If Riba won't rethink, revoke its royal charter

By Stephen Games, March 27, 2014
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As a member of the Royal Institute of British Architects, I was disappointed to learn of its call for its Israeli counterpart to be suspended from the International Union of Architects. Had I known in advance, I would have protested—for five reasons.

First, the vote was biased. The principle of Israel’s building on land that it won resisting efforts to destroy it in 1967 certainly merits questioning. It is designed to provide housing for Israelis and to redefine future borders, but it will either cease when an agreement is reached between Israel and the Palestinian Authority or will continue legitimately.
The fact that no agreement has yet been reached means only that the two sides are not yet satisfied with the terms. RIBA’s decision means implicitly, however, that RIBA blames Israel alone for this delay.

RIBA is not a political organisation, and has no special insight into the dispute. Its proper role is to preserve neutrality. To do otherwise is to act outside its mandate as a royal body.

Second, the vote was intrusive. Censuring Israel says that Israeli building needs special attention. It does not. There is already vocal opposition within Israel itself to “settlement building”. Many Israeli architects are opposed to such building but see boycotting by foreign busybodies as unhelpful, intended not to ameliorate conditions but to demonise.

Third, in voting to suspend the Israeli Association of United Architects, RIBA has acted in a way that it has acted against no other country. The message of this is that RIBA finds Israel uniquely reprehensible in the world, or more reprehensible than any other country. This flies in the face of all evidence. Israel is a country of political and religious pluralism. Freedom of expression and worship is welcomed. Israeli Arabs, both Christian and Muslim, are a full part of Israeli society, and can and do serve as parliamentarians in the Israeli Knesset.

Israel’s architectural body is itself made up of Israeli Arabs as well as others. Nowhere does such reciprocity exist in Arab or Muslim countries. In no Arab country, and in few Muslim ones, are Israelis or Jews even tolerated.

Fourth, the vote was simplistic. If RIBA wants to police the world on issues outside its remit, it has an obligation not to do so at Israel’s expense. Politics should not be a zero-sum game: RIBA should recognise that both Israelis and Palestinians deserve better outcomes. In RIBA’s vote, however, support for Palestinians was expressed in language defined entirely by vitriolic hostility. This suggests that the vote was as much about hatred of Israel as about support for Palestinians.

If RIBA thinks it can effect change in the Middle East, it should support everyone in the region suffering victimisation and oppression. Its vote must therefore be followed by calls to ban Egypt, Syria, Libya, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran and other Arab countries, for offences against human rights in general and against Palestinians in particular.

More widely, we must call for architects in all suspect countries to be banned: larger countries such as Russia, China and the US, and smaller countries like Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, North Korea, Pakistan and Chad. We should also ban ourselves for our policies of anti-Catholic discrimination in Northern Ireland, our behaviour over the Mau Mau uprising and other unresolved offences of our imperial past.

Fifth, the vote disgraces RIBA. By allowing the vote against Israel to stand, RIBA risks being seen not as a body that supports Palestinians but as a body with an in-built prejudice against Israel and legitimate Jewish aspiration.
It also risks being seen as siding not just with campaigners for boycott and divestment but with those who deny Israel’s legitimacy and its survival as a state, for whom BDS is just a front.

No decent, balanced person could want to belong to such a partisan body, nor should such a body retain its royal charter. RIBA must reverse its decision at once. If it does not, we should campaign for its royal charter to be removed.

Last updated: 1:51pm, March 27 2014