Arabs pressure Disney over Israeli exhibition

Disputed depiction of Jerusalem prompts threats of boycott

September 17, 1999|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- In the Magic Kingdom, Jerusalem is the capital of Israel -- which suits the Israelis, but not the Arabs.

So the depiction of Jerusalem in the Israeli exhibit at Walt Disney Co.'s millennium celebration set to open in Florida Oct. 1 has Arab leaders and Arab-American and Muslim organizations calling for a boycott of Disney theme parks and products.

Israel, which has contributed about a third of the at least $6 million cost of the exhibit, argues that the display is nonpolitical and portrays Jerusalem as the seat of the three great religions, Islam included.

The dispute reflects the sensitivity of the status of Jerusalem -- an issue at the heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict and at the center of negotiations under way to reach a final peace settlement between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

Israel considers Jerusalem its "eternal and indivisible" capital; the Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the seat of their future state.

"We are trying to protect and defend our rights," said Hanan Ashrawi, a leading Palestinian lawmaker who has spoken against the Disney millennium pavilion. "We are trying to prevent Israel from creating facts on the ground and dictating the policies of governments or global perceptions of Jerusalem."

The Holy City of Jerusalem includes the remains of the last Jewish Temple destroyed by the Romans and its revered Western Wall. It also includes the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, enshrining the reputed site of Jesus' crucifixion and the Haram el Sherif where Muslims believe Mohammed ascended into heaven.

It was occupied by Jordan from 1948 to 1967, when the Holy City and the rest of East Jerusalem was captured by Israel in the Six-Day War. Israel always has claimed Jerusalem is its capital. The international community does not recognize the claim and most countries, including the United States, keep their embassies in Tel Aviv.

It is a hot issue.

Bill Warren, a Disney spokesman, did not return a reporter's telephone calls on the subject. But the Los Angeles Times quoted a spokesman for Disney as saying: "We are not taking sides on this issue. We are in the business of entertainment, trying to provide a good experience for our guests."

Disney won't describe the Jerusalem portion of Epcot's Millennium Village, a display of dozens of nations that also will feature exhibits from Morocco and Saudi Arabia.

A spokesman for the Israeli government said the display is Israel-centered with an historical show on Jerusalem.

"It's a ride through time," said Effi Ben Matitiyahu, a spokesman for Israel's Foreign Ministry. "It's not called, `Jerusalem -- Israel's capital.' It's called, `A Ride Through Time.' It's very much a multicultural presentation with references to the Jewish connection to the city, but also the Islamic and Christian connections. It's not monolithic or one-sided at all. That's what bothers us."

But Arab groups contend that an Israeli depiction of Jerusalem overlooks the reality that Arab East Jerusalem is occupied territory under international aw. It also fails to recognize that the future of Jerusalem is not only Israel's to decide, they said.

"This occupation has got to end. It is illegitimate," said Hussein Ibish, a spokesman for the Washington-based American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. "The Arab position on East Jerusalem is consistent with international law and the consensus in the international community. It is the consensus in Israel that is eccentric and illegitimate."

Ashrawi, the Palestinian lawmaker, said she had been told that Disney agreed to address the matter after a member of the Saudi royal family intervened. Prince Alwaleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz al-Saud is a major investor in the Paris-based EuroDisney.

Disney officials met yesterday with representatives of the Arab groups. The Arab League presented a proposal to Disney, but Ibish wouldn't discuss it. "There was a great deal of productive discussion going on," he said.

A resolution of the matter may come as early as today.

During the controversy, Jewish groups urged Disney not to cave in to the Arab pressure.

"We trust that Disney will continue to display the exhibit despite pressure from American Arab and American Muslim groups," Howard P. Berkowitz and Abraham H. Foxman, officials of the Anti-Defamation League, said in a letter to Disney. "These groups are seeking to politicize Israel's involvement in Disney's millennium celebration."

The controversy over the Disney millennium exhibit comes after a successful campaign by Arab-American and Muslim groups and the Cairo-based Arab League last month to pressure Burger King to pull a franchise outlet in a Jewish settlement on the West Bank, also occupied territory.

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