Treasure Trove recalls a time when the Kingdom of Jordan’s pavilion at the World’s Fair generated controversy, protests and a court battle

In this pamphlet, the country of Jordan is billed as the “The Holy Land”.

This material introduced visitors to the Kingdom of Jordan pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York City. Ironically, the motto of the fair was “Peace Through Understanding”.  It describes a pavilion that includes a “photographic survey of the Holy Places in Jordan” and a display of the Dead Sea Scrolls, called “the most sensational discovery of the century.”   

The pavilion also featured a Mural of a Refugee which was a wall-sized drawing of an Arab mother cradling a child, with a poem beside it written from the perspective of the child, asking the reader to “help us right a wrong.” The pavilion and its mural sparked a public struggle over the two-year run of the fair which was framed, depending on one’s perspective, as a fight against antisemitism and anti-Israel sentiment or against anti-Arab sentiment, and encroachment on free speech. 

Robert Moses, who organized the fair, argued against protesting the mural saying that this would bring extra attention to it. This advice was not heeded.

The dispute would look familiar to us today.  The Anti-Defamation League petitioned the court to have the Jordanian pavilion closed because the mural was antisemitic. Israel supporters, including singer Theodore Bikel, were arrested for violating a fairground rule against protesting. (They were acquitted on the basis that the fairgrounds were a quasi-public place and so protest was permitted.) 

Many letters were sent saying the mural expressed hatred and prejudice against Israel and Jews. On the opposite side, letters were sent lauding the mural for bringing attention to the issue of refugees. One night the Jordanian flag was replaced by an Israeli flag. 

The tug-of-war between Israel supporters and the proponents of free speech was widely reported in the press. In the end, the mural remained in place. 

It is worth recognizing that this all occurred three years before the Six-Day War. From then on, no other country could claim to be the Holy Land. Israel’s decisive victory in 1967 ended one argument, but introduced many more.