A guest post by Lyn Julius
‘Urban warfare’ – using buildings as weapons in the Israel-Palestinian conflict – has long been an element in the arsenal of those who seek to de-legitimise Israel by politicising its architecture. While most of their efforts have been directed at delegitimising Israeli settlements in the West Bank, now the fight is moving to Israel’s Jewish heartland, namely Tel Aviv itself.
The latest to take a wrecking ball to Israel’s founding myths is architect, writer and publisher Sharon Rotbard, whose book ‘White City, Black City’ has recently been translated into English and published by Pluto Press, which specialises in far-left and anti-Zionist texts.
A book that should have languished in obscurity on the political margins has been catapulted into prominence by two reviews – in the Guardian and in The Economist.
In 2004 UNESCO declared Tel Aviv’s White City – a collection of thousands of buildings epitomising the Modernist style of Bauhaus architecture – a World Heritage site. It was a source of pride for Israel, increasingly isolated and beleaguered in the midst of the Second Intifada.
Rotbard splits hairs: the Modernist city is not strictly Bauhaus, he claims – only three of its German-Jewish refugee architects graduated from the Bauhaus training school.
His main argument is that the White City is more like Tel Aviv’s sister city Algiers, built in the 1930s by French colonists. Jewish Tel Aviv has supplanted its much older Arab city to the south, Jaffa, Palestine’s modern hub. Tel Aviv has encircled it, suffocated the life out of it, chased out its inhabitants so that the White City could stay ‘whiter than white’.
The first Jews to settle Tel Aviv were young Jewish men – very like today’s ‘West bank settlers’. What’s more, the Arab medina of Jaffa has been bulldozed and grassed over. The idyllic orange orchards to the north of Jaffa were swallowed up by Tel Aviv and turned into ugly polluting, industrial neighbourhoods.
Conclusion: Tel Aviv is a colonialist city which has crushed and sucked the lifeblood from Jaffa.
Such agenda-driven propaganda is forced to whitewash certain key historical facts: namely Jews were trying to escape the stinking, seething port as early as the the 1880s. Jaffa was never an overwhelmingly ‘Arab Muslim’ city but always had substantial numbers of Christian and Jewish residents. The first Jews to move out of the city into ‘Little Tel Aviv’ – Neve Tsedek and Kerem Hateymanim – were Mizrahi and Sephardi Jews. Most importantly, Jews were driven out of Jaffa to found the new city of Tel Aviv because Arabs attacked them – especially in the 1920-21 riots.
Jaffa sustained extensive damage during the Arab revolt when the British authorities blew up rioters’ homes. Whatever destruction ‘Jewish paramilitary fighters’ wrought on Jaffa is a consequence of the Arab decision to draw Jaffa into the 1948 war.
Sharon Rotbard, who himself was born in Tel Aviv, is a member of the city’s elite. It has been fashionable for these champagne socialists to bash Israel in synchronicity with architects worldwide – in the knowledge that Israel will take the brickbats gracefully – and do nothing to dislodge them from their comfortable sinecures and lectureships.
A guest post by Lyn Julius