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By RHONDA SPIVAK, March 2, 2015




[Editor's note: Since Iran becoming a nuclear state is  is assessed as Israel's biggest security challenge for 2015, I thought I would reprint this piece I wrote in September 28, 2007,  first published in the Vancouver Jewish Independent: ]


A United Nations-sponsored art exhibit of "Buddy Bears," promoting tolerance between nations, was on display throughout the month of August in Jerusalem. Quite a stir was created when it turned out that the bear representing Israel was sandwiched between the bears from Iran and Iraq.

"This appears to be a cruel joke," said Shimon, a modern Orthodox Jerusalemite who was visiting the exhibit in the city's Safra Square with his children. "Leave it to the United Nations to place the Israel bear next to Iran, at a time when the Iranian president has been vowing to wipe the state of Israel off the map."

The UN Buddy Bear exhibit featured 138 identical, life-sized fibreglass bears submitted by countries around the world, each decorated by a different artist in the style of their own country. The arms of each bear were held upward to emphasize a chain of harmony and understanding between nations and cultures. The motto of the exhibit was "We have to get to know each other better," and the signage referred to the Buddy Bears as "standing together peacefully, hand in hand."

"The last thing our country needs is a bear hug from Iran," said 17-year-old Israeli Michael Schneider.

"This exhibit of the Iran and Israel bears is unbelievable. Since Hamas, Iran's proxy, took over the Gaza Strip in June [of this year], Iran has been far too close for comfort," said Shira, an Israeli in her early 20s who was at the exhibit, with her two friends. 

Indeed, as many in Israel fear that the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority may ultimately lose control of the West Bank to Hamas, the notion of Iran at their front door is all too real.

As for the placement of the Iraq bear next to that of Israel, it, too, had an impact on Israeli viewers. "There is a real fear in Israel that if the United States exits Iraq hastily without a stable government being in place, this will undermine regional stability and leave extremists with the upper hand," said Dan Adama, who viewed the exhibit with his children.

A group of teenagers gathered around to look at the artwork on the Israel bear. No one in the crowd appeared to be very enthusiastic about it. "Look, there is a heart with red drops that look like blood. I guess if you place us between Iran and Iraq, it's no wonder we're bleeding," said Shifra Cohen, as she stood to ponder the bear up close.

The drops of red paint reminded some of those who fell defending the state a year earlier in the Second Lebanon War. With the outbreak of another war on everyone's mind, the drops of blood on the Israel bear didn't leave the viewers with a very comfortable feeling.

The Buddy Bears in the exhibit were arranged according to the alphabetical order of the country they represented. The idea for the exhibit originated in 2002 with the inventors of Buddy Bears, Eva and Klaus Herlitz of Germany. Since then, Buddy Bears have been exhibited in Berlin, Hong Kong, Istanbul, Toyko, Seoul, Sydney, Vienna and Cairo. The bears will be sold by charitable auction for UNICEF and other organizations to help needy children.

After seeing the location of Israel's bear in the exhibit, others in the crowd of Israelis looked around to search for the whereabouts of the American bear. Israelis, after all, hope that they won't be left alone to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power. However, the American bear, decorated as the Statue of Liberty, was at the very opposite end of Safra Square, standing next to the bear from the United Kingdom.

The Palestinian Authority bear also didn't escape notice, with its head covered by the traditional Arab headdress. "If this is the Fatah bear, where's the Hamas bear trying to topple it over?" muttered a dark-haired, middle-aged Israeli as he passed by with a friend. "I'd like to see them try and exhibit this bear in Gaza," his friend laughed.

Syria and Lebanon had also sent Buddy Bears to Jerusalem, and some ultra-Orthodox Jewish fathers were letting their children hide between the legs of the bears. Avi Ben-Zion stared at the Syrian bear, and said to his friend, "Do you really think that the Israel bear could be exhibited in Damascus?"

In her greetings to the opening of the exhibit, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni stated, "Jerusalem is the most appropriate place for hosting this exhibition. Jerusalem, the city from which the ancient prophets called for global unity and co-existence, today serves as a centre for the nations of the world, while blending diverse religions and cultures ... we await the time when all nations will come together and work as one for the better[ment] of mankind."

Yet, notwithstanding these lofty sentiments, one couldn't help but notice the number of security guards that were patrolling the exhibit. Jaffa Road, the street on which Safra Square is located, has been the site of numerous terrorist bombings in the last decade.

In fact, during the exhibit one day, at noon, the square was suddenly cleared when security guards noticed a suspicious green knapsack that had been left unattended near the legs of one of the bears. It was a false alarm. The knapsack turned out to belong to a child who had forgotten it while eagerly exploring the colorful exhibit. 

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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

Opinions expressed in letters to the editor or articles by contributing writers are not necessarily endorsed by Winnipeg Jewish Review.