A. Levin: Architecture and Development

Architecture and Development. Israeli Construction in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Settler Colonial Imagination, 1958-1973

Levin, Ayala
320 S.
Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
Gabriel Schwake, Sheffield School of Architecture, University of Sheffield

The settler-colonial discourse has inevitably turned into one of the main prisms to study the Israeli built environment, whether analysing its regional strategic aspirations, its social engineering project, or the performative aspects of its architecture. The integration of Israel into this discourse began gradually in the 1970s [1| and accelerated during the following decades with the work by the Israeli New Historians, whose research critically examined the chronicles of Zionism and the establishment of the Jewish state. While they perhaps did not explicitly use the term settler-colonialism, their focus on territorial settlement, systematic depopulation, erasure of Palestinian remains, and the Judaization of the local landscape paved the way for both local and foreign scholars to do so.[2] Accordingly, in terms of architecture, planning, and development, the settler-colonial perspective was applied, even if only implicitly, mainly to contested contexts, such as in the nation-building years [3], in the so-called divided cities [4], or in the occupied Palestinian territories.[5] Building on this vast body of knowledge, Ayala Levin skilfully presents an intriguing argument, claiming that the Zionist settler-colonial rationale was an integral part of the involvement of Israeli architects and construction companies in Africa during the 1960s, where no settlement per se was carried out.

Similar to comparable studies on exporting Israeli spatial practices, like Neta Feniger and Rachel Kallus’s work on Iran of the 1970s [6] and Haim Yacobi’s study of Israeli-African development relations [7], Levin discusses the way in which architecture was used to shape Israel’s status as a leading regional power and to enhance its diplomatic efforts. However, Levin presents a fascinating analysis that claims that the early Israeli ventures in Africa were directed by the Labour Zionism ideology and its pre-state pioneering spirit, which through agriculture, physical work, and settlement promoted a new local national identity that reconnected the Jewish people to the land of the patriarchs. Accordingly, she takes Joseph Massad’s concept of Zionism as a “‘post-colonial’ colony” [8] and convincingly demonstrates how this formed a unique selling point that Israel used in order to distinguish itself from other “Western” powers, depicting itself as part of post-colonial nation-building processes that were taking place worldwide. Fittingly, Levin shows that it was not precisely Israeli architecture that was exported to Africa but rather the Israeli approach, skills, and expertise in adapting Western modernism to a local context.

Levin takes the reader on a well-detailed and multifaceted journey that goes through key Israeli projects in Sierra Leone, Nigeria, and Ethiopia. Starting with the design of the Sierra Leone parliament by Dov and Ram Karmi, Levin analyses the way in which it echoed their parallel work on the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, and in the chapter on Sierra Leone’s national urbanization plan, Levin demonstrates how Israeli planner Aryeh Doudai applied and adapted the principles of the Jewish Agency’s Settlement Department to West Africa. The most insightful chapters are the ones focusing on Arieh Sharon’s work on the West Nigerian University of Ife, which started with the kibbutz-like layout of the campus and then continued to the design of the main buildings. According to Levin, Sharon focused on creating an unmediated relationship with the environment and thus presented a new situated approach that opposed the common Western climate-oriented design that disconnected the building from the local context. Then, focusing on more private initiatives in Ethiopia, Levin shows how a similar approach was implemented here as well and how here too these were part of the Israeli diplomatic campaign, as well as national security interests. Levin’s book is skilfully written. It is embedded in the larger discourse on architecture, development, and (post-)colonialism and relies on a variety of sources, enabling Levin to build a convincing argument that she develops throughout the different chapters and to produce a book that, besides a few repetitions that are quite common to academic monographs, is a pleasure to read.

