Let’s take a deep breath, and talk about the Middle East. Let’s explore Israeli and Palestinian planning in order to understand this concept, and perhaps, offer conflict resolution solutions for the Arab-Israeli conflict vis-a-vis urban planning. After all, while this conflict is quite complex, it’s also relatively simple: it’s about land.
Imagine if you owned a home, and you’ve lived there for decades. Then, others arrive without a lot of “warmth”, and they surround your home and squeeze you out. You own your house and the newcomers own their homes too (unless we’re talking about Bedouin nomads), but nonetheless, there’s hostility, fear, anger, and hatred due to mutual miscommunication. Both sides are right and both sides are wrong. And no, I’m not talking about yucky yuppies (“yukkies”) in Brooklyn’s gentrifying neighborhoods. I’m talking about Israel and Palestine.
This conflict, of course, has been in the news lately. It’s also been personal news, as some of my family lives in Israel. I’ve traveled there briefly in the past, as well as to the West Bank and Jordan. My family there has fled their kibbutz in southern Israel for the first time ever, which is less than 2km from Gaza. They originally moved there back when Egypt occupied Gaza, long before Hamas took power and began violating human rights. They frequently went to Gaza. There were no walls back then. Israelis and Palestinians actually knew each other.
Even though walls are only one aspect of urban planning, they’re omnipresent. Jerusalem’s Old City has been walled for quite a long time. And now, there are security fences all over the city, separating Greater Jerusalem, the self-proclaimed capital of Israel and of a future Palestinian state, from the occupied West Bank. This wall prevents terrorists from entering Israel, but it also prevents almost all Palestinians from leaving the West Bank, unless they have jobs in Israel. It may be improving safety, but it’s also walling in human beings, and keeping goods and services from entering the West Bank.
Nonetheless, if the wall were to be taken down, would terrorists just start coming back into Israel? The country removed settlements in Gaza a few years ago, and Hamas took power, lobbing rockets off of hospitals, and building war infrastructure instead of schools with donated materials. And why doesn’t Israel just stop building illegal settlements in the West Bank? Aren’t we above this nonsense in the 21st century? I guess not.
Clearly, this is a complex, controversial, and emotional issue, with a lot of wrongdoing on all sides, and this article is not going to come down on any one “side of the wall”, or figure out a miracle solution. It is, however, going to provide some background information that few other articles today are providing: a physical background. Indeed, walls are not just physical — they are mental and spiritual — and they are also representative of the powers, identities, and ideologies that build them.
JERUSALEM LIGHT RAIL
The Jerusalem Light Rail is a relatively new project, planned during the hopeful period of the Oslo Accords, but completed only a few years ago. It connects West Jerusalem (primarily ethnically Jewish) with East Jerusalem (primarily ethnically Arab), within Israel’s Greater Jerusalem, which extends beyond the 1967 borders. Prior to the Six Day War in 1967, in which Israel’s unfriendly Arab neighbors unsuccessfully fought to destroy the country once and for all, Jordan illegally occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank of Palestine. Today, Jerusalem remains divided, but there’s a light rail route that goes throughout the city, because Israel took control of the West Bank and East Jerusalem all the way back in 1967.
