A Mural Brought the Palestine Conflict to the 1964 World’s Fair

Evidence of the fair’s Jordan Pavilion still stands in New York, yet few remember the international crisis it triggered

A Mural Brought the Palestine Conflict to the 1964 World’s Fair
In the foreground is the Jordan Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair in 1964. (Morse Collection/Gado/Getty Images)

Walking down the straight avenues of Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens, New York, it’s impossible to miss the evidence of the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair. There are the remnants of the New York state pavilion, whose concrete towers and cable structures look straight out of a sci-fi film. There’s also the Rocket Thrower statue, a divine depiction of a man launching a rocket from one hand and reaching for the stars with the other. And, of course, there’s the Unisphere, a colossal steel model of planet Earth glimmering in the park’s orbital center. Yet just a few hundred feet from these popular attractions, hidden in a grove of maple trees, is a different kind of monument: a Roman limestone column. Called the Column of Jerash, at nearly 2,000 years old it’s the second-oldest monument in New York, after Cleopatra’s Needle in Central Park.

Its plaque informs passersby: “This column was presented to the New York World’s Fair and the City of New York by His Majesty King Hussein of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan on the occasion of Jordan’s participation in the Fair.” What the plaque doesn’t mention, however, is that an exhibit at the Jordan Pavilion triggered an international crisis that led to protests, arrests, vandalism and the cancellation of at least one foreign leader’s visit, all within the first few weeks of a world’s fair whose official slogan was “Peace Through Understanding.”

In September 1962, as the New York World’s Fair Corporation was planning its upcoming event, the international affairs division, led by former New York Gov. Charles Poletti, sent a representative named Hugh Auchincloss III to the Middle East to finalize the agreements with participating nations. One stop was the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, which had been the first Arab nation to accept the fair’s invitation. While there, Auchincloss proposed that Jordan include in its exhibit a Roman column from the ancient city of Jerash, north of the capital Amman. Not only did the Hashemite Kingdom agree, it offered that the column stay in New York after the fair as a permanent gift and a testament to its friendship. The column that was settled on was 32 feet tall and 3 feet wide, weighing close to 18 tons, one of many from the Temple of Artemis, which was begun in the second century and never completed. They are known as the “Whispering Columns” for their tendency to whistle and sway in the hot desert wind.

Two years later, on a cold gray morning, the MS Concordia docked at Brooklyn’s Pier 10 carrying a heavy and precious payload. But not long after the six cylindrical pieces of limestone were unloaded, officials from the fair realized that they weren’t nearly as big as they should be. It turned out that, for reasons that remain unknown, the Jordanian government decided not to send the column as agreed, and instead sent one less than half the size of the original. A memo to Poletti by Lionel Harris, a member of the international affairs team, described the column as “slightly smaller” but added, “I am sure that the one we now have will prove to be just as beautiful as the one originally suggested.” Poletti accepted the substitute column but chose not to inform the president of the World’s Fair — the notoriously short-tempered Robert Moses — of this development.

On April 22, 1964, the New York World’s Fair officially opened. What was once a garbage dump, immortalized as the “Valley of Ash” in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” was now a verdant cornucopia of restaurants, rides and 140 pavilions representing 80 countries — more than at any previous international exhibition.

Located on North Avenue, the Jordan Pavilion was one of the most striking. Its roof was a dramatic, undulating sheet of concrete that evoked the domes and desert dunes of the Levant, and was covered by a golden mosaic and pierced by jewel-colored skylights. The walls featured bas-reliefs and murals of sights like the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and the city of Petra, as well as stained-glass windows showing Jesus’ journey to the cross. The whole building wrapped around a central tower with a white web-like structure, on top of which were perched a golden cross and a golden crescent. Standing next to the pavilion was the Column of Jerash, nearly two stories tall, topped with an ornate capital of unfurling acanthus leaves. Inside, the exhibition was divided into three parts: ancient Jordan, holy Jordan and modern Jordan. Each one featured all kinds of artifacts and models, but by far the biggest attraction was six fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the oldest known manuscripts of the Old Testament, displayed in a replica of the Qumran Caves in which they were found. The pavilion also had a cafe that served falafel and hummus and hosted regular performances by the Jordan Army Band and belly dancers.

The day after it opened, the king visited the fair. After a tour of the grounds with Poletti and a luncheon with Moses, he gave a speech emphasizing that the Jordan Pavilion was a reflection of his country’s role on the world stage: “My country will not be able to exhibit atomic power, or a special mechanical energy, or an advanced electrical device, but we will be quite able to exhibit that which shall remain when everything else shall vanish. We, who have within our heritage people like Jesus Christ and Muhammad the Prophet, must be represented by a scheme that reflects the ideals of our life and the simplicity of our nature.” This theme was also announced to visitors as they walked into the pavilion, with a sign that read, “Welcome to Jordan, the cradle of religion, the cradle of civilization.”

