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Whitewashing Colonialism

[Cover of Sharon Rotbard, [Cover of Sharon Rotbard, "White City, Black City: Architecture and War in Tel Aviv and Jaffa"]

Sharon Rotbard, White City, Black City: Architecture and War in Tel Aviv and Jaffa. Translated from Hebrew by Orin Gat. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015.

As the “enlightened public” and guests from Dessau’s Bauhaus Institute celebrated UNESCO’s recognition of Tel Aviv’s “Bauhaus” White City as a World Heritage site in 2003, police brutally attacked the city's migrant workers. At the same time, the IDF executed Operation Rainbow in Rafah, destroying residential tower blocks, and causing fifty-eight Palestinian casualties. Sharon Rotbard, in White City, Black City: Architecture and War in Tel Aviv and Jaffa, thinks the relationship between these episodes. He constructs, with great success, the contradictory unity of the Black City—the socially, culturally, and racially despised in Tel Aviv, Jaffa, and Palestine—as against the White City.

White City, Black City, originally published in Hebrew in 2005, opens up new ways of thinking through the sharp contradictions in contemporary cities. It is written with admirable sobriety while being grounded in “anger and the urge to bring justice to the city.” This makes lines like “to this day it is unclear what happened to most of Jaffa’s residents” in 1948 strike all the harder. It also makes the moments where Rotbard cannot contain his rage—most notably, at “sentimental kitsch” of artist Dani Karavan, one of those most responsible for the White City's ideological construction—particularly striking. For rendering Rotbard's disciplined anger into English, the translator, Orit Gat, deserves considerable credit.

Rotbard, the founder and director of Babel, one of Israel's first independent publishers, lives in Shapira, a neighborhood now in Southern Tel Aviv and within the “black city,” though older than the city itself. He is an architect who has largely withdrawn from architectural practice in Israel. This rigorously moral stance towards architecture is key to the book. Rotbard explains that given the “problematic political contexts...of any possible architectural practice,” particularly in Israel, “writing has always seemed to me to be one of the few decent and effective ways to be an architect.”

The contrast between Rotbard's reorientation, from architectural practice towards writing and publishing and away from entanglement with the purposes of those with money to commission, and the career of Karavan is striking. Discussing the necessary dependence of Karavan's grandiose sculptures and land art on the state or big capital, Rotbard writes: “Karavan knows how to speak with authorities, politicians, and donors, and above all is capable of providing them with images and visuals that work, that are usable and easy to live with.”

Rotbard's first section on the White City as an ideological object is the most immediately engaging, and an impressive reinvigoration of ideology critique. Rotbard follows Bertolt Brecht's injunction to “start not with the good old things but the bad new things.” Instead of engaging directly with the architecture and succumbing to nostalgia for the “progressive” modernism of the 1930s, he addresses the transformation of the White City “from a name into a well-ordered ideology.”

Rotbard's critique has two moments: one functionalist, one genetic. The latter exposes the ideological object to history. The White City is, as Louis Althusser wrote, summarizing Marx on ideology, “an imaginary assemblage” abstracted from “concrete history…ideology has no history since its history is outside it.” It is assembled through its detachment from history through various practices and exclusions, above all those produced by disciplinary boundaries that sunder architecture from history and politics, treating the history of architecture as an autonomous history of “styles.” But as Rotbard argues, this serves “transparent political interests.”

This restoration of history, undermining disciplinary boundaries and refusing to start with the good old things, also parallels Lefebvre's “regressive-progressive method.” There, the retroactive force of the present discloses hitherto uncomprehended or ideologically denied aspects of the past. This is most notable in the link between white architecture and colonial whiteness, “architecture of the white, created by the white and for the white.” This retroactive power depends on the continued dominance of the colonial power in Israel/Palestine so that, in contrast to Dakar, Casablanca, or Algiers, whose white colonial moderrnism is tainted by its colonial associations, Israel is “one of the few countries in the world to canonize its colonial architecture.”

As Rotbard argues, “white architecture became the fantasy reflection of the modern movement, a fantasy that suggested innovation and which projected an image of the world as European, international, and universal, all at the same time.” He continues, “white architecture…arrived under the auspices of colonialism…and was unrolled as one of the chief agents of Europeanism and Westernism.” This suggests a spatial twist on Brecht’s Bad New Things/Good Old Things. Truth is grasped not at its spatial “origins” and theoretical intentions, but in its practices and the social relations determining it, which it reproduced, and continues to reproduce, outside metropolitan Europe.

