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Israel’s pavilion at Shanghai Word Expo is a hit

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SHANGHAI — For the first time in its history, Israel has built its own pavilion at the World Expo, which is being held in Shanghai, China, until Oct. 31 this year.

Israel’s small building, close to the towering red Chinese pavilion, is shaped like a seashell. The exterior is half glass, half stone, with the two sides appearing to embrace each other.

Jackie Eldan, Israel’s consul general in Shanghai, said the design is meant to be a handshake, with the stone representing the past, Israel’s ancient and desert history, and the glass representing the bright, clear future.

“It is a dialogue between our being an ancient people, an innovative one also,” he said. “It’s a dialogue between our past and future.”

Eldan said the pavilion was especially designed and targeted to Chinese visitors, and the expo’s theme of “better city, better life.” He added that the pavilion is meant to promote Israeli-Chinese commerce, as well as promoting Israel to the general Chinese population.

The two-storey pavilion is made up of three main parts. The Whispering Garden is an outdoor orchard with speakers whispering in both English and Mandarin, and the Hall of Light is a light-filled hallway showcasing Israel’s landscape, history and achievements. The Hall of Light includes an original manuscript of the theory of relativity, written by Albert Einstein. The Hall of Innovations is a large auditorium featuring a short audiovisual presentation of Israel’s technological innovations, including computer processors and the PillCam, a tiny camera that’s ingested and allows doctors to examine a patient’s digestive tract.

Eldan said that since the expo opened   on May 1, the pavilion has welcomed about 3.5 million visitors, well above the two million expected. Most of the visitors have been Chinese. For the majority of them, the pavilion has been the first point of contact ever with Israelis or Jews, and so far, they’ve been impressed, he said.

“Einstein’s original notes have been a big hit,” Eldan added. “Many people are going crazy over them.”

The pavilion’s tour guides include local officials from Israel’s Shanghai consulate and Mandarin-speaking Israelis.

Dikla Negbi Fisher, an Israeli who studied Mandarin at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is one of the guides. She said Chinese tourists are fascinated by Israel, but their limited contact with Israel often means they’re just trying to learn the basics.

“Often they ask me – ‘are all Jews Israelis, or are all Israelis Jews,’” she said. “But they’re very interested in Israel and Jews. They want to know more.”

Eldan said while it’s difficult to measure Israel’s success at Expo 2010 Shanghai, one tool that will be used is simply to measure any increase in Israeli-Chinese trade in the coming years and try to determine whether the pavilion in Shanghai played a role. But no matter what the statistics eventually show, Eldan said the pavilion has already been a success.

“This project was very much attuned to Chinese eyes, and it has been a big hit. It’s our pride and joy.”

Israel spent about $6 million on the 2010 expo, including the cost of the pavilion and other related activities, according to the Israeli ministry of foreign affairs.

Robert Walker is a communications professional in Ottawa.

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