Architects protest Brown’s JNF patronship

A general view of Silwan neighborhood in East Jerusalem, July 2005. (Moti Milrod/MaanImages)

When Architects and Planners for Justice in Palestine (APJP) sent a letter to the new British Prime Minister Gordon Brown two weeks ago describing as “disturbing” his decision to become a patron of the Jewish National Fund (JNF), this was another example of the active campaigning of this international pressure group. The letter says: “Your becoming a patron of JNF-UK can be seen as a tacit acceptance of an unacceptable status quo, and also places you in the position of not being an unbiased mediator in the peace process.”

Among those signing the letter were the chairman of APJP the Jewish architect Abe Hayeem, APJP’s secretary the Palestinian architect Haifa Hammami, and a number of British and other architects. They include Israeli architect Eyal Weizman, director of the Centre for Research Architecture at Goldsmiths College, London University. He is author of the new book Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Oppression. Copies of the letter have been sent to the new Foreign Secretary David Miliband, and to the Minister for Africa, Asia and the UN Lord Mark Malloch Brown (former deputy secretary-general of the UN).

Its letter calls on Brown to withdraw his patronage of the JNF, and suggests he instead become patron of some of the non-governmental organizations that bring Israelis and Palestinians together, such as the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD).

Brown accepted to become a patron of JNF UK after its president Gail Seal wrote to him conveying her good wishes the day after he took office on 27 June. Brown said he that he was “delighted to accept your offer to become a patron of JNF UK.” A spokesman for Brown told the weekly London-based Jewish Chronicle newspaper Brown had agreed to become a patron of the JNF UK “in order to encourage their work to promote charitable projects for everyone in Israel.” But as the letter from APJP to Brown makes clear, the JNF benefits only Israeli Jews and not its Palestinian citizens.

The Jewish Chronicle report added that “Brown has long been known for his support of Israel.” He joins other JNF UK patrons including former Prime Minister Tony Blair, Conservative leader David Cameron and the chief rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks, who is a close personal friend of Brown.

The APJP letter to Brown said that his agreement to become a patron of the JNF comes at an “unfortunate time.” The Israeli Knesset on 18th July approved its preliminary reading of a “racist bill” that prohibits the sale of lands registered in the name of the JNF to Palestinian citizens of the state. This reverses the ruling in 2004 by the Israeli high court that it was illegal for the Israeli Lands Authority to refuse to sell or lease land to Palestinian citizens in Israel. The Israeli Attorney General held that this 2004 ruling also applied to the JNF.

The JNF controls 13 per cent of the land of the state, which allows for the establishment of Jewish-only towns. In its letter, APJP notes that the state of Israel transferred around 2 million dunams of land seized and confiscated from Palestinian “absentee” owners to the JNF in 1949 and 1953 via arbitrary laws. “The Knesset’s attempt to enact the JNF’s policy into law does not absolve Israel from its obligations under international law to refrain from legislating racist laws or including discriminatory bodies in official decision-making institutions.” The letter added: “This new bill, alongside the racist Citizenship Law that prevents the unification of Arab families in Israel, are primarily and directly targeted against the native inhabitants of the country … both possess the basic characteristics of colonial laws.”

The new communities being created in the Negev, funds for which are coming from JNF UK, are for Jewish immigrants only. Israeli architects and planners design the new settlements and towns being funded by the JNF and JNF UK, and will be “designing these new towns and housing areas in the Negev and Galilee, which include the ethnic cleansing of Bedouin ‘unrecognized villages.’”

The letter asks Brown to “use the UK’s position as a key member of the EU in the Quartet to hold Israel to account in its activities that perpetuate not only the Occupation, but treats a large minority of its citizens in a way that no truly democratic state would accept.”

In a separate development, on 16 August the London-based Financial Times newspaper published a letter from the APJP chairman Abe Hayeem regarding an article it had published on the famous Israeli architect Moshe Safdie.

The article said that Safdie had picked his architectural commissions carefully, refusing to design any structure in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories, but that he had unwittingly been drawn in to a national controversy with political overtones about the future of Jerusalem. Safdie told the Financial Times that a combination of right-wingers, who lay claim to the greater land of Israel, and green activists had thwarted his blueprint to expand Jerusalem away from Palestinian areas and deeper into Israel in the west where, he said, the city’s future lies.

