Why did RIBA rescind Israeli Association motion?

The decision taken on 19 March 2014 by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) Council to back the suspension of the Israeli Association of United Architects (IAUA) from the International Union of Architects (UIA) was not a flash in the pan.

It was the result of years of campaigning by Architects and Planners for Justice in Palestine to highlight the role of Israeli architecture and planning, in the dispossession of the indigenous Palestinians both sides of the Green Line, and the vast settlement land grabs that consolidated the violent and illegal Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza strip.

Since 2007, petitions and ads in support of the suspension of IAUA appeared in The Times, backed by several past RIBA and incumbent RIBA presidents, famous British and international architects, academics, artists and NGOs. The 2014 motion was put forward by the immediate past-President Angela Brady and a veteran RIBA councillor George Oldham, again backed by many eminent RIBA architects. There was also the important precedent of the RIBA taking action for the cultural boycott of apartheid South Africa, when in 1977 it revoked its links with South African schools of architecture.

Wadi Fukin, a small Palestinian village, over which towers the illegal settlement of Beitar Illit. The Israelis the village mayor has said, “have this plan [to make] Wadi Fukin like an island. They want to build a new settlement to the south of the village, it’s like a link between Beitar Illit and Gush Etzion,” - See more at: http://mondoweiss.net/2014/11/fight-village-continues#sthash.hlvDDiNU.dpuf

Wadi Fukin, a small Palestinian village, over which towers the illegal settlement of Beitar Illit. The village mayor has said the Israelis ‘have this plan [to make] Wadi Fukin like an island. They want to build a new settlement to the south of the village, it’s like a link between Beitar Illit and [another settlement] Gush Etzion, – See more at: http://mondoweiss.net/2014/11/fight-village-continues#sthash.hlvDDiNU.dpuf

The case against IAUA was more serious: it involved a breach of professional codes, an architecture that entrenched apartheid in its practice. The evidence for putting forward the motion was overwhelming, and the case all but unique in that the whole architectural enterprise, carried out by Israel’s architects and planners in close collaboration with the state and military laws and policy in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPTs), was against international and humanitarian law and the Geneva Conventions; it was condemned repeatedly by UIA Resolutions and its Articles governing ethical practice and professional Codes of architecture. Israel’s architecture was in breach of most of these Articles, including the essence of the UIA’s principles based on the UN Charter and its ideals linked to its affiliation to UNESCO.

That the motion was passed with a clear majority and debated fairly and democratically, seemed to hit the RIBA like an exocet, although pressure from the pro-Israel lobby was in play even prior to the Council debate. In tune with the basic conservatism of the RIBA, everything was done to prevent this motion from being carried. The RIBA President refused to allow a presentation to be made and the RIBA’s International Committee Vice President recommended instead for the RIBA only to “engage with communities facing civil conflict and natural disaster” Both publicly stated their opposition to the motion.

Strangely, before the debate, every Council member had received a letter from 23 mainly Jewish architects, led by one Dan Leon, calling themselves ‘Constructive Dialogue,’ rubbishing the suspension motion, and saying that dialoguing with Israeli architects would be the best approach to aiding the situation in the OPTs, and that those proposing the motion were ignorant of the true position of the conflict and had a political agenda in ‘singling out Israel’ that was not the remit of the RIBA.

Notwithstanding the fact that the RIBA’s Chief Executive Harry Rich was a previous Board member of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the Jewish Chronicle (JC) waxed hysterical that the RIBA was now ‘officially anti-Semitic’ by singling out Israel out of all countries that were violating human rights and that from now on no Israeli or Jew would be welcome into the portals of the RIBA.

While furiously condemning the boycotts against Israel, even though this Resolution only backed a call for suspending the Israel Association and not its individual members, the JC saw no irony in its call for a boycott of the RIBA as a venue for Bar- and Batmitzvahs. Promptly, kosher caterers announced they would refuse to cater for these functions (no fish balls for the RIBA halls!) and cancellations resulted in a loss to the RIBA of £100,000. A prominent Trustee couple, the Ritblatts, property developer and sponsors of a wing at the British Museum, berated the RIBA for not sticking to its cultural and educational role, and getting involved with politics, and it seems withdrew their funding from projects by the RIBA while linking to the hate-site CiFwatch that demonized those calling for this action in emails to other prominent figures and Trustees.

Large coverage was given in the architectural press to Constructive Dialogue and one Stephen Games, who used Israeli hasbara (propaganda) to discount the incontrovertible facts presented, and threatened to start a campaign to get the Royal Charter withdrawn from the RIBA and report them to the Charity Commission. The Jewish Chronicle reported that the lobby group and Games were given access to meetings with the RIBA Executive, as a result of which the RIBA was given ‘till the end of the week to come up with a satisfactory solution’ – presumably to have the resolution cancelled.

Then came the deluge of pro-Israel letters and emails to the RIBA and UIA from all corners of the world, from settlers in extremist West Bank settlements, as well as from professors at Columbia University. They included threatening letters to the motion’s proposers that they would never work again, as all Jewish clients would remove their projects from their firms. They insisted on the accusation of antisemitism, and insisted Israel allowed all religions to flourish, and Palestinians were being treated well. Famous Jewish American architects Richard Meier and Daniel Liebeskind criticized the RIBA for being shortsighted saying the decision was ‘counter to the mission of the RIBA’

Even the American Institute of Architects NY chapter wrote to the RIBA CEO Harry Rich demanding that he override the Council motion. One might ask what part of the democratic process they did not understand?

The Board of Deputies and the Jewish Leadership Council also met with the executive and, like lightning, the Israeli Association’s representative Lipovetsky was in London meeting with the RIBA President to decry the action taken. They also wrote to the David Cameron, who frequently denounces boycotts of Israel, to seek help with cancelling this motion.

