Epcot exhibit calls Jerusalem the heart of Israel

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ORLANDO, Fla. (JTA) — Visitors to the gold-hued building that houses the Israel exhibit at Epcot Center's Millennium Village are warned that "Journey to Jerusalem," the eight-minute video that is its centerpiece, "is a mildly turbulent simulator ride."

The opening of the exhibit itself has been something of a roller coaster for Walt Disney Corp. officials, who in the last few weeks faced the specter of an Arab boycott if the exhibit — developed with Israel's guidance — portrayed Jerusalem as Israel's capital.

In fact, while the exhibit makes no explicit mention of Jerusalem as Israel's capital, there is no doubt that the exhibit inextricably links Jerusalem with Israel and that Israel intended that message to come across loud and clear.

What visitors hear — in the video presentations that make up the centerpiece of the exhibit — is that Jerusalem is "the capital of the millennium" and the "heart of the Israeli people."

They also hear a disclaimer that says the exhibit is sponsored by Israel's Foreign Ministry and "is based on their perspective." In addition, a general disclaimer at the entrance to the pavilion says the stories at all the exhibits "represent the views of our exhibitors and sponsors."

Israel paid $1.8 million toward the exhibit's $8 million price tag.

Some of the first visitors to preview the exhibit, which opened to the public last Friday, said they were hard-pressed to find the source of controversy in the finished product.

"I thought the message was good: Peace for all people, regardless of religion," said Christine Perning, an Orlando resident who visited Israel earlier this year. "After all the fighting there has been, I kept looking for something sensational."

The 2,200-square-foot exhibit — designed to evoke Jerusalem's Old City — aptly conveys the history and culture of the place as she had experienced it, she said.

In remarks delivered at a special opening reception Wednesday night of last week, the director-general of Israel's Foreign Ministry, Eitan Ben-Tsur, repeated three times, "Jerusalem, the capital of Israel," to the rousing applause of hundreds of Jewish community leaders gathered at Epcot.

The special preview finally answered the question that's been asked for weeks — how exactly would Jerusalem be depicted?

The question had sparked international controversy when Arab groups charged the entertainment company with taking Israel's side on the status of Jerusalem — a matter that is still on the table in Middle East peace negotiations.

Riled by reports that Israel had agreed to participate in the project only if the exhibit emphasized Jerusalem as its capital, some Arab and Muslim groups, including the Palestinian Authority, threatened a boycott against Disney.

The Arab League threatened to take unspecified measures if it detected a political message in the exhibit, but after a meeting between Disney officials and Arab League representatives, the Arab League said it was satisfied by written assurances from Disney Chairman Michael Eisner that the exhibit was strictly entertainment.

Israeli officials admit the exhibit changed in the wake of the Arab protest, but by all accounts the changes were minor.

There were no "substantive" changes, Israel's ambassador to the United States, Zalman Shoval, told Jewish organizational officials in a recent conference call.

All along, Israel said publicly that while the exhibit would show Jerusalem's centrality to the Jewish people, it would also present the city as a holy site for Christians and Muslims.

Shoval indicated in his public address at the opening that Disney had not caved in to Arab pressure.

"Any blackmail is objectionable because it affects the lives of people," he said. "Political blackmail is objectionable because it affects the lives of many people. Political blackmail is another word for terrorism. We praise Disney for not letting it pass."

Although the controversy seems to have largely died down, at least one Arab-American group said it intends to distribute leaflets to Disney visitors to counter what it calls the "misleading" impression that Jerusalem is Israel's undivided capital.

More than 50 countries will be represented in some form in the Millennium Village, which will be open to the public for 15 months. One million people per month are expected to visit the pavilion.

On the way to the simulated "Journey to Jerusalem," young Israeli guides — posing as Disney "cast members" — point out landmarks of the three monotheistic religions on a wall-sized photograph of the Old City.

The video underlies a secondary thrust of the exhibit beyond any question of culture or politics: tourism.

The video is hosted by a tour guide named Tali, who promises to give visitors "an insider's tour like no one else." Whizzing through the Old City's Arab market and into the ancient shopping center of the Cardo, she notes that people have been shopping there for thousands of years: "And when you see the great deals you'll understand why."

Once in the exhibit, visitors are strapped in for the eight-minute virtual ride — which gives the sensation of movement using specially designed motion platforms — that takes them through "Stories of Faith," a dizzying dash with scenes of Abraham and Jesus and references to Mohammed.

The experience ends with the words "Faith, Hope and Peace" emblazoned on three screens in Hebrew, Arabic and English.

The crowds at last week's opening included hardy travelers from Atlanta who had risen at 5:30 a.m. to make it to Orlando, as well as a delegation from New York and a handful of leaders of national Jewish organizations.

Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, said he found the historical presentation to be "sanitized" so as not to offend, and was "deeply disturbed that evidently reference to Jerusalem as the capital of Israel was intentionally deleted."

Visitors at the Israeli preview expressed delight at the idea of having Israel represented at Disney World and saw the exhibit as a source of Jewish pride.

"I've been to Epcot many, many times," said Marcia Greenberg, a tour operator who has also been to Israel 51 times and was part of the 130-strong delegation from the Jewish Federation of Palm Beach..

"I always missed having our country here."