Photo Credit: Saul Jay Singer

On December 28, 1929, the French Chamber of Deputies passed a resolution calling for a 1936 Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne (International Exposition of Art and Technology in Modern Life), which was ultimately delayed until 1937). Faced with the uncomfortable truth that France was no longer among the world’s leaders in the political and economic realms, the French government determined that it could nonetheless show the world that Paris was still an international leader in culture and taste.

However, in the bitterly contested French election of 1936, the Communists/Socialists, who won markedly increased representation in the legislature, shifted the emphasis of the planned Exposition from the decorative arts to socialist issues, including economic recovery, the struggle against unemployment, and runaway currency inflation. The 1937 Exposition thus became the first time in history that a World’s Fair was initiated for the specific purpose of stimulating a national economy and relieving unemployment.


Even with the socialists shifting emphasis away from the decorative arts, organizers nevertheless made the arts an active part of the Exposition, albeit in the context of the struggle against unemployment. Buyers (and therefore producers) of art had declined dramatically during the Great Depression, so Exposition planners turned it into a “make-work” program funded by the French government, employing over 2,000 artists and commissioning over 7,500 murals to adorn the pavilions. Opening in this politically volatile atmosphere, the Exhibition was described by Jewish French Prime Minister Leon Blum as “the last hope for peace in Europe.”

The Exposition – aka “the 1937 World’s Fair” – proved to be a major international event that was attended by over 31 million people during the half year from May 24 to November 25. Not only could visitors see the newest fashions; see new inventions, such as television; learn about the newest advances in technology, including refrigeration and plastics; and attend a plethora of national and cultural pavilions, they could also experience roller coasters and a variety of new and thrilling rides. Although the Nazis refused to issue transit visas to Jews traveling to the Exposition from Eastern Europe, an estimated 12,000 to 15,000 Jews from these countries came to Paris, with many remaining in France illegally.



By the end of the 19th century, political Zionism had turned to emphasizing the rural colonization of Eretz Yisrael by the “New Jew,” a self-sufficient farmer living off the land. (Ironically, this highly touted “New Jew” was actually a return to the “Old Jew” and the economics of ancient Israel, which was always primarily an agrarian society.) Conceived as part of an orchestrated effort to use the World Fair to gain support for political Zionism, the “Israel in Palestine” pavilion – which, ironically, stood a few steps from the Nazi Germany pavilion, designed by Albert Speer, a leading Nazi architect – was established by the Yishuv to present the Jewish settlements as the renaissance of nationhood, both modern and historically rooted.

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The overall theme of the Pavilion was the Zionist movement’s cooperative rural settlements, particularly the kibbutzim and the moshavot, and its purpose was to chronicle and disseminate information internationally about the success of these settlements in Eretz Yisrael. Moreover, coming as it did in the days immediately preceding the Holocaust – the Exhibition itself was later characterized as “the final European enactment of the ritual of peace and progress before the deluge” – the model of the Jewish farmer working his own land took on increased importance in presenting such Jews as the solution to the “Jewish Question” and as the answer to the rising persecution of the Jews of Europe. The theme of the Pavilion was perhaps best expressed by the Herzl quote that encircled Rothschild Hall, the central hall of the Pavilion: “When the plough will be in the grip of the Jewish farmer, we will hold the solution for the Jewish question.”


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In proclaiming the social, cultural, and intellectual vitality of Jewish life in the Yishuv, the Israel Pavilion also confronted Nazi efforts to dehumanize Jews. It was joined in this mission by the Pavilion of Modern Jewish Culture, a second but smaller pavilion at the Exposition formed by Yiddish-speaking leftists, which also challenged Nazi antisemitism – albeit through the celebration of the important contributions that the Yiddish Diaspora had made, and was continuing to make, to European cultural life rather than arguing for the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz Yisrael.

Some commentators point out the existence of two separate Jewish pavilions at the Exposition as a manifestation of the disunity amongst the Jewish people, with the leftists-Bundists characterizing Jews as a diasporan people amongst the nations (but an extraordinary one making contributions to the betterment of society disproportionate to its numbers), and the and Zionist-nationalist Jews emphasizing the idea of the Jewish people establishing a state of their own in their own land.

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The Palestine Pavilion was formally opened on May 30, 1937, with ceremonies in which French and British government officials and Jewish leaders participated. It was officially launched by Nahum Goldman, as a representative of the World Zionist Organization, and Chaim Weizmann, as president of the Jewish Agency, who declared that the Jewish national home feared neither “enquiries nor White Papers” and that its future depended “only on our energy.”