Amid a sea of exhibits celebrating the advent of space-age technology, the Jordan Pavilion, with its focus on history and religion, certainly stood out. What’s more, its particular emphasis on the shared history between Christianity and Islam was a clear attempt to attract the American public and boost Jordan’s tourism industry. It even gave out pamphlets to visitors with pictures of the many biblical sights one could visit on a trip to the “Holy Land.”

Jordan’s wasn’t the only pavilion doing this, however. Just a few blocks away, on the corner of Avenue of African Nations and Avenue of Asia, was the American-Israel pavilion. With a spiraling wall of mahogany that rose to a sharp point, its design was equally eye-catching. Like its Jordanian counterpart, its exhibit was also divided into three parts (the ancient, the diaspora and the modern), it featured its own fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and it too served hummus and falafel.

Technically, this pavilion didn’t represent the country of Israel itself. After initially accepting the fair’s invitation, Israel’s prime minister at the time, David Ben-Gurion, pulled out in 1962 because of the high projected cost. Instead, a group of prominent American Jewish businessmen, known as the American-Israel Chamber of Commerce and Industry, decided to sponsor their own pavilion that would honor Israel and celebrate the Jewish diaspora. That said, the pavilion was still happy to promote Israel’s views, including its stances toward its neighbors.

Although relations between Israel and Jordan had been tumultuous since their conception, tensions had reached a new high in 1964. After Israel had announced its plan to divert water from the River Jordan-fed Lake Tiberias to irrigate the Negev Desert, Hussein attended an Arab League Summit in January to discuss plans to keep the river’s water out of Israel’s reach. This context is important when considering the American-Israel Pavilion’s centerpiece: a large modernist statue of a handful of workers triumphantly assembling an irrigation pipe.

If this statement irked Jordanian officials in any way, there is no record of it. That may be because the Jordan Pavilion had its own statement to make, one that would turn the competition between the two pavilions into a full-blown conflict.

As the much-anticipated weekend crowds made their way to the fair for the first time, Moses received a telegram from Harold Caplin, director of the American-Israeli Pavilion. “We are shocked and disturbed to learn that the Jordan Pavilion has used its premises at the fair to spread propaganda against Israel and its people. The use of the fairgrounds for the dissemination of such propaganda runs counter to the spirit of the fair as expressed in its theme ‘Peace Through Understanding’ and counter to the regulations of the fair.” The installation in question wasn’t the Column of Jerash or the Dead Sea Scrolls, but a mural inside the pavilion of an Arab mother holding her infant son next to a poem:

Before you go,
Have you a minute more to spare,
To hear a word on Palestine
And perhaps to help us right a wrong?

Ever since the birth of Christ
And later with the coming of Mohammed,
Christians, Jews and Moslems, believers in one God
Lived together there in peaceful harmony.

For centuries it was so,
Until strangers from abroad,
Professing one thing, but underneath, another,
Began buying up land and stirring up the people.

Neighbors became enemies
And fought against each other,
The strangers, once thought terror’s victims,
Became terror’s fierce practitioners.

Seeking peace at all costs, including the cost of justice,
The blinded world, in solemn council, split the land in two,
Tossing to one side
The right of self-determination.

What followed then perhaps you know,
Seeking to redress the wrong, our nearby neighbors
Tried to help us in our cause,
And for reasons, not in their control, did not succeed.

Today, there are a million of us.
Some like us but many like my mother,
Wasting lives in exiled misery
Waiting to go home.

But even now, to protect their gains ill-got,
As if the land was theirs and had the right,
They’re threatening to disturb the Jordan’s course
And make the desert bloom with warriors.

And who’s to stop them?
The world seems not to care or is blinded still.
That’s why I’m glad you stopped
And heard the story.

It was called “Mural of the Refuge” and although it didn’t mention Israel by name, its message was clear. Moses, backed by Poletti, promptly responded to Caplin: “The fair cannot censor the mural you refer to, even though it is political in nature and subject to misinterpretation. We believe no good purpose would be served by exaggerating the significance of this reference to national aims or attributing racial animus to it.” If “exaggerating the significance” was what Moses wanted to avoid by not taking the mural down, it was already too late. On Saturday, The New York Times published the dispute with the headline: “Jordan’s Exhibit Assailed by Jews.”

