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The Israel problem: how a political row tarnished the RIBA in 2014


March’s RIBA Council motion on Israeli architects sparked a major storm. Has last week’s reverse vote put the matter to rest? AJ’s newsdesk reports

A corrosive row at the RIBA over its stance on Israeli settlement building has now been simmering for nine months, dividing the profession and, in RIBA president Stephen Hodder’s view, damaging the institute’s reputation.

Hodder thought he’d quashed the argument as far back as in June. Six months on, is it finally drawing to a close?

Back in March, former president Angela Brady tabled a motion to RIBA Council calling on the International Union of Architects (UIA) to suspend the Israeli Association of United Architects (IAUA) for illegal settlement building on occupied land. This was duly passed by 23 votes to 16 with 10 abstentions.

But the vote sparked a storm of protest from those who said the RIBA was getting involved in international matters it should not be concerned with. It also faced particular criticism from the pro-Israel lobby.

The RIBA was accused of antisemitism by the Jewish Chronicle, and lost revenue as Jewish members took events, such as bar mitzvahs, away from 66 Portland Place.

Then-education secretary Michael Gove slammed the RIBA’s stance, and ex-British Land chairman John Ritblat and his wife Jill – both RIBA honorary fellows – told it to ‘stay out of politics’.

This was despite the RIBA’s boycott of South African schools of architecture during the Apartheid era.

Supporters of the motion, meanwhile, were buoyed by backing from Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who unsuccessfully called on the UIA to heed the RIBA’s call and suspend the IAUA.

The row did not evaporate over the summer as Hodder had hoped, and last week RIBA Council performed a dramatic U-turn by overturning the resolution following a fact-finding mission by the RIBA.

So why has this matter proved such an intractable problem for the RIBA? And has the institute’s president finally drawn a line under it?

Part of the mess the RIBA has found itself in over the Israel issue is down to its wider governance problems. These were highlighted by Hodder back in June when he announced the creation of an emergency task group, headed by an ‘experienced lawyer’, to resolve significant problems with how the institute is run, which is yet to conclude.

RIBA Council’s decision last week to rescind the resolution was contained in its approval of a wider report by the RIBA’s international task group, set up by Hodder in June to consider the implications of council’s March resolution and other related matters.

The report also pointed to weaknesses in the RIBA’s governance, arguing that the motion calling for the IAUA’s suspension, was beyond ‘the powers of [RIBA] Council’.

The report – by the RIBA’s international vice president Peter Oborn – also claimed that the resolution was based on a misunderstanding of the UIA’s code of ethics, and that the RIBA had come ‘uncomfortably close’ to breaching the terms of its charitable status.

Regardless of these claims, Oborn’s fact-finding trip to Israel and the West Bank six weeks ago undoubtedly fanned the flames of the row.

As AJ revealed in early November, Oborn and fellow task group member Sumita Sinha, who reportedly opposed the motion, travelled to the region and held talks with both the IAUA and the Association of Architects in Palestine (AAP) in a trip funded by the RIBA.

This sparked fury from RIBA councillor George Oldham – who had seconded Brady’s motion in March – and complaints from the AAP itself, which wrote to Hodder to complain that it had been left in the dark about the real aims of the visit, which it said was about ‘diverting’ the motion.

The row even dragged in government agency UK Trade & Investment (UKTI), which found itself under fire from the AAP when it announced an architectural trade mission to the region this month.

Hodder and Oborn must now hope they have brought this long-running crisis under control. Their attempt to do so last week was certainly determined. The vote to rescind the earlier motion was passed by council at 42 to three – with just three abstentions. This substantial swing in opinion has been partly attributed to the influx of new council members since March.

Press were barred from this part of council’s meeting, and a tightly controlled press conference was then held while councillors themselves were having lunch, a situation that caused surprise among the elected members when they saw headlines emerging shortly afterwards about an issue they still considered secret.

Reaction to AJ’s online story certainly does not suggest the row is over, with 35 reader comments – one of the highest numbers ever generated. While many were supportive of the RIBA’s latest actions, others expressed shock and anger at how their professional body could implement such a thorough U-turn. One AJ reader, Brendan M, wrote: ‘It’s a disgrace that a resolution that was passed through a democratic RIBA vote was overturned.’

Others were outraged by Hodder’s claim during the press conference that the institute had ‘got it wrong’ by engaging with the issue of Israeli settlement building in a ‘confrontational’ way.

RIBA councillor Oldham said: ‘I am deeply ashamed of an institute I have tried my best to serve for over 40 years, and I resent the president having the effrontery to claim “we got it wrong”.

‘He is not entitled to patronise the council majority who understood our charter commits us to question the ethics of architects complicit in war crimes.’

On the other hand, many councillors were highly supportive of Oborn’s report, with John Assael saying the RIBA would now have a more ‘considered and defendable policy’ on international matters.

What both sides in this row can perhaps agree on is the extent to which this episode has regrettably damaged the standing of the RIBA.

