Disney caught in the Middle (East)

Many people are asking how a corporation as large, sophisticated and adept at marketing as Disney could get caught up in the international political struggle in the Middle East. Indeed it is remarkable that the public-relations department at this PR-conscious company could have walked blindly into this mess. But it's very easy to explain, as it illustrates the American tendency to disconnect the present and the past.

In putting together the Village of the Millennium that opens Oct. 1 at Epcot, Disney was seduced by two simple and unrelated facts. First, they agreed to allow a project heavily financed by the Israeli government to be set up on their property. The sum of $1.8 million is significant, and to the Disney people no doubt seemed no more than a sign of the degree of commitment to making this village a good one. This sum also seems to have been a key in the decision to make the Israeli exhibit the centerpiece of the village, a foolish decision at best.

Second, Disney, like so many Americans, operates without much reference to history, except to assume that the current state of affairs is normal, and therefore the status quo is self-justifying. In other words they are oblivious to history and its complexities and consequences. This is evident in Disney's press release, which states, "We are an entertainment company and do not take political positions."

They are operating on the assumption that what is now Jerusalem sitting inside the borders of Israel is the normal state of affairs. That assumption is made without political intent or meaning or judgment. What Disney can't seem to grasp, and what often is not understood in America, is that to accept the status quo is a political statement in and of itself.

An exhibit such as this one creates a public image that is then put on display for public consumption. Those who see it accept it as a statement of current reality. In this case, presenting Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, or even central to the Israeli state, is to present as normal a political reality that is not accepted by most of Israel's neighbors. It is a political statement even if made without political intent or out of ignorance.

And so Disney has walked into a hornet's nest of its own making. This past weekend's meetings between Disney and Arab leaders -- the first time Disney has ever tried to placate its critics -- seems not to have satisfied most of them, and there has been some talk of a boycott, even though Disney agreed to remove any direct reference to Jerusalem being the capital of the Israeli state. The only major figure in the Arab world who seems satisfied with Disney's small concession is Saudi Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Bin Abdulaziz. This would be more impressive if not for the fact that the prince is a major investor in EuroDisney.

The Israelis do not object to the removal of overt references to Jerusalem as the capital. They know that this will remain implicit in the exhibit. They also know that most Americans will see all of this controversy as the work of over-politicized Arab leaders picking on a nonpolitical entertainment giant.

But there is another smaller case -- and therefore one that will be largely ignored -- that could arise within this exhibit. Eritrea is one of several other countries Disney invited to participate in this village. The invitation seems to suggest that Eritrea is a wonderful example of a newly democratic state. If the Eritreans construct an exhibit that presents this or some similar version of the past or present of Eritrea, it will most certainly offend many Ethiopians.

This will create as much resentment among Ethiopians as the Israeli exhibit is creating among many Middle Eastern peoples. Again, from Disney's viewpoint, the company is simply acknowledging the existence of a new nation. Yet others will see an inaccurate and offensive political statement. The fact that all of this is a matter of interpretation of current and historical reality seems lost on the entertainment giant. Disney's intent will be irrelevant.

What perhaps is not well understood by Disney and other parties to the controversy is the importance of history. History is a weapon, be it for good or ill. The presentation of contemporary reality is more often than not an interpretation of history, a judgment on history, no matter the viewpoint expressed. This is true even when a viewpoint is not being overtly expressed.

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