A week before the opening of the 10th International Architecture Biennale in Venice, the international pressure group Architects and Planners for Justice in Palestine (APJP) has sent a petition to the organizers asking them to consider withdrawing the Israeli contribution.
In its petition sent on September 2, APJP says it is “dismayed and concerned” that the Biennale, which opens on September 10 and runs until November 19, has agreed to host the Israeli contribution entitled “Life Saver: Typology of Commemoration in Israel.”
APJP says the exhibition in the Israeli pavilion, funded by the Israeli government, “totally excludes the Palestinians who are the target and real victims of the seemingly unending series of wars being memorialized. In this exhibition, Israel has the sole position of victim and victor.”
It requests the Biennale Committee to consider withdrawing the Israeli entry as being “provocative and counterproductive to the aims of the Biennale, and particularly distasteful in the context of the aftermath of an ugly and unnecessary war in neighboring Lebanon, and a continuing one-side war in Gaza.”
The 21 signatories to the petition include Palestinian, Israeli and British/Jewish architects. Among them are the eminent British architect Ted Cullinan, and the distinguished architectural critic and writer Charles Jencks.
The Israeli contribution comprises exhibits of 15 memorials built between 1949 and 2006 to commemorate Israeli military war dead or the Holocaust. The Israeli Defense Ministry provided substantial support for the exhibition.
Israel is one of 50 countries participating in the Biennale, which is regarded one of the world’s most prestigious architectural events. The only Arab country taking part is Egypt.
APJP says that whatever the committee may decide to do about the Israeli participation, it would like the organizers “to consider asking for a Palestinian contribution, highlighting the historic and ongoing displacement of the Palestinian people.”
The petition says that the “eminent Israeli architects” represented in the Israeli entry are “being used as tools of Israeli propaganda, and consequently would be deemed to be complicit in the agenda of excluding the Palestinian narrative. Significantly, the Israeli organization ‘Zochrot’, which deals with remembering the Nakba, has been omitted from this exhibition.”
APJP notes there are no memorials in Israel to the Nakba, the Palestinian tragedy of displacement and dispossession, in which “the intention of transfer and exclusion led to the destruction and elimination of 580 Palestinian villages, towns and cities.”
It adds: “Even today, this dispossession and humiliation goes on in Gaza and the West Bank, with the destruction of their heritage in the historic cities of Jerusalem, Nablus, Hebron, Bethlehem and Jericho. This is particularly ironic when the subject of the Biennale is the celebration of cities.” (The title of the Biennale is ‘Cities, Architecture and Society.’)
The military memorials exhibited in the Israeli pavilion include the Ammunition Hill Memorial for the Six Day War, the Negev Brigade Memorial, the Nitzanim Memorial building, the Palmach History Museum, Bet Yad Labanim, the memorial for soldiers from Tel Aviv University, and the National Memorial in Honor of the Fallen of Israel’s Intelligence Community.
Among the Holocaust-related memorials are the Holocaust Museum and the Hall of Remembrance of Yad Vashem, Yad LaYeled Children’s Museum, and the Ghetto Fighters’ House.
The curator of the Israeli exhibition, Tula Amir, writes in the exhibition catalogue: “The justification of Israel’s wars legitimates the loss of life in the past and its possible loss in the future; the continuation of unconditional cooperation between the country’s military and defense establishment and its individual citizens; and an unequivocal understanding that this struggle is the only means for Israel’s survival.”
But commenting on Amir’s statement, APJP says: “It has been evident that the wars and tragedies engulfing Palestine/Israel since 1948 have been due to Israel’s intransigence and refusal to negotiate a peaceful resolution to the conflict.”
Amir does briefly mention the omission of the Palestinian narrative when she writes: "It is important to note, at this point, that this exhibition focuses upon this phenomenon as it is expressed in Israel's Jewish sector, which comprises approximately eighty per cent of the country's population. The approach to remembrance and commemoration within Israel's Arab-Palestinian minority represents a completely different narrative, which is given almost no architectural expression in Israel."
Amir fails to point out that while there are over a thousand memorials in Israel, no such expression is permitted to the Palestinians. Zochrot is the only Israeli organization that attempts this, by erecting signs of destroyed Palestinian villages, which are immediately taken down by the authorities.
APJP was founded in February 2006 as an independent international pressure group of design professionals who seek international support for an ethical and just practice for their professions in Palestine and the Occupied Territories.
Its website states: "We hold all design and construction professionals involved in projects that appropriate land and natural resources from Palestinian territory to be complicit in social, political and economic oppression, and to be in violation of their professional ethics."
APJP seeks to raise awareness within the planning, design and construction industries of how these professionals "are central to the occupation of Palestinian land and to the erosion of human rights." It acts as a channel to disseminate news and information relating to the built and natural environment in Israel/Palestine, "in particular highlighting ways in which planning, architecture and other construction disciplines are being used to promote an apartheid system of environmental control."
The group forges links with Israeli and Palestinian professionals and other solidarity groups "committed to non-violent resistance to the Occupation and to the establishment of a just and lasting peace."
APJP calls on Israeli and international architects, planners and those in the construction industry to express their concern in each and every instance of unjust action in annexing Palestinian land, and the projects to be built on them. "The future security and justice, in both Israel and Palestine, are at stake."