MILAN, Italy – The line is long, but moves fast. Visitors wait patiently, most of them chatting in Italian, though a few tourists can also be heard. When they finally enter, Israeli actress Moran Atias greets them from a wide screen: “Benvenuti al Padiglione Israeliano” — Welcome to the Israeli pavilion, she says.
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The atmosphere is relaxed and the public is friendly at the Israeli pavilion inside Milan Expo 2015.
But a few kilometers away, the picture is very different — the Israeli flag was defaced last week, the fifth time it has been vandalized.
Israel is one of 130 countries participating in the international exposition hosted in Milan, in northern Italy, which runs from May 1 to October 31. Its pavilion, called “Fields of Tomorrow,” focuses on agricultural technology. It consists of a “vertical field,” where rice, corn and wheat are cultivated, displayed on the outside, and a guided tour inside, where a series of videos hosted by Atias illustrate Israel’s achievements in agricultural technology, such as the invention of drip irrigation and the development of cherry tomatoes.
The Expo site is outside of Milan, in the suburb of Rho. But the Israeli flag is on display, along with the ones of all the other participating countries, in the heart of the city. Since early 2012, when the major preparations for the international exposition began, the city organized a long-term exhibit in one of its most central and busy streets, Via Dante, to honor all the Expo participants, putting their 130 national flags on display.
Since that exhibit began three years ago, the Israeli flag has been repeatedly vandalized with red paint resembling blood. “To our knowledge, it has happened at least five times,” Riccardo Hofmann, founder of the “Friends of the Israeli Pavilion” group, told Haaretz. The first time was in January 2012. Each time, Milan authorities substituted the defaced flag with a new one. Most recently the Israeli flag was daubed with red paint again on July 2, but several days later the marred flag is still fluttering on Via Dante.
According to a local news report, there are no accounts of other vandalized national flags on the street. “How can one explain that with more than 100 flags, including those of brutal dictatorships, on display only the Israeli one is targeted? These acts of visceral anti-Zionism smell like anti-Semitism to me,” says Hofmann, who also volunteers at the pavilion. Overall, he notes, “visitors [to the pavilion] have been very friendly; I saw no hostility at all.”
Given the high security at the pavilion it is perhaps not surprising that no acts of vandalism have been reported inside.
A minor incident occurred in early June when the Palestinian Authority, which has a small low-cost pavilion, protested an aerial photograph of the Dead Sea, labelled “Israel” in the caption. “In truth the Dead Sea is in occupied Palestinian Territory,” the head of the Palestinian pavilion, Hani Gaber, told the Il Fatto newspaper. (In fact, the body of water extends to Jordan, the West Bank and parts of internationally recognized Israeli territory.) The Palestinians displayed the photo in their pavilion, covering the “Israel” caption with masking tape.