to the same beat). You can see videos of the show on YouTube, but suffice it to say that there was nothing to celebrate the Jewish return to our homeland or any of the remarkable contributions Israel makes to technology, food, sustainability, or the human condition. Coincidently, my first day at Expo was on Israel’s National Day (every country gets one day at Expo for a special celebration) and the performances that I saw including gyrating skimpily-clad dancers doing cheerleader type dance moves and a rock band that was indistinguishable from second rate clubs in the US. It was, frankly, embarrassing. I am sure that during the fair there were other events that better fit the theme, including conferences and meetings. But most visitors see only the exhibits and main show.

Israel can do better and it must. For decades many Zionists from abroad have been critical of Israeli hasbara (public relations), deriding it as poorly conceived and executed compared to the sophisticated and successful efforts by Palestinians. Israelis, perhaps understandably,  get very defensive, resent these criticisms, and tend to reject the advice, preferring to go their own way. However, it is not enough to be right and think that righteousness will tell its own story. You must build alliances with empathy and connection. Expos are a great place to do so because there is no filter, you get to reach people face to face in a positive, not combative, setting.

Given all the things that Israel must turn its attention to, Expos and related hasbara may seem a waste of time, but I submit it is not. There are reasons countries and organizations spend millions of dollars to build pavilions at these events. They understand that it is not enough to make business and political deals with rulers and elites; one must also reach out to the people.

I urge Israel to look at the most successful international and corporate pavilions of the last several decades of fairs and find a new way to tell its compelling story in a way that changes the conversation from what most people think to what and who Israel is and represents. As an Expo fan, who understands the possibilities and has seen good and bad pavilions (to be fair, Israel was not the only country to miss the mark), I would happily volunteer to work on pavilions for the upcoming Expos. I hope that Israel does not miss the next opportunity to connect with millions of visitors in an emotionally and intellectually meaningful way.

Al Wasl. The theme center at night, with the world’s largest projection dome. Photo by author.

Expo 2020 Dubai runs through March 22. The next large expo will be World Expo 2025 in Osaka, Japan. Locations for the following two are to be determined. Candidates for Expo 2027 or 2028, a three-month specialized fair, are the U.S. (Minnesota), Thailand, Serbia, Spain, and Argentina. The candidates for the large World Expo 2030 are Russia, South Korea, Italy, Ukraine, and Saudi Arabia.

Note: This article was written before the invasion of Ukraine. Both Russia and Ukraine had elaborate pavilions at Expo, and as noted, are competing to host Expo 2030. I spoke briefly with the Ukrainians at their pavilion about a shared hope for peace. I fear that by the time Expo closes, there may not be a country for them to return to (as happened to Yugoslavia at Expo 92), and I keep thinking about how, before the 1939 NY fair had closed, the world was once again at war. It is a shame that the good will that exists between nations at Expo does not always extend to realpolitik. But my interactions with people from countries that are officially hostile to the US and Israel were all positive, full of hope, and a shared desire to live together in peace. If only the leaders could find a way to make it happen. I pray that we are not witnessing an end to the Long Peace.

About the Author
Michael Rogovin is a not for profit executive, and a former public service attorney and senior executive in higher education. An avid home cook, he also writes about vegan and cell cultured foods for A member of a progressive modern orthodox synagogue, he resides in Teaneck, New Jersey.
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