Professionals in Israel

Paul Hilder
16 July 2002

“I would say that the glory of that time was that the planning considerations and the political considerations went hand in hand… To tell you that an architect influences politics? He doesn’t. The whole story of Judea and Samaria could have been different, but this is on levels that are neither in your hands nor in mine.”

Israeli architect Thomas Leitersdorf, interviewed in A Civilian Occupation, 2002.

On Monday 8th July, Israeli architect Eyal Weizman called Uri Zerubavel, the head of the Israel Association of United Architects (IAUA). Zerubavel was apoplectic. He had just read the catalogue intended for the Israeli contribution to the 2002 World Congress of Architecture. He called Weizman a liar, and worse, telling him the thousands of copies already printed would never make it to Berlin.

The biennial Congress is the major event of the international community of professional architects. Featuring contributions from dozens of countries, this year’s Congress is set to be opened in Berlin by the German Chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, on 23 July. Some months ago, the architects Rafi Segal and Eyal Weizman (whose work on the West Bank has appeared on openDemocracy) were invited to tender for the curatorship of the Israeli submission. They won, and set about preparing the exhibition and catalogue.

Last week, Zerubavel saw the outcome for the first time, and called the curators to express his opinion. At an extraordinary meeting, described as ‘raucous’, the IAUA immediately decided to cancel the exhibition. Israeli architects would be represented to their international peers by a flysheet, if at all. Ha’aretz, the liberal Israeli broadsheet, called the decision “harsh political censorship”.

catalogue cover
Design © David Tartakover (Click for bigger image)

A Civilian Occupation

What’s inside these incendiary catalogues? Well, I saw one before the storm struck. The front cover is a bold design by 2002 Israel Prize for Design laureate David Tartakover, with a blood-red West Bank imprint dead centre, superimposed on the title: A Civilian Occupation. The contents tell a story of Jewish settlement: from the days of the British Mandate in Palestine and ‘wall and tower’ settlements built explicitly to claim land, to the 6,045 residential units built in the Occupied Territories by Ehud Barak in his twenty months as Prime Minister, even while he was negotiating a final withdrawal and a Palestinian state. They tell of the bending of the professional disciplines of planning and architecture to the ends of realpolitik. Finally, they make a lacerating case for ending the Israeli occupation – and professionalism’s corruption with it.

This message is delivered through an interweaving of analysis, polemic, photographs, maps, plans, and simple fact. It includes much professional analysis, of settlement masterplans and infrastructure, alongside critiques of gated suburban communities that would not be out of place in any architecture magazine. But there is no way that A Civilian Occupation can be described as purely professional – that is, if you define professionalism as the measurement of gradients or the analysis of the tensile strength of materials.

The catalogue includes articles by non-architects, as well as architects: by Gideon Levy, a former aide to Shimon Peres; by Meron Benvenisti, former deputy mayor of Jerusalem. But the official announcement of the Berlin Congress for which it was intended promotes “socio-political relevance” and “interdisciplinary exchange”, and proudly states that artists, politicians and philosophers will play a part.

Settlement of Shaked
Settlement of Shaked: photo by Milutin Labudovic. (Click for bigger image)

The professions of architecture and planning are shot through with social and political implications. They produce the realities of the environment within which people must live. Nowhere is geography and lived environment more intensely political than in the Occupied Territories, where – geographer Oren Yiftachel writes in the censored catalogue – settlements have become “the most difficult obstacle to a peace agreement
with the Palestinian people”.

Thomas Leitersdorf, an architect who has worked on both sides of the Green Line that separates pre-1967 Israel from the West Bank, says in an interview in the catalogue: “The strategy in Judea and Samaria at the time was to ‘capture ground’: you capture as much area as possible by placing few people on many hills. The underlining political idea stated that the further inside the Occupied Territories we placed settlers, the more territory Israel would have when the time came to set the permanent international borders – because we were already there… I was given map-coordinates and was told to build a town. How big? – The biggest possible.”

In a defining verdict on the legality of settlements, Israeli High Court Justice Vitkon argued, “there is no doubt that the presence of settlements – even if ‘civilian’ – of the occupying power in the occupied territory substantially contributes to the security in that area and facilitates the execution of the duties of the military… The matter is simple, and details are unnecessary.” The title of A Civilian Occupation could be taken directly from this judgment. It is clear from these two quotations that the settlement enterprise was strategic, military and political from the first.

Weizman and Segal note that “An inconsistency develops between what the settlers want to see” – the holy Land of Israel – and “the way their eyes are ‘hijacked’ and used [by] the State”. Yiftachel reports that the ‘Israel 2020’ state masterplan prepared by dozens of professional experts in the 1990s recommended the cessation of settlement building. “What is the government’s response? In defiance to the work of urban, economic and social experts, it begins to construct new settlements…”.


Today, Israelis are reeds in the wind, traumatised by suicide bombings and constant low-level war. Public opinion veers from majority support for withdrawal from the settlements to majority support for ‘transfer’ (voluntary or involuntary deportation) of Palestinian Arabs, depending on the pollsters’ phrasings. They consigned themselves into the hands of Sharon; but his promised ‘security’ has failed to materialise.