Before he could reach JFK Airport, the king was asked about the mural. His response was guarded: “I don’t believe that this particular portrait of a refugee boy is against any particular people. It is an appeal to the conscience of the people.” Jordanian officials, however, were more blunt: “All pavilions are propaganda. We are not against the Jews, but we are against Israel and the foreigners who took our homes and property,” said one. Ghaleb Barakat, the director of the Jordan Pavilion, added that, contrary to Caplin’s claim, the mural was in line with the theme of “Peace Through Understanding,” saying, “We want the people of the United States to understand part of our problem.” That Sunday, the American-Israeli Pavilion added a new piece to their exhibition: a Davidka mortar cannon that was used in the 1948 Palestine War.

The next week, it appeared as if the controversy was resolved when New York City Mayor Robert F. Wagner Jr. announced that, upon his suggestion, the fair had agreed to remove the mural. But shortly after this announcement, Poletti claimed that there was no agreement and that the fair’s stance was unchanged. Over the next few days, as the controversy continued to make headlines, attendance at the Jordan Pavilion soared, and over 7,000 tickets were sold on the Friday of that week, more than double the total number from the week before.

Meanwhile, Moses’ office was suddenly flooded with letters from across the country. Some were typed on corporate letterhead, others were scrawled onto ripped pieces of paper. They described the mural as “offensive,” “anti-semitic,” “vicious,” “libelous” and “malicious.” One man called the Jordanian officials “bloody arabs and the illiterate Egyps.” Many threatened to boycott the fair, including one woman who promised to “inform the students of the school in which I teach of this situation.” Another threatened much worse: “Your pavilion is not a legal part of the World’s fair. Therefore, on July 1, I am forced to destroy it. I suggest nobody be in the pavilion that day.”

There was also a letter from Rep. Emanuel Celler, a New York Democrat and chair of the House Judiciary Committee, who wrote, “were I to draw an analogy of a Soviet Union Pavilion on our fairgrounds bearing a message addressed to the Western World ‘we will bury you,’ would you not agree that such a statement would be out of place?” But no matter who it was, or what they said, Moses’ response was the same: the mural stays.

Buried in the pile of hate mail were a few letters of support. The American Friends of the Middle East sent one to “congratulate you and your office” for protecting a work that “simply calls attention to one of the tragic facts of life which are now part of Jordan and other countries of the Arab World.” The National Organization of Arab Students described the decision as “an excellent example of fair and open-mindedness.”

As May came around, the situation escalated. First, New York’s City Council drafted a resolution that called “for the removal of the Controversial Mural in the Jordanian Pavilion.” Moses refused, denouncing it as a “repression of free speech.” Days later, the Anti-Defamation League petitioned the New York State Supreme Court to have the pavilion closed, without success. Then Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol canceled his upcoming visit to the fair, because of fears that it would trigger some form of protest. It didn’t work. Joachim Prinz — the rabbi, civil rights leader and president of the American Jewish Congress — sent Moses a telegram requesting permission to picket the Jordan Pavilion on May 25. Moses denied the request, citing the fair’s regulations forbidding any protests. Prinz responded with his intention to picket anyway and cited back article 16 of the fair’s bylaws, which stated that “the fair corporation will not permit the operation of a concession or exhibit which reflects discredit upon any nation or state.”

As it happens, May 25 is Jordan’s Independence Day. As festivities began at the Jordan Pavilion that morning, Prinz and a group from the American Jewish Congress marched across the park carrying signs they had smuggled in:

“Hate has no place at the fair,” “American Jewish Congress urges ‘peace through understanding’ Jordan incites war with bigotry,” “Mid-East waters can give life to all — Jordan — help make this possible.”

Before they could reach the pavilion, they were confronted by a team of security guards. After a brief scuffle, Prinz and the 11 other demonstrators were arrested for disorderly conduct. Their charges were later dropped by the Queens Criminal Court, which ruled that, because Flushing Meadows Park constituted a public space, picketing and other forms of protest were allowed.

On June 7, at around 10 a.m., workers were opening up the Jordan Pavilion for the day when one of them noticed that the Jordanian flag, which should have been flying in red, black, white and green over the shimmering domed roof, was gone. In its place was a different one, white and blue with letters that read “America Israel.” The worker called security, and the new flag was quickly taken down. Outraged, Bakarat sent a message to Poletti, calling the flag swap “an act of aggression which falls within the responsibility of the World’s Fair” and demanding more security. Poletti complied, and the security officer who patrolled the area that night was reprimanded. They then conducted a search for the original flag, even looked into all the surrounding trash cans, but found nothing. This disturbed Jordanian officials so much that Jordan’s U.N. ambassador, Abdul Monem Rifai, lodged a formal complaint against Israel.