Israeli Jews, Israeli Arabs, and Palestinians all use the tram, which makes announcements in Hebrew, Arabic, and English. However, many Palestinians consider the tram to be a physical encroachment of Israel into their part of the city. They dislike that it is bringing Jews into East Jerusalem and connecting newly-built Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem with the rest of the city. In fact, they claim it is “judaizing” their city, which is essentially a lament against gentrification and transit-oriented development, coupled with thousands of years of conflict in one of the holiest cities of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The tram is a divisive tram, mobilizing and immobilizing at the same time. It unifies the city, but it also acts as a “wall” for many people. It even has been attacked by protesters recently:
It all comes back to the powers, identities, and ideologies that are behind urban planning. Any resolution of this conflict requires an understanding of urban planning, because Jerusalem is, well, Jerusalem. Plus, there’s the issue of settlements and land swaps, and the removal of right-wing colonies (which fuel the Apartheid argument and the BDS movement) and right-wing dictators in Gaza. Clearly, democratic Israel does need to deal with its right-wing policy problems, and Hamas needs to go. Israelis, Palestinians, Kurds… they all need a state…
Jerusalem Light Rail in Shuafat, East Jerusalem (mosque in background…)
Who is the “king of the road” in Jerusalem? (Photo taken on Jordanian highway)
If we’re exploring urban planning in the region, we cannot ignore kibbutzim. A kibbutz is a type of settlement which sprouted in Israel as a nation-building tool. Unlike Kiryas Joel in New York State, which is for Yiddish-speaking Satmar Hasidic Jews, kibbutzim in Israel tend to be for left-leaning, non-religious ethnic Jews. Kibbutzim also were founded with self-sufficiency ideals; Jews would work the land together, and reap the benefits together. Kiryas Joel, on the other hand, is the poorest municipality in America (by poverty rate and food-stamp use), even though it’s a place of order and community, with strict dress rules, gender separation in public areas, and strong, grand rabbis…
When a group of carved the Village of Kiryas Joel out of the woods in the 1970s and named it after their leader, Grande Rebbe Joel Teitelbaum, they intended for it to be a peaceful and isolated place. It was tiny then — about 500 people — but it grew quickly; within three generations, the population has topped 23,000. The founders had had lots of children and their children had lots of children, and these new families needed homes of their own, so the village built more. The homes became smaller and the buildings became taller and the trees disappeared. Now four-story apartment complexes with corrugated walls and bare-wood exterior staircases line the roads. It is as though inner-city housing projects have been dropped along the winding streets and cul-de-sacs of a suburban subdivision. On weekday afternoons a dozen minivans wait at stop signs. The shopping center’s parking lot is full from morning till night. Men wearing wide-brimmed black hats and long beards and white dress shirts beneath black coats shuffle past the storefronts. Women in long-sleeve knits and skirts that reach to their shins push strollers across busy intersections.
With growth came industry and jobs. Locals turned basements into clothing shops and jewelry stores. Outsiders came in search of work. Now Hispanic men unload moving trucks and labor at the many construction sites. West Indian housekeepers commute two hours by bus from Brooklyn. White men in blue Kiryas Joel Public Safety uniforms make rounds in patrol cars. At the kosher poultry plant, 200 gentiles gut chickens.
As the village grew, it did not remain peaceful and isolated. Growth brought development and money and registered voters for politicians to please. Growth brought trouble: divisions and tensions, loyalists and dissidents. There were the years of fires and stonings and beatings and excommunications — the War Time, some locals call it. When the loyalists banished the dissidents from the village schools and from the cemetery, the dissidents built schools and a cemetery on land just outside Kiryas Joel’s boundaries.
Kiryas Joel became overcrowded. The median age is 13 — it’s the only place in America with a median age under 20. Satmar families spilled onto the surrounding, unincorporated property. In December 2013, village leaders put forth a proposal to annex more than 500 acres of wooded land. The townspeople of Monroe resisted with protests and petitions. And so the village that once sought to isolate itself began to battle its neighbors.
Power is always tied to wealth, and the grande rebbe controls that too. “Many millions of dollars,” estimates Queens College professor Heilman. The money belongs to Congregation Yetev Lev. As the congregation’s undisputed leader, the grande rebbe holds the purse strings.
“Everything is in the hands of the rebbe,” says Shmarya Rosenberg.
Real estate holdings in Brooklyn and Orange County constitute a large portion of the congregation’s assets. In 2006 the New York Times pegged the total value of Satmar real estate in the “hundreds of millions of dollars.” Many of the properties are registered under the names of private companies, some of which aren’t hard to trace.
Vaad Hakiryah of Kiryas Joel Inc., for example, has owned several hundred acres of land in Orange County, as Times Herald-Record reporter Chris McKenna has chronicled over the years. A developer named Mayer Hirsch incorporated Vaad Hakiryah in 1989. He was a village trustee at the time, and over the years he was also chairman of the Kiryas Joel Municipal Local Development Corporation and chairman of the village planning and zoning boards. In the early 1990s Vaad Hakiryah’s president was Abraham Wieder, the village’s deputy mayor at the time. Wieder also was president of Congregation Yetev Lev and of the Kiryas Joel school board. Both Hirsch and Wieder were trustees for the United Talmudic Academy, a network of Satmar schools from pre-kindergarten through college.
The village itself is a source of revenue. Families are big. Some men study scripture instead of holding paid jobs, and some women take care of their children full-time, all of which skews the per-capita income rate. More than two-thirds of residents live below the poverty line — a figure 16 percent higher than for any other municipality in America. No place in the nation uses food stamps at a higher rate. The State of New York gives Kiryas Joel about $1 million a year to fund a Head Start program that offers free pre-K for low-income families. For years the village charged families up to $120 per child for admission. The federal government has spent millions of dollars to fund subsidized housing in Kiryas Joel. The village sold landlords the rights to those buildings in exchange for $50,000 donations, and the landlords charged up to $500 per month in rent from low-income tenants. In 1990 the federal government awarded the village a $360,000 grant to build a medical center. A federal investigation later revealed that the village diverted $130,000 of that into other projects, including a swimming pool for a religious school.