Rotbard draws here on Frantz Fanon's observation that the colonialist “is the continuation of the metropolis. The history he writes is not that of the land he is using, but that of his nation, which loots, rapes, and starves.” The quotation’s beginning, “the colonizer makes history,” echoes Marx's “men make history but not under circumstances of their own choosing.” But it removes Marx's limits, and clarifies that the colonial-modernist new, symbolized by the tabula rasa of the “virgin dunes,” was never given but made through the violent insertion of Europe into Palestine. It is colonial power and the violent destruction of colonized lives and places that makes things new.

Alongside the disclosure of what was already there, the exposure of the ideological assemblage to history allows the undoing of claims of what was seemingly always there. The keystone of the ideological edifice of the White City is that its buildings are Bauhaus. Rotbard undermines this by exposing the evasions that made it possible. Even the official White history only mentions four Bauhaus graduates working in Israel, of whom only Aryeh Sharon would “convincingly leave his mark on Tel Aviv.” Sharon, however, poses a problem, because “as a dedicated student of the Bauhaus ideology, his straightforward and pragmatic structures have always been at odds with the stylized boxes which have come to be associated with Tel Aviv’s Bauhaus style.” Whilst the Bauhaus was committed to mass social housing, Tel Aviv's “Bauhaus” built “petit bourgeois three story apartment buildings.” “Stylization,” the idea of a “Bauhaus” style that excludes its ethical and social content, is central to the White City as an ideology.

Stylization through disciplinary fragmentation also underpins Karavan's “sentimental kitsch.” In that form, the survival of the “Bauhaus” as a style in Tel Aviv was a victory over Nazism: as Karavan writes, quoted by Rotbard, “a style survived here, a style that the Nazis wanted to exterminate exactly like they wanted to exterminate other forms of civilization. Tel Aviv survived, so in fact it overcame Nazism.” Karavan's notion of the redemption from Nazism through the survival of a style treats the suffering of the Holocaust as irrelevant compared to the survival of an architectural style. Equally, in the kitsch image of the “virgin dunes,” the Nakba that created the tabula rasa is effaced. In both cases, ideological redemption relies upon the exclusion of historical suffering, Palestinian and Jewish—Fiat Bauhaus, et pereat mundus.

The functionalist side of Rotbard’s analysis begins with the White City as symbol for “Good Old Eretz Israel,” a sentimental construction of increasing importance for Israeli liberals since Likud's first electoral victory in 1977, which meant

The legitimization of the “Other Israel”—that particular section of Israeli society which had always been seen and treated as secondary—[which] challenged the white European monopoly. There was a feeling that the old Labor elite had to recreate itself again socially and culturally as a response to these political transformations. This led the old guard to seek refuge in the drama of Desau’s “missed utopia,” investing in it as an allegory of the Zionist dream they believed had gone awry since Likud came to power…Looking west towards Desau actually provided some solace, it enabled those who had always dominated Israeli society, but who now felt divested of their Israeliness, the opportunity to console themselves in a familiar white European identity.

Moreover, Likud's victory saw the instigation of the Build Your Own House Program, which released land to allow any citizens to build their own homes. The exploration of the contemporary function of the White City thus leads to a sharp analysis of contemporary Israeli social contradictions.

The undermining of the previously dominant, Europeanized, Tel Aviv liberals saw taste become a battleground and part of an attempted re-assertion of the class and racial authority of secular liberal Ashkenazi against the Mizrahim, conceived of as an “Oriental Mob.” The White City's “stoic purity and values of order” was used against the “architectural cacophony, a mishmash of styles” initiated by Build Your Own House. Here the displaced material interests are obvious. Build Your Own House, by allowing any citizen to lease land to build their own home, undermined the Labor bureaucracy’s control, a situation that had meant that “one's link to the land was dependent on one's affinity with the ruling party.”

As the neoliberal urbanism of the 1980s intensified, submitting Tel Aviv to a “garish display of power being exercised by forces of business and state” the “good taste” of the “Bauhaus” became further mobilized. This became central in the work of the critic Esther Zauberg, for whom Tel Aviv's modernism represented “traditional values of urbanity and domesticity.” Zauberg's post-modern, conservative appreciation of modernism is rooted in the effacement of Palestinian architecture, with the White City as “the moment Israeli architecture began.” Therefore, “while European architects harked back to the medieval city, to the Renaissance and the Baroque, or to the vernacular and local traditions, the Israeli gaze towards the past rested on the very recent past, fixating on what would otherwise be classified as the most modernist moment in architecture.” Also key to the praise of modernism for embodying traditional values is its status as a “style”: the admired “Bauhaus” apartments were modernist in style, but untainted by the class hatred for modernist social housing.

