Building an edifice on blackmail

Aerial view of Richard Rogers’ Millenium Dome, London, United Kingdom. (The GeoInformation Group)


Richard Rogers, the noted British architect, was recently summoned to the offices of the Empire State Development Corp. to explain his connection to a group called Architects and Planners for Justice in Palestine. Empire State is overseeing the redesign of New York’s $1.7-billion Javits Convention Center, and Rogers is the architect on the job.

According to media reports, Rogers has sparked the anger of various New York politicians and Jewish organizations for what he now claims was only a fleeting association with Architects and Planners for Justice in Palestine. The group has taken the “outrageous” position that Israel’s West Bank barrier (sometimes referred to euphemistically as a “security fence”) is, well, problematic — because most of it is built not on Israel’s 1967 border but within the West Bank; because it violates international law; because it separates farmers from their land, one town from another, people from their doctors, children from their schools; and because it generally wreaks havoc on Palestinian life.

Members of the group have proposed a boycott of Israeli architects and construction companies working on the barrier, saying their involvement in such a project makes them “complicit in social, political and economic oppression” and is “in violation of their professional code of ethics.”

Apparently anyone associated with such a position — in other words, anyone taking a principled stand in favor of human rights and international law — may have to count himself out of a contract for the Javits Center.

This is only the most recent example of Israel’s American defenders — who will not tolerate any criticism of Israel — using their political clout to punish or silence dissident voices. Last month, the New York premiere of a play based on the words of Rachel Corrie, a young American who was crushed by an Israeli Army bulldozer while protesting the demolition of a Palestinian home, was indefinitely postponed for fear that some might find her words “offensive.”

Naturally, Rogers has been desperately trying to distance himself from anything that might stand in the way of his retaining the Javits project, including severing his ties with the group and stating that he does not back a boycott.

Israel’s barrier is fine, Rogers now says. In fact, he’s now in favor of it. Further, “Hamas must renounce terrorism,” he told the New York Post. “Hamas must recognize Israel’s right to exist. Just making a statement is not enough. They have to back it up.”

Alas for Rogers, such effusion may not be enough to save his contract.

“His position on Hamas is not relevant,” said Malcolm Hoenlein of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations. “The relevant issue is a group that is convened for the purpose of activities detrimental to a democratic state…. [The Javits Center] carries the name of someone whose legacy is exactly contrary to such views. It certainly would be offensive to his legacy, and it would be an offense to the people of New York, who reject what that group stands for.”

What that means, presumably, is that Sen. Jacob Javits and the people of New York do not stand for justice, peace, humanity and the law but injustice, war, inhumanity and illegality — for what else could “exactly contrary” signify?

Unless brave New Yorkers — including members of the organizations in whose name this position is being taken — stand up and refute it, this is how the record will remain.

Yet all I hear, unfortunately, is deafening silence. Or maybe what I hear is what Wordsworth once called “the still sad music of humanity.”

Update: It was reported in The Guardian on 10 March that New York politicians and Jewish leaders have given their approval for Rogers to retain the Javits project. That did not prevent Rogers from making a few final gratuitous genuflections: “There were misunderstandings on both sides - certainly there were misunderstandings on my side,” he said. Of Israel, he said: “I have always been a strong believer in that state … I do believe there’s a great future for Israel, and I’m a friend of that country.”

Saree Makdisi is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at UCLA and author of the weblog Speaking Truth to Power. This article, which first appeared in The Los Angeles Times, is reproduced with permission.

Related Links

  • BY TOPIC: Aid, Boycotts, & Divestment
  • British architects and planners boycott Israeli construction companies (16 February 2006)