This “Safdie Plan” for Jerusalem was cancelled earlier this year “as Israelis grapple with whether and when they will divide the land, including Jerusalem, with the Palestinians,” the article said. It mentioned that Safdie is on the record as opposing British architects’ moves “to impose a boycott on Israel.”

However, Abe Hayeem said in his letter to the Financial Times that APJP has not called for the imposition of a boycott on Israel. He explained: “We oppose the illegal construction of settlements and infrastructure that contravenes professional codes of conduct and international law, and are challenging the complicity of Israeli architects and planners in occupation and oppression.”

Hayeem said the article on Safdie had failed to point out “some interesting contradictions regarding this self-described ‘left of centre’ architect.” Safdie had told the Financial Times that he “laments” the separation wall and the damage being caused to villages and communities, but he had failed to mention the other “Safdie master plan” — in the al-Bustan neighborhood of Silwan, an illegally-annexed Palestinian village near Jerusalem’s Old City.

This plan is part of a project to re-create the mythical “City of David,” funded by a fundamentalist settler group called El Ad, which has been buying and expropriating houses in Palestinian neighborhoods for many years. The project involves demolishing 88 houses, making over 1,000 Palestinians homeless. The European Union has condemned the project as contravening the spirit and letter of the “road map.” If carried out, the project will add another obstacle to creating a “viable” Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital.

Hayeem also noted that Safdie’s residential and commercial project in the Mamilla quarter, near the Old City of Jerusalem, was built on no-man’s land, but this land was unilaterally annexed. Palestinian Jerusalemites would not be able to make free use of the commercial and tourist sectors. The Safdie plan for West Jerusalem, which was opposed by environmentalists, would have expanded housing only for Jewish Israelis in order to boost the Jewish population at the expense of the Palestinians, who are being squeezed out even in their own areas of East Jerusalem.

APJP is a relatively young organization, having been set up in February 2006, but in the year and a half of its existence it has made a major impact with its campaigns. It aroused a great deal of controversy in May when a petition it organized was published as a half-page advertisement in the London-based Times newspaper. The petition was signed by more than 260 architects, planners and others from around the world, including some of Britain’s most famous architects and a number of Israeli architects and human rights activists. The petition said that the actions of Israeli architects and planners working in conjunction with Israel’s policies building of illegal settlements on Palestinian territory are “unethical and contravene professional codes of conduct and International Union of Architects (UIA) codes.”

The petition condemned “three typical projects that make Israeli architects, planners and design and construction professionals complicit in social, political and economic oppression, in violation of their professional ethics.” The three projects are the E1 plan to expand the largest illegal settlement Ma’ale Adumim to link it with metropolitan Jerusalem, the project in Silwan and the development of the destroyed village of Lifta.

The petition said it is time to challenge the Israeli Association of United Architects (IAUA) and the Israeli government to end such projects, and insisted that the IAUA should adhere to UIA codes. It called on the IAUA “to declare their opposition to the inhuman Occupation, and to end the participation of their members and fellow professionals in creating facts on the ground with a demographic intent that excludes and oppresses Palestinians.”

Those signing the petition included the president of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) Jack Pringle as well as three former RIBA presidents, and president-elect Sunand Prasad. Moshe Safdie heavily criticized Pringle for signing, and told the weekly British magazine Building Design that he was disgusted that British architects had singled out Israel when regimes across the world carry out “the most terrible atrocities.”

The lobbying group, British Architect Friends of Israel, and the Simon Wiesenthal Center, wrote jointly to the Paris-based UIA — the worldwide umbrella of 102 national organizations and 1.3 million architects — and called on it to suspend the membership of RIBA unless RIBA dissociates itself from the APJP petition. The letter alleged that with its “anti-Israeli focus” the campaign violated EU clauses and definitions on national discrimination and anti-Semitism.

Jack Pringle rejected any charge of anti-Semitism as “very offensive to me and quite absurd as a glance at the petition with its many Jewish co-signatories will show. Indeed, many Jewish agencies support the petition, and its main promoter is Jewish himself.”

Susannah Tarbush is a London-based British freelance journalist and consultant.

This article was originally published in Arabic in Al-Hayat on 25 August 2007.

Related Links