However, accepting Zauberg’s opposition between the modest, domestic “Bauhaus” and the “vulgar” central business district would be naive. As Italian sociologist Marco d'Eramo argued in his polemicUNESCOCIDE,” “the utopian environment dreamed of by the corporate elite...is composed of both financial districts and cultural-heritage museum-cities…both are fundamentally inanimate.” The 1990s saw the realization of both sides of this project: the construction of a corporate center, Ayalon City, and the “parallel hyperinflation of stories affirming the lasting historical pedigree of the White City.”

Rotbard's critique, ultimately, undoes the ideological assemblage of the White City through the exposure of its reified space—both physically and as an ideological construction—to history and the interests that determine it. A new, non-reified spatial configuration opens up: the dialectical opposition White City (Tel Aviv)/Black City (Jaffa, and, by extension, Palestine). The critique undermines Tel Aviv's traditional story, showing it, instead, determined by its relationship with Jaffa: “Tel Aviv has constructed itself culturally, ethnically, and historically according to Jaffa—as its split, as its dialectical negation.”

The moral core of White City, Black City, however, is in its move beyond ideology critique. Rotbard shows how the ideological construction fails through Tel Aviv's effacement of Jaffa and resists it through his moving the 1948 urbicide of Jaffa to the center of the history of Tel Aviv. Critique that limits itself to—rather than just starting with—the Bad New Things, the city as it has been made by capitalism, racism, and imperialism, however critical, becomes complicit in the effacement of the lives of those who were there before. Rotbard’s rigor, however, in focusing on the history of barbarism rather than the ideology of civilization poses slight problems for the book, at least superficially. For the story of Jaffa is a harder, longer, and knottier one to tell than that of construction of the lie of the Tel Aviv Bauhaus.

The material effects of ideology on Jaffa remain:

The blatant disregard for Jaffa and the Black City, as implied by their omission from Tel Aviv’s own official narrative, is translated in the municipality’s priorities...Everything unwanted in the White City is relegated to the Black City: all the inconveniences of metropolitan infrastructure...and finally a complete ragtag cast of municipal outcasts and social pariahs—new immigrants, foreign workers, drug addicts and the homeless.

This dumping of people, industries, and institutions—of material life—is the necessary precondition of the ideal “inanimate” city. This dumping of immigrants in Jaffa and Southern Tel Aviv has accelerated recently: “in the past decade the Black City has absorbed 60,000 refugees from Sudan, South Sudan, and Eritrea.” As a result, “the Black City has become a privileged playground for far-right politics and politicians” with religious authorities often sustaining and encouraging this process. In summer 2010 “twenty-five neighborhood rabbis from Tel Aviv...issued a common decree forbidding their community from renting or selling apartments or houses to non-Jewish people, in particular to African refugees.”

As well as the effects felt to this day, the cleansing of Jaffa did not come from nowhere: “the war between Tel Aviv and Jaffa, which would end with mortars and machine gun fire, began with leases and landscaping.” As the book’s subtitle suggests, architecture and urban planning, on the one hand, and war, on the other, are intertwined in Tel Aviv and Jaffa. However, their relation is not only inverted, but twisted and stretched: “White City is an example of how architecture, like war is the continuation of politics by other means. In turn we can classify a Black City as an example of how war is the continuation of architecture by other means.” What disappears in the Black City is politics. From the state emanates only force and administration. What the colonial power cannot achieve by architecture or administration it achieves by direct violence. In the White City, war and violence disappears, relegated to the Black City along with all the other inconveniences of metropolitan infrastructure. In the White City, the limits and needs of politics determine architecture and its narratives.

Rotbard shows the destruction of Jaffa had its origins in colonialism—both directly and through its incubation of Zionism. These emerge, intertwined, in Napoleon's siege of Jaffa in 1799, which saw, alongside a massacre by French troops, the first promise of Jewish sovereignty. Zionism's dependence on colonialism developed after 1919 under the British mandate. The ideology of the radically new White City aims to obscure that process, with Tel Aviv's growth dependent on British urban planning and infrastructure projects. The mandate period also saw an assault on Jaffa through reconfiguring the relation between city and countryside. Jewish settlements attached to Tel Aviv cut “the territorial continuity between Jaffa and its Eastern satellites…Jaffa was doomed...it was cut off from its rural hinterland.” Here Rotbard's displacement of the reified space of the White City, opening up the dialectical pair White City/Black City, goes beyond the urban character of the pairing, to think through the relation of country and city.

