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The Uncivil Servant: Jerusalem’s Outsider Architects

Mitchell Abidor
June 14, 2017
by Mitchell Abidor Discussed in this essay: Till We Have Built Jerusalem, by Adina Hoffman. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016, 352 pages. A CITY’S ARCHITECTURE is often an excellent guide to its history, politics, and vision of itself. The Haussmanian Paris we know today still speaks of the need for clean, airy streets, as well as the need to be able to put down working-class revolution. Adina Hoffman’s beautifully written, thoroughly researched, and deeply felt Till We Have Built Jerusalem reveals Jerusalem to us through an examination of the works and lives of three architects of the first decades of the 20th century, men whose backgrounds, experiences and buildings speak volumes about the development of the city from the end of the Ottoman era to the end of the British Mandate. The tale she tells is a cultural and political cautionary tale, one that deserves to be attended to closely. The architects Hoffman examines, the German émigré Erich Mendelsohn, the very British Austen St. Barbe Harrison (his first name a reference to his distant relative, Jane Austen), and the Greek Orthodox Arab Spyro Houris, all marked Jerusalem in a more or less lasting way, Mendelsohn designing the Anglo-Palestine Bank, the Hadassah Hospital, the home of Salman Schocken and the Schocken Library (pictured above); Harrison, the post office on Allenby; Houris, a number of houses for wealthy Jews and Arabs. None were native to either Jerusalem or Palestine, and, coming from outside, had to confront the ethnic, artistic, and political minefield that was Mandatory Palestine. Mendelsohn, brilliant, wealthy and arrogant, a success in his native Germany until forced to leave upon Hitler’s ascent to power, dealt with the crossing of the political and the artistic in perhaps the most interesting of fashions. Though not in the least a socialist, Mendelsohn saw Jewish Palestine not as a European state but as an integral part of the Middle East. He was among that small group that believed that the Jews settling in Palestine had only one chance to make a go of it, and that was to be “in close collaboration with the Arabs.” Artistically, he confronted the situation of Palestine in the same way. “Will Palestine develop an architecture of its own?” he wrote. “Certainly, and as an integral part of its very nationhood. Will it be Western? Of course not. Palestine is in the Orient, of the Orient.” These sentiments, however, were opposed by architects of the socialist left, who wanted to both do away with the old Jewish mentality as well as to erase the country’s non-Jewish history. Avoda ivrit -- Hebrew labor -- was a key watchword in the yishuv, and all of the architects under discussion had to face down its advocates in the construction of buildings using Arab workers as well as Jews. They faced opposition, as well, from those who insisted that all construction materials be purchased from Jewish firms. Hebrew labor issues could result in mini-civil wars, as when Revisionist Zionists attacked the worksite of Hadassah Hospital, feeling that jobs were being given exclusively to supporters of Labor. Such issues also created impossible situations for those involved in the actual construction: Although Hadassah officials, for example, said that “there can be no thought of using Arab quarries” in the project, the quality of both the stone and the stonecutters of the Jewish firms was vastly inferior to that of the Arabs. WHEN SPYRO HOURIS was commissioned to build a home for the wealthy Turkish Jew Yomtov Hamon, the latter received a letter of admonishment from the Council of Jerusalem Jews, informing him that they’d hoped, after he had previously received notice of the need to employ Jews, that he would “strive to employ Hebrew workers as much as possible [but this] has not taken place!” They went on to speak of the “foreign workers employed in our building trade,” the “foreign workers” in question being, in a stunning example of Zionist khutspe, Arab Palestinians. The employment of these architects themselves was a subject of contention: Mendelsohn because, although a Jew, he was not a Palestinian Jew; Harrison because he was both non-Jewish and British; and Houris because he was an Arab. Rare is the country where battles over architects have foreshadowed its political struggles. But if Paris is a city whose subtext is the repression of the working class, the subtext of contemporary Jerusalem is its leadership’s wish that it be built as a city that turned its back on its native inhabitants and its region. It was people like Mendelsohn, Harrison, and Houris who attempted to prevent that from being the case. Till We Have Built Jerusalem is filled with vivid descriptions of the buildings of Jerusalem, and Hoffman has a poet’s eye in this regard. Her description of Harrison’s Museum of Antiquities is particularly stunning:
The building seems to be symmetrical but isn’t quite. Its careful geometries give the illusion of matching one another, but discreet differences proliferate throughout, as architectural half rhymes. With its play of light and shadow, its strict lines giving way to gentle arcs and rounded vaults, its hidden nooks and wide-open spaces, it takes shape as a kind of whispered riddle- somehow akin to Jerusalem itself.
However much Hoffman loves the city her three architects designed, her feelings about today’s Jerusalem are far more ambiguous. She is stunned by a group of teenage girls carrying a handwritten poster in support of Meir Kahane, and saddened, if not disgusted, by the current state of the Romema quarter, whose hills once “spilled with orchards and fields.” Now one enters it through a “Moscowesque underground passageway,” to enter the “formerly pastoral neighborhood [which] is dilapidated, filthy, and almost entirely ultra-Orthodox. It’s hard not to see the derelict condition of this formerly elegant area as an ugly encapsulation of the current state of the city as a whole. The physical neglect here almost seems deliberate, as though the residents of today’s Romema believed that they might better prove their readiness for the world to come by abusing the world they live in.” The degeneration of the architecture of Jerusalem (unlike the physical decrepitude of the Bauhaus architecture of Tel Aviv, a city always 100 percent Jewish) is the fruit of the pyrrhic success of the Zionist enterprise. The world of Mendelsohn, Harrison, and Houris is one that has little, or perhaps nothing, to do with that of the Jerusalem of today, and more broadly with the Israel of today. Describing the Greek Orthodox Arab Houris, she says that he “lived in a time and place where one’s identity could be multiple, and where the bonds that stretch across what are now considered nearly impassable ethnic, national, and religious borders were not only conceivable, they were critical to what made the city the city.” Houris, whose story Hoffman spent years trying to track down, was originally from Alexandria, once a great cosmopolitan city, site of novels by Lawrence Durrell and Stratis Tsirkas, home of the great Greek poet Constantine Cavafy, but now, after the loss of its Greek and Jewish population, a cultural backwater, “a monolingual, monocultural, monoreligious city,” a mere shadow of its former self. This, she fears is the fate that awaits Jerusalem: “If Jerusalem’s rulers have their way, this city faces a similar grimly monolithic future.” A process that she sees is well along the path to fulfillment. Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a translator and writer living in Brooklyn. He has published many books of translations from the French, his articles have been translated into German and French, and his Voices of the Paris Commune has just appeared in a Turkish edition, put out by Kafka Kitap of Istanbul.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.