Pavel Wolberg is a photographer based in Tel-Aviv, working for Haaretz.

Uri Zerubavel said to Ha’aretz, “the association is an apolitical organisation whose role is to promote specialisation and not to take a political position. Were there a political balance to the exhibition, then I would understand it. But the exhibition and the catalogue are just anti-Israeli and post-Zionist… Heaven help us if this is what Israel has to show… I don’t need to do the Palestinians’ work for them…”.

But he and his colleagues did need to do the Israeli state’s work for them. Without architects and planners, the settlement project would have been nearly impossible, given the twisting contours of the mountain-top land where the state wished to build. It has not been carried out only by a ‘splinter group’ of hardline architects, but in the mainstream of the profession.

Weizman, Segal, and the contributors to A Civilian Occupation believe that the truth – moral, practical and professional – is that the settlement project in the Occupied Territories is unsustainable folly. They have stood up and said so. The exhibition was supposed to be funded by the Ministries of Culture and Foreign Affairs (both tenanted by Labour), and by the National Lottery. All withdrew immediately after seeing the catalogue, the Ministries with angry denunciations. In Israeli society, when it comes to occupation, power holds the strings of culture tight. Many Israeli architects individually rely on state contracts.

Professional ethics

Is A Civilian Occupation an act against ‘professional ethics’, or for them?

One of the finest pieces of work on professionalism, Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, came in response to the most terrible events of the 20th century – the global imperative for the establishment of Israel. Arendt was a German Jewish intellectual, who helped rescue Jewish children from the Third Reich and bring them to Palestine, and was thrilled by the Israeli victory in the Six Day War of 1967.

Efrat Shvily
Photo by Efrat Shvily. Image courtesy of Sommer Contemporary Art, Tel-Aviv. (Click for bigger image)

After Eichmann’s kidnapping by Mossad agents, she followed his 1961 trial in Jerusalem for the New Yorker. The book is an extraordinary analysis of Eichmann’s actions and psychology, remembered often for its subtitle, ‘A Report on the Banality of Evil’.

The nature of the crimes Eichmann committed in orchestrating the logistics of the Holocaust are vast and awful. They cannot be compared to any other action, whether you think the Israeli settlement of the West Bank is a glorious or a terrible project. There is no equivalence. All we can take from Arendt’s analysis is her judgment on professionalism.

She wrote: “Except for an extraordinary diligence in looking out for his professional advancement, [Eichmann] had no motives at all. And this diligence in itself was in no way criminal; he certainly would never have murdered his superior in order to inherit his post. He merely, to put the matter colloquially, never realised what he was doing.” Professionally, Eichmann accepted the revaluation of values carried out by his state. He knew he was turning his back on morality. But he could take pride in his mastery of the logistics of trains.

Eyal Weizman and Rafi Segal are Jewish Israelis, not anti-Semites. Anti-Semitism targets, and requires, a mythological figure: the Jew. Weizman and Segal are not interested in mythology, except insofar as it provides foundations for Israeli actions. A Civilian Occupation is an anatomy of the state and society – of the inextricable intertwining of professionalism, personal desires and politics. They see it as a morally necessary action.

The settlement project by the State of Israel is not a mythology. It is a state programme creating “facts on the ground” (in Ariel Sharon’s phrase), and it continues. As such, it deserves direct and unflinching analysis. The State of Israel is not identical with the Jewish people. You need only listen to the extreme Kahanist Jewish underground in Israel or the many anti-Zionist Orthodox Jewish communities in the diaspora to learn that.

Uri Zerubavel said to Ha’aretz, “My natural instincts tell me to destroy the catalogues, but I won’t do that. I won’t burn books.” Perhaps he now prefers to let them moulder. Weizman and Segal risk being ostracised by their peers. But they speak of taking the exhibition around the world. Meanwhile, A Civilian Occupation is being re-published within the next 10 days in English by Babel Publishers of Tel Aviv (Hebrew and other versions should follow). It looks likely to receive far more attention than if it had been allowed to go to Berlin.

Zerubavel had a point about the balance of the catalogue. It drives its facts home remorselessly; but we do not hear the voices of the settlers who live there, or of the Palestinians who live in their shadow, and these voices are essential. As the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has descended into the quagmire, Israelis and Palestinians can less and less conceive of each other as human beings, with human sufferings and joys, with reasons good and bad. Instead, they see only enemies. The face-off, the violence and the separation dehumanise each for the other. They cannot drive on the same roads, shop in the same stores, or swap olives for pineapples. This is part history, part politics, part media, part terror. It is also, partly, architecture and planning.


Copyright © Miki Kratsman

These photographs were taken in Gilo, a Jewish neighborhood in East Jerusalem, during 2002 as a part of a project commissioned by Multi Exposure, the British Israeli -Palestinian Awards Scheme. Miki Kratsman is based in Tel-Aviv, and teaches photography at the College for Management, University of Haifa and at Vital School of Design in Tel Aviv.
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