One cannot avoid comparing Levin’s work to Łukasz Stanek’s recent book, Architecture in Global Socialism: Eastern Europe, West Africa, and the Middle East in the Cold War.[9] However, it is not “Africa” that makes both books comparable but rather the way in which non-African countries were able to influence architecture, planning, and development in sub-Saharan Africa, yet with decolonial pretences. While Stanek focuses on socialist worldmaking and how it opposed the common Western exploitation of former colonies, Levin focuses on the Labour Zionist ideals of pioneering and rootedness. With this rootedness, Israeli architects were able to portray themselves as more native than the natives and to propose a more “authentic” stance in comparison to Westernized local experts. It is precisely this approach that led architect Charles Ashbee, the civic adviser to the British Administration for Palestine, some 40 years earlier to loathe Zionist “arrogancy” and lack of “taste”, unlike the Westernized Palestinian intelligentsia and bourgeoisie.[10] Therefore, if Alona Nitzan-Shiftan shows that Labour Zionism was based on the negation of the bourgeoise and the orient [11], then with the idea of rootedness, these negations relied on oxymoronically becoming more local than the indigenous Palestinians and thus proving the eternal connection to the historical fatherland. However, in terms of post-colonial nation-building, Slavoj Žižek claims that it is actually by aiding colonized peoples to reach independence through a “return to roots” that the West imposes “its social form on the other”.[12] Therefore, Levin could have taken her argument further by claiming that choosing to show Africans how to be authentically rooted Africans is perhaps the most profound act of cultural colonialism. Furthermore, while Levin puts an end date to the pioneering-oriented Israeli involvement in Africa, one should ask whether it really ended or whether it has continued up until today, as seen in the Israeli “Start-up nation” discourse [13], which celebrates the alleged Israeli no-nonsense, directness, and down-to-earth approach as being the most adequate for twenty-first-century-style entrepreneurship, thus replicating the accounts described by Levin while adapting Labour Zionism to contemporary global neo-liberalism. Yet, perhaps this should be the focus of a future book.

[1] Maxime Rodinson, Israel. A Colonial-Settler State?, trans. David Thorstad, 9th printing, New York 1973.
[2] Patrick Wolfe, Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native, in: Journal of Genocide Research 8 (2006) 4, pp. 387–409, https://doi.org/10.1080/14623520601056240; Lorenzo Veracini, Introducing: Settler Colonial Studies, in: Settler Colonial Studies 1 (2011), pp. 1–12, https://doi.org/10.1080/2201473X.2011.10648799.
[3] Zvi Efrat, The Object of Zionism. The Architecture of Israel, Leipzig 2019, p. 4.
[4] Haim Yacobi, Constructing a Sense of Place: Architecture and the Zionist Discourse, London 2017.
[5] Eyal Weizman, Hollow Land, London 2007.
[6] Neta Feniger and Rachel Kallus, Building a ‘New Middle East’. Israeli Architects in Iran in the 1970s, in: The Journal of Architecture 22 (2017) 4, pp. 765–85, https://doi.org/10.1080/13602365.2016.1204073.
[7| Haim Yacobi, Israel and Africa. A Genealogy of Moral Geography (= Routledge Studies in Middle Eastern Geography 1), Abingdon 2016.
[8] Joseph Massad, The ’Post’-Colonial Colony. Time, Space, and Bodies in Palestine/Israel, in: Fawzia Afzal-Khan / Kalpana Seshadri-Crooks (eds.), The Pre-Occupation of Postcolonial Studies, Durham 2000, p. 311.
[9] Łukasz Stanek, Architecture in Global Socialism. Eastern Europe, West Africa, and the Middle East in the Cold War, Princeton 2020.
[10] Charles Ashbee, A Palestine Notebook, New York 1923, p. 246.
[11] Alona Nitzan-Shiftan, ‘National’ International Style. An Architectural Dispute Between Erich Mendelsohn and the Tel Aviv Circle, in: Thresholds 4 (1992), pp. 4–5.
[12] First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, London 2009, p. 115.
[13] Dan Senor / Saul Singer, Start-up Nation. The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle, New York 2011.

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