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The Pavilion building, which was designed by two young and unknown architects, Tamir and Grinshpon, was a hybrid of traditional architecture and modernist oriental fantasy with its front constructed from concrete and glass and its rear modeled on the classic architecture of Eretz Yisrael, with arches and terraces. The frieze encircling the main pavilion hall portrayed scenes of rural life in Eretz Yisrael and the birth of a new society of farmers and manual laborers; the Pavilion encircled an inner courtyard, surrounded by the exhibition’s wings; the rear of its entrance was decorated with a mural portraying Jewish farmers picking oranges; and the rear wings featured a pierced dome, pointed arches, pergolas, and a palm tree.

The Land of Israel exhibition inside the building was designed by the Russian-born Arieh El-Hanani (nee Sapozhnikov, 1898-1985). After completing a course in architecture at the Kiev School of Art (1913-1917), he joined a group of Kharkov artists, designed revolutionary propaganda posters, and participated in a Jewish anthropological expedition into the Pale of Settlement that wielded significant influence on Russian-Jewish avant-garde art. After making aliyah and settling in Jerusalem (1922), he designed avant-garde sets and costumes for various plays, including particularly designing the set for the first production of the Ohel Workers’ Theatre, which was dedicated to the stories of Isaac Leib Peretz.

When Mayor Meir Dizengoff first proposed hosting a “Levant Fair” in Tel Aviv, the mayor of Jaffa advised him that it would happen “when camels fly.” Accordingly, El-Hanani designed a “Flying Camel” as a logo for the Levant Fairs.

In 1934, El-Hanani designed and managed the site of the Levant Fair in Tel Aviv, in which capacity he was responsible for the Fair’s symbol, the “Flying Camel,” and a 26-foot-high sculpture known as Hapoel Ha-Ivri (“The Hebrew Worker,” 1934), located in Palmer Square in Tel Aviv. He later planned and designed several notable Israeli buildings and structures, including the Great Synagogue of Tel Aviv, the Tel Aviv Convention Center, the Hall of Remembrance at Yad Vashem, and several iconic buildings at the Weizmann Institute of Science. He also designed the logos of the Palmach and the Israel Defense Forces and designed the Jewish Palestine Pavilion at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. He was awarded the prestigious Israel Prize (1973) in architecture for his “contribution to shaping Israeli culture.”

In designing the Paris Pavilion exhibition, El-Hanani emphasized the role of the Jewish farmer by exhibiting life-size cutouts of photographs depicting Jews engaged in manual labor, driving tractors and cultivating the land. Inside the building, exhibits depicted the arrival of Jews fleeing the Nazis, the benefits of aliyah, and Zionist rural and industrial achievements, including Jewish settlements, the port of Haifa, and the city of Tel Aviv. The Pavilion featured four sections: the first, which was named for Lord Arthur James Balfour, the author of the famous 1917 Balfour Declaration, contained documents on the political/social structure of the Jewish homeland in Eretz Yisrael; the second related to economic development in the Yishuv; the third focused on agriculture and industry in the settlements; and the fourth, which was dedicated to intellectual life, technical research, and Jewish culture, featured the likes of Baron Rothschild, Chaim Nachman Bialik. I.L. Peretz, and Sholem Aleichem. (Interestingly, a portrait of Aleichem also appeared at the Soviet Union pavilion, where it hung next to a portrait of Maxim Gorky.)

Exhibitions in the halls were set in the form of panoramas in recesses that displayed different aspects of Jewish farming that ended with an image of a Jewish village in Eretz Yisrael and a depiction of a Jewish farmer telling his sons and grandsons the story of three generations of Jewish farming. Among the features of the Pavilion was a reproduction of a Jewish colonist’s home filled with mementos of the colony’s history in Eretz Yisrael since 1920. These attempts by the Zionist movement to spread the message of the New Jew proved very successful, as the theme was picked up by various media. For example, Davar, a leading Hebrew newspaper, noted that “The pictures and photographs are showing the revolution that has occurred among the Jews: the Jew became a farmer.” A special issue of Ha’aretz, published especially for the Exhibition, printed in both Hebrew and French, commented:

Every exhibition [in the Palestine Pavilion] means propaganda: for the fruit of the field, for the product of the anvil, for the achievement of science and technique, for the conquests of culture and art . . . The message of the land that is being built must be brought to these places of assembly, the propaganda to our building and our war, the fruits of our labor, our conquests and our tendencies . . . The main theme of the pavilion is Palestine in its dynamism, the new man who creates a new land, and the land that renews Its youth to the person who comes to cultivate it.