2014 RIBA’s annus horribilis

19.03 : Motion tabled by former RIBA president Angela Brady, calling for the suspension of Israel’s architecture body from the International Union of Architects (UIA). It is passed, with 23 votes in favour, 16 against, and 10 abstentions

21.03 : Backlash begins. A group of 20 architects, under the Constructive Dialogue group banner, brands the motion ‘discriminatory and prejudiced’

27.03 : Israeli Association of United Architects (IAUA) calls on David Cameron to block the motion

09.04 : US architect Richard Meier writes to Hodder condemning the institute’s motion. Daniel Libeskind weighs in, accusing the RIBA of being ‘short-sighted’. His words are later echoed by the American Institute of Architects who call the institute’s stance ‘absurd’

06.06 : Ex-British Land chairman John Ritblat and his art-patron wife Jill tell the RIBA ‘to stay out of politics’

03.06 : 220 Palestinian architects sign a petition calling on Hodder to ‘stay firm’

20.06 : RIBA international task group established to consider the institute’s role in ‘engaging with communities facing civil conflict and natural disaster’. First meeting takes place on 4 July

22.07 :Palestinian Architects Society calls on the RIBA to follow on original motion

08.08 : UIA General Assembly takes place in Durban. The RIBA’s motion is not on the agenda, with the organisation claiming the resolution is outside its ‘political scope’

27.10 : RIBA task group visits Israel and the West Bank

14.11 : Association of Architects in Palestine (AAP) and sister organisation the Engineers’ Association (EA) threaten to cease co-operation with the RIBA over the International Task Group’s trip to the region

27.11 : AAP complains that planned UKTI architectural trade mission illegitimately ‘aims at normalising’ relations with its Israeli counterparts

04.12 : RIBA Council backs report, including recommendation to replace the original March motion. It is passed with 42 in favour, three against and three abstentions





Readers' comments (3)

  • Angela Brady

    #EthicsInArchitecture - regarding architects and architecture

    It goes without saying that all of us who supported the RIBA March democratic resolution to suspend the Israeli Architects Association from the UIA over continued illegal settlement building, - a humanitarian and professional ethics issue and non political motion, are hugely disappointed by the recent volte face by the current RIBA Council, led by Roger Shrimplin and John Assael to overturn the March resolution.

    I remain convinced that the majority of RIBA members and our wider profession want an Institute that shows leadership and acts with integrity, one that stands up for ethical behaviour within our profession and one that shows support and solidarity with fellow associated institutes.

    President Obama, David Cameron and Desmond Tutu and for a moment the RIBA stood shoulder to shoulder "in condemnation of the most recent seizure of 400 hectares of Palestinian land announced soon after the agreement of the cease-fire” and showed those qualities to which we aspire. It is therefore a matter of great regret that this was only a fleeting moment, and the RIBA all too soon sank back to it’s default mode of weak pragmatism.

    Since the March RIBA resolution there has been a devastating 51 day war in Gaza and the continuation of illegal settlement building in the West Bank, ignoring international calls and a UN resolution to cease.

    Palestine is now recognised as a state by 136 countries including eight other EU countries, with Ireland joining last night on Human Rights Day (10 Dec)

    We will continue to stand up for Ethics in professional practice in Architecture and support fellow architects when there is a call for help, particularly like the Institute in Palestine with which RIBA have a Memorandum of Understanding.

    To quote Eyal Weizman
    “Architecture and the built environment is a kind of a slow violence. The occupation is an environment that slowly was conceived to strangulate Palestinian communities, villages and towns, to create an environment that would be unliveable for the people there”.

    We look forward to Weizman being invited to speak at the RIBA

    Watch the TV video of Eyal Weizman, the Israeli architect on the “Architecture of Occupation” and make your own mind up.

    In response to AJ note “Part of the mess the RIBA has found itself in over the Israel issue is down to its wider governance problems. These were highlighted by President Hodder back in June when he announced the creation of an emergency task group, headed by an 'experienced lawyer', to resolve significant problems with how the institute is run, which is yet to conclude.”........ to clarify.....
    In fact President Hodder was forced to tackle governance issues, he was not responsible for initiating them. The June motion was put by the then Honorary Secretary, Yasmin Shariff and seconded by me as past President. That June resolution demanded amongst other things that Council members are to be recognised as Trustees, appointed to main committees and issues around the appalling performance indicators from the ‘Great Place to Work’ survey were to be properly addressed.

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  • Your summary of the history of the RIBA's handling of this matter gives reason for concern for due democratic process. This is most vividly illustrated in the proceedings on the rescinding of the March motion, (debated in secret) on the spurious grounds of conflict with charitable status followed by
    " a tightly controlled press conference was then held while councillors themselves were having lunch, a situation that caused surprise among the elected members when they saw headlines emerging shortly afterwards about an issue they still considered secret."
    I understand that the Jewish Chronicle attended the press conference and thanked the President, asking whether he wanted to give an apology, which in effect he has done with the quote "we got it wrong".

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  • This farce beggars belief and is surreal, beyond irony! The President more or less apologising to the party carrying out projects that are considered as war crimes, to consolidate and perpetuate a brutal occupation and apartheid - all contrary to international law, the Geneva Conventions, the RIBA ethical codes, and UIA Resolutions and articles -and ignoring the oppressed Palestinians, and demonising those who courageously presented the 19 March Motion, which was fairly debated and convincingly carried. The honourable thing to do would have been for the RIBA delegation to pursue the Resolution at the UIA.

    Instead we have the obsequious appalling reversal -surely a candidate in the Guiness Book of Records for the most squalid reversal of a democratic vote to uphold justice and ethics by a professional institute in hoc to a vociferous and intimidating lobby and pressure from donors, and a facilitating executive, using untenable 'Charity' reasons -to place itself on the wrong side of history.

    This is at a time when Israel's criminal actions are escalating at fever pitch, especially around the illegal settlement expansion and dispossession of Palestinians on both sides of the green linen, the horrendous urbicide in Gaza, and house demolitions in Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank, backed by ongoing violence and IDF terror, killings, arrests and detentions.

    A sad and infamous end to the year for the RIBA, which it will find hard to live down -unless it reverses this pathetic decision, and shakes up its increasing stranglehold on its democratic and ethical functioning.

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