On June 22, The World’s Fair Corporation board held a meeting to go over the first season of the fair. The subject of the mural was impossible to ignore, but Moses — as advised by the fair’s lawyer — ordered that it not be discussed because of ongoing lawsuits. Several board members strongly objected but, as they stood up and tried to voice their discontent, Moses drowned them out by pounding his gavel. The mural would stay up for the remainder of the fair.

Apparently, Moses’ show of defiance was fueled not by passion for protecting free speech, but rather by his stubbornness, a trait well documented in “The Power Broker,” Robert Caro’s landmark biography. In fact, according to the book, Moses didn’t really care about the fair. He just saw it as a way to complete Flushing Meadows Corona Park, the final project of his four-decade career as the city’s “master builder,” and which he hoped would bear his name. To help fund this, he omitted many of the restrictions or guidelines on pavilion design that were common at other world’s fairs, in order to justify charging countries high rents. This prevented several countries — like Israel — from participating, and for those who did pay up — like Jordan — Moses was willing to do anything not to lose their contract.

Poletti, however, did seem to care about the issue. Following Auchincloss’ initial trip in 1962, Poletti visited Jordan himself and would return several times. While there, he became friendly with officials, especially Ambassador Rifai. He also became fond of a dish called Jericho Pizza — a pie topped with lamb and onions — so much so that the Jordan Pavilion listed it on its menu as “Poletti Pizza.” Yet, most importantly, he witnessed things that — as described in an interview decades later — informed his decision on the mural: “I defended our policy that each country was entitled to put up whatever they wanted, and I also indicated that there was some merit to the fact that these Palestinian refugees had been in these camps for many years, because I’d visited some of the camps. … Whole generations have grown up in them.”

After the fair ended, Hussein awarded Moses and Poletti the Star of Jordan, the highest civilian honor. In the letter announcing the award, the Jordanian government stressed that the decision was “not on a quid-pro-quo basis.” Poletti wasn’t convinced, saying, “I am sure the only reason they gave it to us was because they felt that we showed courage in sticking to our guns and not obliging them to move out.” He said he displayed the star next to his war medals.

At the time, Poletti was likely unaware of the complex relationship between the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and the United States of America. Over the previous decade, the U.S. had replaced the U.K. as the main Western influence in the Middle East, and the king had become a crucial buffer between Israelis and other Arabs. As the State Department once put it: “Jordan is the key to the precarious stability which has been maintained in the Middle East. … Were something to happen to King Hussein, either the surrounding Arab countries, or Israel, or both, might move in militarily to fill the vacuum.” To avoid this, the U.S. regularly sent Jordan financial and military aid, upon which it had come to rely. So on his way to the fair in April 1964, Hussein first stopped by the White House to ask President Johnson for more. However, mindful of the amount of aid the U.S. had already sent Jordan, worth close to $500 million, Johnson denied the request.

If the king’s good mood during his visit to the fair was any indication, he wasn’t worried. After all, Johnson was the fourth U.S. president he had dealt with and he had a move up his sleeve that had worked many times in the past. After returning to Jordan, he announced that he was, once again, strongly considering a standing offer of military support from the USSR. A few months later, the U.S. sent him 250 M48 tanks.

In return, over the next couple of years, Jordan would send another column from the ancient city of Philadelphia to its American namesake, as well as a total of five column capitals to the Universities of Pennsylvania, Harvard and Princeton. Like the Column of Jerash, these were what the archaeologist Elizabeth Macaulay calls “archeological ambassadors.” The goal was to continue what the Jordan Pavilion at the world’s fair started: to promote archaeological research, increase tourism and, most important, solidify Jordan’s identity in the minds of the American public.

However, that mission would quickly come to a halt. Once Israel learned about the arms deal, it also requested tanks from the U.S., which the latter was forced to provide. Less than two years later, those weapons would be turned against each other in the 1967 Six-Day War, during which Israel would gain control of the West Bank. Sights portrayed in the Jordan Pavilion, such as the Dome of the Rock and the Qumran Caves, were now occupied by Israel. The ideological conflict on the fairgrounds in Queens had turned into a land war in the Middle East.

Unlike an artifact on display in a museum, you can walk up to the Column of Jerash, see its pink marbled stone up close and even feel its cold hard surface. A bird’s nest is tucked inside the grooves of its capital, and there’s a piece of charcoal left over from a cookout at its base. In this state, it’s easy to imagine that this monument has always been here, before the park or the city. Its age and weight exude a sense of permanence, of stability. But of course, it is all an illusion.

Sign up to our mailing list to receive our stories in your inbox.

Sign up to our newsletter

    Will be used in accordance with our Privacy Policy