All of this was illegal. None of it is secret. The Village Voice, the Wall Street Journal, and 60 Minutes covered much of it in the mid 1990s, and the Times Herald-Record continued the reporting into the next decade.
More recently, the U.S. Department of Education found that the village misused federal funding meant for school programs: A 2011 audit stated that the village used $276,000 for lease payments on its building, which is owned by the United Talmudic Academy. Another $191,000 apparently vanished from the books. “Kiryas Joel could not provide adequate documentation” to explain where the money went, the auditors wrote.
The money continues to roll in. That’s because the grande rebbe’s power is rooted in people. The Satmars are the largest Hasidic sect in the world. Despite their internal conflicts, they vote as a bloc, for whichever political candidates their leaders endorse. The day before Election Day, Kiryas Joel’s mayor announces his endorsement on a robo-call to every home and on flyers passed out at schools and on street corners.
Grumet, the former executive director of the New York State School Boards Association, calls the Satmars “one of the most powerful political forces in New York.” Nearly every major state politician has paid his or her respects. Pataki, Mario Cuomo, Hillary Clinton, Sheldon Silver, Andrew Cuomo — the campaign trail passes through Kiryas Joel.
The Kiryas Joel Unified School District is a monument to the Satmars’ political might. In 1994 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the creation of the school district violated the separation of church and state. Four days later the state legislature passed a new bill, slightly different from the first, to legalize the school district. The New York State Court of Appeals ruled that the school district was still unconstitutional, and the legislature passed a third bill, slightly different from the second, to again legalize the district. By then the man leading the lawsuits against the district — Grumet — had moved on to a new job. No one has challenged the law since.
“They are extremely smart and sophisticated in grasping the rules of the game in American interest politics,” David Myers, the UCLA Jewish studies professor, says of the Satmar leaders’ ability to successfully blur the line separating religious freedom from political clout. “And they have succeeded in playing American interest politics as well as any group has ever done.”
That is the power of the grande rebbe, a power vested in those who inhabit his inner circle. These secular leaders hold much sway at the top, and they hold much wealth. It is their livelihoods, not the grande rebbe’s, that are dependent on the decisions of politicians and bureaucrats.
And so as Grande Rebbe Moses Teitelbaum aged and his health declined, the men below him jockeyed for a slice of power in the regime to come.
Most townspeople had no problem with Kiryas Joel until January 2014, when newly elected Town Supervisor Harley Doles, who’d won his seat thanks to the Satmar bloc, announced his support of a petition to annex 507 unincorporated acres of Monroe land into Kiryas Joel. All the petition needed, then, were signatures from landowners who represented a majority of the annexation territory’s property values. And that was no obstacle.
The townspeople were outraged. They imagined the wilderness around their properties clear-cut and supplanted by apartment complexes.
“They’re raping the mountain here to build those high-density buildings,” says Andrea Trust, who has lived in Monroe for nine years. “Kiryas Joel wants Monroe.”
Like most Americans, most Satmars don’t spend much time worrying about the internal machinations of those in power. There are plenty of day-to-day concerns that take precedence. Kiryas Joel isn’t the stage for a landmark constitutional debate; it’s a solid place to raise a family. The villagers love Kiryas Joel for the same reasons the townspeople love Monroe.
“It’s much different from the city — not the noise, the crime, the drugs, and all the other bad things,” says Sam, an executive at the poultry plant who moved to the village 35 years ago. “We lived in the city. Nobody can afford anything in Brooklyn. And there’s more space here.”
(Like most Satmars who agreed to be quoted in this story, Sam declined to give his last name. Through the synagogue, the Voice requested interviews with both Aaron and Zalman Teitelbaum. The request was denied.)
The Satmars do not believe in a Jewish state, but they have created an alternative.
“From a certain perspective, this is the Satmars’ counter-Zionism,” says UCLA’s Myers.
Every year on the anniversary of Joel Teitelbaum’s death, Satmars from around the region converge on the village cemetery to celebrate their founder.
“In our Torah, we are not allowed to have our own state,” says Benzy Markowitz, a Brooklyn native who makes the annual pilgrimage. “We’re waiting in the state we’re living in, praying for the success of the state we live in.”