The Pavilion was also featured in a lengthy article in the June 1937 edition of L’Univers Israélite, a French Jewish magazine, which featured a photograph of it on the front page with a quote from Paul Bastid, the French minister of commerce, who praised the creativity of the Yishuv, commenting that “France does not ignore your magnificence in spirit, but your greatness in relation to human destiny is to live and create.” The Pavilion was also celebrated by La Terre Retrouvée, a French Zionist magazine that issued a special illustrated catalog about the Pavilion, and by the French magazine La Construction Moderne, which reported:

The Pavilion of the Land of Israel at the Arts and Technology Exhibition gave a rather impressive idea of the development of Palestine. Thirty years later, the Jewish people returned to their land. It seems that the experiment was successful, according to the statistics and photomontages that cover the walls of the pavilion in accordance with the 1937 fashion.

In some reports, Exposition administrators went so far as to note the Palestine Pavilion and the importance of Jewish involvement in the World’s Fair, and the Pavilion won several awards. Important contributions to the Pavilion were made by various artists and craftsmen, including Felix (Ephim) Roitman (1902 – 1942), who was awarded a medal of honor at the International Exhibition for his work on the Pavilion. After graduating high school, Roitman enrolled in the School of Fine Arts in Berlin before arriving in Paris, where he found great success selling his paintings on plates, vases, lamps, and mirrors; was very involved in Jewish social life; and supported Bessarabian Jewish workers and culture in Paris. He volunteered to serve in the army during WWII and, after joining a Resistance network, he was arrested, imprisoned in a succession of prisons, and was murdered by the Nazis in Auschwitz on September 14, 1942.

Although the Pavilion drew broad and favorable media coverage and won awards, it ultimately failed in its greater purpose: to sell the nations of the world on the idea that Jewish resettlement of Eretz Yisrael was both a solution to the Jewish Question and in the interests of the international community. Only a year after the Exposition, the idea of resettling Jews in Eretz Yisrael was discussed and rejected at the Evian conference, and then the Holocaust and World War II essentially ended all discussions about facilitating the migration of the Jews of Europe to become farmers in Eretz Yisrael. However, the seeds had nonetheless been sown for the image of the Jewish farmer in the Yishuv, which later became an important element of Jewish nationhood when Israel won its independence in 1948.

Finally, for some inexplicable reason, Paris is often ignored in contemporary discussions regarding the leading Yiddish-speaking Jewish communities between the world wars when, in fact, the city was an important center of Yiddish culture. During the late 1930s, many Jews fleeing Nazi Germany, Poland, and Hungary escaped to France, and, by 1937, some 150,000 Yiddish-speaking Eastern European Jews had settled there, including particularly in the City of Light, which became an important center of global Yiddish culture.

As such, when it was announced that the Exposition would be held in Paris, it was not only the Zionist movement that saw a golden opportunity to generate support for the Jewish settlement in Eretz Yisrael on the world stage. According to many commentators, the opening of the Modern Jewish Culture Pavilion (not all the pavilions were completed in time for the opening of the Exposition in May), the first-ever pavilion at a World’s Fair dedicated to modern Jewish culture, and the establishment of the First International Yiddish Culture Congress at the Exposition, turned Paris into one of the primary centers for the transmission of Yiddish Jewish culture and played a leading role as a catalyst for the creation of a unified cultural front against the Nazis and fascism. Materials on exhibit at the Yiddish Culture Center included sections on Jewish emigration, Arts, Sciences, the Jewish press, and much more.

Although the Yiddish Culture Pavilion was generally welcomed by the Jewish and Zionist press, some papers, including particularly La Tribune Juive, a Zionist weekly magazine published in Strasbourg, emphasized that the pavilion was not a pavilion of Jewish culture but rather of Yiddish culture, and it was offended by any allegation that it represented modern Jewish culture because it blurred the Jewish faith, Zionism, and Hebrew-language culture:

The Jewish culture section that opened last Saturday at the International Pavilion . . . is quite special: it represents the modern Yiddish movement that is trying with great skill to elevate . . . Yiddish to the rank of a civilized language . . . We are not too surprised to learn that between eleven and seventeen million Jews in the world speak Yiddish. The presentations on the secular Jewish schools in Poland are also very interesting because Western Europeans rarely have the occasion to learn of these initiatives. This exhibition would be perfect if it were made under the name of modern Yiddish culture because it does not show modern Jewish culture. Religion and Hebrew cannot be moved from modern Jewish culture, if one is trying to maintain the appearance of objectivity.

At the end of the day, the Palestine Pavilion was successful in demonstrating that Jewish development in Eretz Yisrael could serve as a homeland for the Jewish people; in communicating and broadly disseminating the idea of Zionist settlements in Eretz Yisrael being rooted in history while also being a part of the modern world with a vision for the future; and in broadly disseminating the concept of fierce Jewish farmers working their land as the answer to Jewish persecution and a solution to antisemitism.

El-Hanani Plaza

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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at at [email protected].