How The 1939 World’s Fair Sold America On Zionism
At the tail end of the Great Depression and on the eve of World War II, the 1939 New York World’s Fair offered weary, anxious Americans an escape from the dismal present into an ecstatic future. Over the fair’s six-month span, 44 million people descended on a former ash dump in Flushing, Queens, to experience the marvels of the so-called World of Tomorrow. They included a robot that could smoke Marlboros, a flying vehicle for every home, even — gasp — fluorescent lights. Just over the horizon, the fair’s participating multinational corporations and nation-states confidently asserted, unimaginable wonders beckoned.
Strangely, one of the most popular pavilions at the fair didn’t introduce novel consumer products or an impeccably planned future city; instead, it presented the prickly concept of a Jewish national home. As the Jews of Europe faced extermination and British policies toward Mandate Palestine cast doubt on the feasibility of the Zionist project, the Jewish Palestine Pavilion at the 1939 World’s Fair offered a coherent, convincing vision of Jewish nationhood on a world stage. This vision, unfortunately, teetered between advocacy and propaganda. Its explicit narrative of transforming a neglected region into a bright beacon of progress papered over the fact that often this progress would come at the expense of Arabs living in Palestine.
There would not have been a Jewish Palestine Pavilion if not for the work of Meyer Weisgal, an American Zionist activist, journalist, fundraiser and playwright. As Barbara Kirschenblatt-Gimblett notes in her essay “Performing the State: The Jewish Palestine Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair, 1939/40,” Weisgal sought to “revivify the Zionist movement in the United States,” and believed the most effective way to do so was through “awe-inspiring spectacle.”
Earlier in the decade, at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, Weisgal had debuted “The Romance of a People,” a grand pageant that dramatized 4,000 years of Jewish struggle using more than 6,000 performers. As Kirschenblatt-Gimblett writes, Weisgal created this massive pageant to gather support for the Zionist cause to “amplify the voice of protest against Hitler” and to strengthen Jewish solidarity.
After the success of his pageant, Weisgal worked to conceptualize and fund the Jewish Palestine Pavilion for the 1939 fair. This project was to be his most ambitious yet: In his autobiography, quoted by Kirschenblatt-Gimblett, he states that he wanted to create “a Jewish State in Flushing Meadows.” Weisgal believed that by presenting a miniaturized future homeland — built with materials brought to the United States from Palestine, by craftsmen and architects who lived there — American Zionists could create the conditions for public recognition of Jewish statehood.
With these goals in mind, Weisgal spearheaded the design of a Pavilion that “highlighted the influx of Jews to Eretz Yisrael and their hard work to develop and rebuild the land,” according to Saul Jay Singer, describing the event in the Jewish Press a few years ago. Designed by Arieh (Sapoznikov) El-Hanani, a Jewish resident of Palestine, the Pavilion managed to one-up the spectacle of his previous World’s Fair exhibit: Singer notes that the Pavilion even featured a room that used “a complex set of mirrors, an optical illusion” that “transformed the Bedouin Valley of Death into a lush and fruitful landscape.” On the Pavilion’s facade was a huge bronze relief entitled “The Scholar, the Laborer, and the Toiler of the Soil,” which was designed by a Jewish Palestinian sculptor named Maurice Ascalon.
Weisgal fought — and failed — to locate the Jewish Palestine Pavilion in the area reserved for nations, but he successfully landed other opportunities commonly afforded to sovereign states. According to Singer, the Palestine Pavilion “flew the Zionist flag” and was “represented in the parade of nations,” two privileges which all but signified nationhood.
Such concessions to Jewish nationhood took on more significance given that Czechoslovakia, Poland and Finland had their government sponsorship revoked during the fair after Hitler’s armies had violated their sovereign borders. As Kirschenblatt-Gimblett notes, these changes undermined the fair’s “strict principle of recognizing only government sponsored buildings,” which “worked to the advantage” of the Palestine Pavilion.
Aware of their unique opportunity to lay the groundwork for grassroots support for a Jewish state, the founders of the Pavilion chose a worthy spokesman to present their miniaturized Jewish state: Albert Einstein. At the Pavilion’s dedication, he spoke eloquently about the situation of the Jews in Palestine and about how the exhibition, like the fair as a whole, necessarily downplayed the conflict in Palestine and highlighted settlers’ achievements:
“The World’s Fair is in a way a reflection of mankind, its work and aspirations,” Einstein remarked to a crowd of more than 150,000. “But it projects the world of men like a wishful dream. Only the creative forces are on show, none of the sinister and destructive ones which today more than ever jeopardize the happiness, the very existence of civilized humanity.”
Later, Einstein drew a comparison between the world of the fair at large and that of the Palestine Pavilion: “[Palestine] is exposed to constant attack, and every one of its members is forced to fight for his very life, even over and above the bitter economic struggle for survival.” And yet, he noted, the Jewish Palestine Pavilion reflected the positive aspirations of Jews’ efforts in the Holy Land: “Nothing of this shows here. We see only the quiet, noble lines of a building and within it a presentation of the Palestine homeland.”
But was a Pavilion that distorted the reality of life in Mandate Palestine — where nationalist revolts by the Arab population, demanding independence, had shaken the country for over three years by the time of the fair — really a “presentation of the homeland”? Or was it a propaganda effort?
Almost every single dedication speech for the fair scathingly referenced British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s February 1939 White Paper that halted Jewish immigration and land purchases in Palestine. Chaim Weitzman remarked, “It is a welcome coincidence that at a time when our rights in Palestine are harshly challenged we are given the opportunity of showing on the lofty stage of the World’s Fair what our works means in Palestine and what Palestine means to the Jewish people.” Rabbi Stephen Wise, honorary president of the Pavilion, added, “The dedication of the Palestine Pavilion is the answer of American Jewry to the Chamberlain White Paper. Not only the answer of American Jewry, but the answer of World Jewry.”
While the outrage with the White Paper was more than understandable given that it impeded Jewish refugees from escaping to Palestine and endangered the Zionist project as a whole, few speakers honestly spoke about the conditions that led to the British decree — namely, brutal clashes between Arabs and Jews in the region.
Still, through its performance of de facto statehood, the Pavilion helped Jews achieve recognition on the world stage as an ethno-nationalist group — and, ultimately, may have helped Zionists achieve national sovereignty in Palestine. Looking back on photos, speeches and other archival materials from the fair, it is difficult not to feel moved by the sense of optimism that pervaded the Pavilion’s architects and supporters, even in the face of Hitler’s attempts to destroy Jewish European life, and given the harsh realities of building a homeland in a volatile region, some of whose inhabitants were hostile to the Zionist cause.
Sam Bromer is the Forward’s culture intern. Contact him at [email protected]