Until then, the IAUA had remained completely silent on appeals for it to end its complicity with the apartheid practice of many of its architects. It had declared that it did not interfere with its members’ work – though this was contrary to the UIA professional codes. It never censured or condemned the gross professional misconduct in its members’ work in the OPTs, as required by UIA codes.

Unsurprisingly a strong condemnation of the motion was received from Michael Gove, then Education Secretary. In 2011, he had banned schools from taking part in workshops at the Haringey Palestine Literature festival on the themes of human rights and children under occupation.

A forceful and persuasive letter from the Palestinian architectural and academic community to the RIBA and UIA, urging support for the motion and its call for BDS by Palestinian civil society was ignored, as were all representations and correspondence in favour of the motion. Instead consideration only seemed to be given to the pro-Israel lobby.

Curiously, in May 2104 Haaretz’s doughty architecture correspondence carried an article, which said that the UIA had announced that it would not allow any motion for suspension of Israel, since this was a decision that should have been taken at the forthcoming UIA General Assembly in Durban. It appears that Lipovestky had attended the UIA top presidential meeting in Melbourne, and got the assurance that nothing would happen at Durban to expel the Israelis.

A letter from more than 100 high profile architects, academic and cultural figures organized by BRICUP and APJP was published in the press again supporting the motion asking the RIBA not to succumb to the accusation of anti-Semitism and carry through the very worthwhile and timely motion.

The Architect’s Journal published a strong statement from Eyal Weizman, the iconic expert on Israel’s architecture of occupation, which began:

The duties of professional organizations such as the International Union of Architects and the Royal Institute of British Architects are not only to promote design excellence but rather the political and ethical implications of architecture, in the UK and internationally. Such organizations must thus confront violations of human rights and international law, especially when such violations are undertaken by architects and through architecture.

At Durban, in August 2014, the UIA World Congress and General Assembly was held. It was also the 25th anniversary of the end of apartheid, and the year following the death of Nelson Mandela. Israel’s murderous assault on Gaza ‘Defensive Shield’ was raging and some of largest post-apartheid era demonstrations were seen on the streets of South Africa in support of Gaza.

Crucially, an eloquent message was sent from Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, urging the UIA to back the suspension of the Israeli Association.

Those who are opposed to violence have, over the years, developed an arsenal of peaceful tools aimed at isolating and negatively impacting on the economies of rogue states. As members of civil society, with the help of our friends abroad, we deployed these tools – boycotts, divestment and sanctions – to great effect against the apartheid state in South Africa. I believe it would be appropriate for the UIA to send a clear message of support for justice in Palestine and Israel by suspending the Israeli Architect’s Association from the world body.

Yet, despite the symbolic significance that the motion would celebrate, the RIBA President and International Vice-President failed to raise the Council’s democratic Resolution. A watered-down motion condemning only the concurrent Gaza destruction, that was put forward by the Palestinians and Tunisians, did not even receive a sufficient majority for it to be considered.

The coup de grace came in December 2014, when the RIBA Council rescinded the March Resolution, with the President obsequiously declaring ‘We got it wrong’, on the basis that it conflicted with the Charity Commissions Trust laws. This was a result of a complaint, allegedly by UK Lawyers for Israel, which falsely represented the case as ‘political’. There is nothing in Charity trust law that says a Trust cannot make political statements if it involves the activities of the Trust; as architecture is an intrinsically political activity, involving communities, it was an absurd irrelevance intended to block action taken in support of ethical professional practice. What is more, the suspension Resolution actually re-enforces the Royal Charter that promotes the advancement of architecture, since it challenges the misuse of architecture to destroy Palestinian homes and steal Palestinian land.

In addition to rescinding the motion, the RIBA endorsed a peculiar report, hailed as an ‘ethical framework’, from a delegation of two members of the International Committee who had specifically opposed the original motion. The ‘delegation’, rather than distancing the RIBA from the IAUA, visited them in Israel and agreed closer links and more business opportunities for UK architects, nullifying the intention to send a clear message to the Israelis that there was a price to pay for the intransigence and impunity of the state’s actions of ethnic cleansing and decades long expropriation and erasure of Palestinian presence and culture. It was irony and hypocrisy all the way. The Palestinian Architects and Engineers Associations, who were also visited, made clear that they wanted no connections or normalization with the Israeli Architects’ association, or the RIBA until the suspension resolution was pursued, as part of Palestinian civil society’s call for BDS. This again received no response from the RIBA.

The Jewish Chronicle asked the RIBA President to apologise for the distress that the Council had caused the Jewish community with the suspension resolution, and refused to acknowledge either the professional reason for it or the impossible situation of the Palestinians in the face of Israel’s ongoing, illegal expansion.

A gloating post on the Board of Deputies’ website claimed that ‘the indefatigable efforts of UKLFI needs to be acknowledged as well as does the high level intervention by the Board and the JLC, along with other communal and grassroots organisations in the community,’ in the RIBA’s capitulation.

The RIBA and UIA displayed their determined refusal to support or re-enforce their own professional and ethical codes, especially to act to make a difference to one of the great moral issues of the last century and this one. Instead they bent to an inordinate and overweening lobby, and to donor pressure with its own tactics of intimidation, blackmail and boycott threats, in order to protect Israel and its crimes. With the support of the UK and US governments for Israel, which has resulted in years of injustice and continuing land grabs, ethnic cleansing and apartheid laws, the application of BDS is more than ever required. The status quo cannot be allowed to endure.

Abe Hayeem, RIBA, Chair Architects and Planners for Justice in Palestine

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