1948 saw the culmination of these processes, which colonialism had incubated for almost 150 years. The precise dates are important; Jaffa's surrender on 13 May 1948, two days before the founding of the state of Israel, “stands in direct contradiction to the State of Israel’s formal rhetoric that casts the responsibility for the War of Independence on the Arab states.” This further undermines the narratives of Israeli liberals for whom the “heroism” of 1948 can be detached from the illegality of the post-1967 occupation.

The urbicide, in which Jaffa, “was stripped bare of its heritage and left beaten, bruised and lifeless,” was not the end of Jaffa’s marginalization. Later, Jaffa was recreated as tourist kitsch; those buildings not destroyed, which once housed Palestinians, became “picturesque and exotic décor which, after a few years began to draw in tourists.” This Jaffa, as with Karavan's sentimental kitsch, relied on the exclusion of history, in this case the history of the buildings being inhabited. In the late 1950s a new process of cleansing began, this time of the post-1948 Jewish refugees living in Jaffa.

Jaffa's kitsch and the citing of the Tel Aviv “Bauhaus” as the beginning of local architecture both pivot upon the effacement of Palestinian architecture (and life) in Jaffa. Nothing is left but “the small collection of choice remnants, the Church of St. Petrus, Napoleon's cannon and the Andromeda rock in the sea. Jaffa has become everything but an Arab city...Tel Aviv has built itself a medieval crusader outpost.” When exposed to history and coupled with Rotbard's architectural sensitivity and polemical verve, the absurdity becomes clear. This leads to one of the book's strongest sections—the critique of “Tel Aviv's poor allegory for itself,” the Etzel Museum, which memorializes the paramilitaries responsible for the urbicide. Strikingly, this is the only point in the book where Rotbard undertakes extended architectural criticism proper. In the Black City (unlike the White), the relation between barbarism and architecture lacks political and ideological mediations. There is no gap here between ideology and the building.

The museum consists of a ruined Arab house enclosed within a glass box. This contradiction and its reconciliation—the “Oriental dwelling” preserved in and through the destruction of its context and “elevated” to architecture through its interaction with the “universal” form of the glass box—is inadvertently revealing. “The building tells the truth about the rape and murder of the city of Jaffa...but it lies at the same time by cloaking this bloody drama in 'architecture.’” The museum’s relation to the Orientalist tradition of the “Oriental Ruin” gives it a further charge:

the destruction of the Hellenistic relics...seemed to explain an Eastern inferiority eventually providing a justification for the continent's conquest. It was no different in Israel, where the image of the ruin was half a self-fulfilled prophecy and half an indication of things to come: the ruins of 1948 quickly assumed the role of those historic sites which had encouraged Westerners to “voyage East.”

The critique of the Etzel Museum, treating it as an allegory for the particular ideological practice of the White City on the Black City, widens the usefulness of White City, Black City beyond the history of Tel Aviv and Jaffa. This usefulness lies in its theoretical innovations, particular the use of Fanon for the analysis of urban contradictions, which are largely dissolved into the body of the book, but which become explicit in its conclusion.

This dialectical urbanism, arguing that colonialism is primarily about a spatial ordering, draws upon Fanon's argument, quoted in the final chapter: “there are cities for Europeans and cities for indigenous people.…The European city is a solid city built with stone and steel, it is lighted and asphalted....The colonized city is a hungry city; it is hungry for bread, for meat, for shoes, for carbon, for light.” The dialectical opposition between the white city (the city for Europeans) and the black city (the colonized city) is an opposition without possible mediation and reconciliation. In Tel Aviv and Jaffa's case, the impossibility of mediation is most evident in the rage of the White city directed nearly as strongly against the poor Southern Jewish neighborhoods, which could have mediated between Tel Aviv and Jaffa, as against Jaffa itself.

This theoretical framework is widely applicable. As Rotbard suggests, “today, the borders of a Black City and White City may be located anywhere.” This Fanon-derived urban theory is useful in an array of cities—whether in the advanced capitalist countries, London, Paris, New York, or in the Global South, notably Rio de Janiero and Medellín (Forrest Hylton has carried out a similar and similarly successful analysis of it), in which the economic processes of capitalism and the direct violence of the state impose a racialized spatial order.

