In its first decade of existence, Israel, seeking to promote itself as a modern state ready to take its place in the community of nations, devoted significant effort and resources in participating in exhibitions all over the world. So perhaps the decision to host a World’s Fair in Israel in 1953, called Kibbush HaShmama (or the “Conquest of the Desert Exhibition and Fair), should not have come as much of a surprise.
The first international fair held in Israel, it was under the auspices of the United Nations and was the first such event approved as a “special exhibition” by the International Bureau of Exhibitions in Paris.
The fundamental Zionist pioneering narrative had always characterized the nation-building process as an unrelenting and challenging struggle against the forces of nature, and indeed one of the young state’s most notable accomplishments was turning non-arable wastelands into a Jewish homeland.
In the final months of his life, President Chaim Weizmann concluded that this was the most promising area in which scientific resources could be used to facilitate Israel’s economic progress and political stability. At Weizmann’s initiative, a symposium of eminent scientists from all over the world convened in May 1952 to consider problems inherent in the cultivation and settlement of arid lands.
That initiative led to the Conquest of the Desert Exhibition and Fair, which was dedicated to the themes of reclamation and population of desert areas and celebrated the achievement of Zionist settlements using advanced technological knowledge and prowess to “make the desert bloom.”
As Abba Eban, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, explained in a speech on the exhibition he delivered to the Export Managers Club of New York:
It is altogether fitting that the nations should dramatize the world’s land and hunger problem in Israel, that they should assemble their solutions at an exhibition site in new Jerusalem. Israel is classic ground of land reclamation, something new under the sun in the modern world, a living example of material and spiritual rehabilitation….
Jerusalem will be the scene of an exhibition which will both illustrate the performance of many countries in the conquest of the desert, the fight against soil erosion, the maintenance of the most priceless and fundamental asset which the human being has upon the surface of the globe, the fertility of its soil. Jerusalem will also be the scene of a great resurgence of cultural and artistic activities, which will be fitting to the City of David in the 3,000th anniversary of its establishment.
Israel’s own achievements in the fight against the encroachments of the wilderness have already been an inspiration to many countries. If and when the time comes that the political animosities in our region fall away, as they will and must, we believe that all the countries of the Near East will see the utmost significance in what Israel has done to push the areas of cultivation and of progressive industrial life ever further into the wilderness. This achievement must have significance transcending the frontiers of Israel….
As Eban touched on in his address, the exhibition represented one of Israel’s first attempts to test the mindset of the international community regarding Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and Israel subsequently viewed the exhibition as a great success in part because it served to strengthen Jerusalem’s status as Israel’s capital.
The exhibition was held in the Binyanei Ha’uma building, Israel’s convention center (then roofed but unfinished) in Jerusalem from September 22-October 14. It was a monumental project, with some 500 private firms, public and semi-public institutions from 23 nations, and intergovernmental bodies investing millions of dollars in booths, pavilions, and exhibits.
Three scientific conferences were held concurrently with the fair. Noted American conductor Serge Koussevitzky directed the 1953 International Festival of Music, which took place at the exhibition.
Displayed here from my collection are several important documents compiled by one of the organizers of the Israeli Pavilion at the exhibition.
Shown as Exhibit 1 is a special invitation to the opening of the Kibbush HaShmama Exhibition:
The president of the state will open the International Exhibition and Fair, “The Conquest of the Desert,” at the Binyanei Ha’uma building in Jerusalem on 13 Tishrei (September 22, 1953) at 5:30 p.m.
(Inform regarding your participation in this ceremonial opening by September 1 – special seating tickets will be sent to your home. Please complete the coupon attached hereto and send it to the exhibition administration.)
Exhibit 2 is an admission ticket to the opening ceremony. Along with the ticket I’ve displayed the stamp issued by the Israeli Postal Authority on September 22, 1953 to commemorate the exhibition. The stamp features the striking official symbol of the exhibition, two hands planting a flower in the desert sand, and alludes to the beautiful verse from Isaiah 35:1: “The desert shall rejoice and bloom as the rose.”
Exhibit 3 is the title page of the Conquest of the Desert Exhibition catalogue (which, unfortunately, has been damp stained) signed by 20 of the exhibition organizers, including then-Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett (upper left); former high commissioner of Palestine Sir Herbert Samuel (with date); and director of the European Office Edwin Samuel.
The Exhibition and Fair was officially opened by President Yitzhak Ben-Zvi and acting premier Moshe Sharett; when it closed 22 days later it had been visited by more than 600,000 people.
The Soviet Union was conspicuous in its absence. British Embassy officials attended the opening and the exhibition with the rationalization that the exhibition was operating under the authority of the UN and had not “officially” been arranged by the Israel government – which of course was sheer nonsense.
Though the United States participated, Israeli officials were furious when the U.S. announced it would boycott the opening ceremony. Pursuant to U.S. policy, personnel at the American embassy in Tel Aviv were prohibited from transacting official business in Jerusalem with the Israeli Foreign Ministry or to attend official functions there. The State Department announced that its boycott was in protest of Israel’s transfer of its Foreign Ministry in July from the Kirya in Tel Aviv to the government compound in Jerusalem.
Not surprisingly, although Arab countries arguably stood to gain the most from participating in Israel’s World’s Fair, no Arab representative participated. In this context, it is ironic to note a comment by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in a speech to the Egyptian parliament more than half a century later, in which he referred to desert colonization as a necessity and as Egypt’s “destiny”:
The conquest of the desert is no longer a slogan or dream but a necessity created by spiraling population growth. What is required is not a token exodus into the desert but a complete reconsideration of the distribution of population throughout the country.