Jewish protesters to picket 'holy land' rival to Disney theme park

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The Independent US

Peace and goodwill may be replaced by tribulation and anger when the gates swing open for the first time at Orlando's newest theme park this morning. Called the "Holy Land Experience", this latest themed attraction is drawing as much criticism as it is praise.

Peace and goodwill may be replaced by tribulation and anger when the gates swing open for the first time at Orlando's newest theme park this morning. Called the "Holy Land Experience", this latest themed attraction is drawing as much criticism as it is praise.

Built on 15 acres adjacent to Universal Studios, the ersatz Holy Land is meant to offer tourists an edifying alternative to the rides, thrills and spills of all the other parks in the area. They will find the ancient streets of Jerusalem, with camel prints in the cement, as well as markets, strolling Middle Eastern minstrels and cafés offering Goliath Burgers.

Described in the blurb as a "living biblical museum", the $16m (£10m) park is meant to transport anyone who enters it through the pages of both the Old and New Testaments from 1450BC to AD66. They will see a creation of the Qumran Caves, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were hidden, as well as Calvary's Garden Tomb.

Parents who flinch from exposing their offspring to Mickey Mouse and Buzz Lightyear will now be able to steer them into a kind of living Sunday school class instead. Close your ears to the traffic on the passing Florida interstate and you may just be able to imagine you and your family treading the Via Dolorosa. That, at least, is the idea.

But the park has seriously irked local Jewish leaders, who believe it distorts and trivialises the religious teachings. They also argue that it is a not-so-subtle attempt by its owner, Marvin Rosenthal, to convert Jews to Christianity. Their suspicions are fed by the fact that Mr Rosenthal, now a Baptist minister, is such a convert.

The park is braced for protests by local Jews this morning when it opens to visitors; extra security guards have been hired. The only dilemma for Jewish leaders in Florida is whether demonstrating against the park will discourage tourists or have the opposite effect by giving it free publicity.

The mixing of Jewish and Christian themes is what has upset the Jewish community. An audio-visual exhibit, for example, called "The Wilderness Tabernacle", describes the wanderings of Israelites in the desert with prayers recited in Hebrew. It concludes with an image of Jesus and Mary.

"Their philosophy is that you can be Christian and Jewish at the same time," said Rabbi Steven Engel of the Congregation of Liberal Judaism. "Obviously that's offensive to Jews."

Mr Rosenthal, who has to pay off a $3m (£2m) mortgage on the property by selling tickets at $17 each, is a little irritated. He said Jewish leaders were even preparing to bring in protesters from beyond Orlando to disrupt the opening.

"We have no problem if they picket legally and appropriately," he said. "The local Jewish community is saying, 'We're not going to dirty our hands; do this'. I'm saying we're holding the local Jewish community accountable. It perturbs me that the Jewish people - my grandparents were among them - were being persecuted ... so they came to America for religious freedom.

"Now these people who came here for religious freedom are going to start persecuting others? Will the victim become the persecutor?"

If the tranquillity and charity are missing in Florida's new Jerusalem, perhaps nobody should be surprised. What evocation of a world religion would be complete without a dose of human strife?

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