Rotbard's response to what he considers to be the implications of Fanon's argument bears on the weaknesses of White City, Black City. They are a set of related difficulties around the relation of theory to practice, the book's characterization of modernism, and the possibility of justice as a radical break. For Rotbard, Fanon's arguments entail the total, terroristic negation of colonialism's spatial ordering. Rotbard's alternative to this is “to generate changes in the reality of the city without the usual use of physical power and sometimes violence; to change the city just by telling its story in a different manner.” In attempting this, Rotbard finds his “principles behind effective programs of resistance” in Homi Bhabha's argument. In Bhabha’s words, “the subversive moment is to reveal within the very integuments of 'whiteness' the antagonistic elements that make it the unsettled disturbed form of authority that it is,” attending to “the violence it inflicts in the process of becoming a transcendent force of authority.” This relates to the functionalist side of Rotbard's ideology critique, which he undertakes in the name of those groups—whether Palestinians, migrant workers, refugees, Israeli Arabs, or certain groups of Israeli Jews—who have been excluded from Israel's racialized modernity. The problem is that while a rigorous theoretical construction such as Rotbard's can reveal how Israeli whiteness is unsettled by these groups, this disturbance is conceived merely in opposition to whiteness. Its usefulness breaks down when it comes to constructing a practical program against Israeli whiteness, especially as the experiences, interests, and goals of those groups excluded from Israeli White Modernity are often antagonistic.

The utopian gap between the theoretical disruption of whiteness (and the justice of this disruption) and the impossibility of this happening in practice poses the question of how Rotbard conceives the relation of his book to its epigraph from Hugo: “The book will kill the edifice.” In the afterword, Rotbard asks, “Did the book change the city?” He concedes that it largely did not, though a few readers “moved their apartments.” In one sense, this criticism of Rotbard is harsh. Dialectics, sadly, even when deployed as impressively as here, cannot break bricks. However, there is a more general theoretical problem: Rotbard, for all his achievements, struggles to imagine a positive radical change. The contrast with Fanon, who begins The Wretched of the Earth welcoming the “tabula rasa which characterizes from the outset all decolonization,” is instructive. In Rotbard, by contrast, the new or modernity is presented as the violent insertion of the metropolitan into traditional communities, all of which “center around concepts of good behavior, with the aim of translating a basic ethos of righteousness and respect into practical interactions with the Other.” This claim, risking a slip into nostalgia for the good old things, is limiting, not least because its reference is not to a traditional rural community, but to pre-1948 Jaffa, a cosmopolitan city with, as Rotbard argues, numerous modernist buildings of its own. This total sundering of pre-1948 life in Palestine from modernity, furthermore, risks repeating the various alibis justifying Zionism.

This slightly odd claim also relates to a sometimes-casual characterization of modernist architecture. On the one hand, Rotbard is attentive to details in order to deny the alleged links between the Tel Aviv “Bauhaus” and the Desau Bauhaus. On the other hand, differences between quite divergent modernisms are effaced, with all modernism tending to be identified with colonialism. This misses how there are forms of modernism that offer a different modernity, including three that Rotbard mentions: the Desau Bauhaus ethic, centered on mass social housing and contrasted with stylization; early Soviet modernism, which is, despite often being undertaken by Jewish architects, uninteresting for the ideologues of the White City; and Brutalist social housing, which, in Israel's 1950s and 1960s version, Rotbard admires. There is a further useful counter-example, which bears on the analysis but which Rotbard does not mention: post-colonial modernism in Dakar, whose architectural modernity was not limited to French colonial buildings of the 1920s and 1930s. What is key to these modernisms is that the formally new was not imposed idealistically on matter but emerged from social practice, whether social democratic reformism, Communist revolution, or anti-colonial struggles. The Hugo epigraph, therefore, inverts things, making practice (whether destruction or construction) determined by theory, rather than vice-versa.

Perhaps Rotbard's turning away from any possibility of the new, a new that emerges not through theory but from practice, is a sign both of the limited political possibilities offered in Israel/Palestine at present, and also of how an overly exclusive focus on architecture whereby architecture is a social allegory, however critical, can tend towards an idealism and disregarding of social content. It is also perhaps a consequence of Rotbard's own biography: a tendency to overestimate the importance of thought or the literary, and his own social position as a (dissident) member of the Ashkenazi elite, intellectually but only intellectually on the side of the socially, culturally, or racially despised. The limits of this position are not unique to Rotbard; they are an issue across the Ashkenazi left. However, White City, Black City is, for all this, a book of very considerable merit and usefulness and an almost exemplary achievement.

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