This has cultivated within the village a deep sense of patriotism. Only in America, many villagers believe, can Kiryas Joel exist. “In the United States everybody can be like they want to be,” says Yitz Farkas, a twentysomething resident. “That’s the U.S. That’s why it’s a great country.”
And it’s why Myers calls Kiryas Joel a “decidedly American creation.” Like the Pilgrims and the Mormons before them, the Satmars found a place where they could practice their faith freely, so they built a community. They embraced the nation’s proud principles of liberty, and its darker stratagems as well. They mastered the American system of governance and the American system of political power. They fell into the American habit of partisanship. And they felt the American thirst for expansion.
“Thirty years ago Westchester County was farms, and 60 years ago Long Island was farms. And then they exploded,” says Goldstein, the construction contractor. “Cities grow. If you want to live isolated, move west, east, north: That’s how it works. That’s how democracy works. That’s the way it has been in America.”
The kibbutzim movement is quite different from Kiryas Joel, first and foremost because it is founded by Zionists, unlike KJ. Indeed, in the latter half of the 19th century, Zionism sprouted in Europe. Jews translated Enlightenment ideals towards their own growing belief in self-determination and a Jewish homeland. Amid rising discrimination in Europe, Zionists began migrating en masse to Mandate Palestine. Competing with Palestinians for land, European Jews brought Western ideas to the region and built settlements in accordance with those identities and ideologies. These newly-arrived Jews did not know how to cultivate the land, and needed to group together not only in order to defend themselves, but in order to eventually establish their own state. Known as kibbutzim, labor Zionist Jews built left-wing idealistic and utopian settlements in order to collectively cultivate the land, defend their historical homeland, and craft a national identity. Roads, homes, and farms sprouted up alongside a body of financial institutions. And in 1948, Israel was born on the backbone of kibbutzim planning.
In order to dabble with kibbutzim planning, I did some background research, and discovered Architecture and Utopia: The Israeli Experiment, which explores the relationship between social, economic, and political utopian ideologies and the design of kibbutzim settlements. The book shows that architects and planners represent a perfect world through perfect shapes, such as circles and squares. For instance, throughout history – from Egyptian hieroglyphs, Tibetan mandalas, Atlantis, and the Forbidden City, to the contemporary garden city movement and Salt Lake City – ideal geometric forms have coincided with ideal utopian settlements.
Indeed, “the regime that shapes the city physically seeks to shape it in its own image: perfect, eternal, immutable, ordered, symbolizing the relation between the sovereign and the citizens, preserving the existing ruling order by defining the zones designated for various activities” (Chyutin 235). After exploring the history behind utopian planning, the book proceeds to explore how various kibbutzim patterns have emerged and changed over time.
The authors also explore the intrinstic paradox behind this changing reality, as “the vision of the ideal city depicts a static situation” (Chyutin 2), whereas on the ground, kibbutzim have changed alongside Israeli society. Originally forcing all residents to share all property collectively, tend to the land collectively, and even share child rearing collectively, kibbutzim have privatized with the years so as to remain viable as Israel’s economy developed. Buckling under neoliberalism, they have undergone intense privatization efforts. People can own cars, own their own homes, bring in private items (such as TVs), commute elsewhere for work, and get paid different amounts. However, they are still private, gated communities that collectively share an industry of the kibbutz (such as plastic manufacturing). Indeed, the communities now are a fuse between urban, suburban, and rural life. They are not cities, and they are agricultural yet denser than rural environments. They are also not suburban, as they are surrounded by farmland and are not as sprawled, decentralized, and individualistic.
In the end, Architecture and Utopia does a fine job of exploring how these settlements are built in relation to the social ideals that characterized them. However, they failed to integrate a vital component related to the planning and design of utopian kibbutzim: Palestine.
Google Maps (see description in bold below…)
As I mentioned, I went to Israel, Palestine, and Jordan. I lived with my family for a few days in a kibbutz in Israel which looks like many others from above (see the red dot on the bottom right corner of the map above). A patch of green amid stretches of farmland with a clear civic center and industrial park, the kibbutz has a collective parking lot from which people must walk to their homes. But what the authors fail to show with their birds-eye photos is the surrounding narrative: the kibbutz is two kilometers from Gaza, and as of a few years ago, each home is now equipped with a bomb shelter to protect against Hamas’ Qassam rockets. They also have a security fence, a military outpost, and ample trees between homes and farmland to prevent sniperfire from Gaza. This is still far from a utopian settlement.
2 kilometers from Gaza, this kibbutz has bomb shelters for every family…
Kibbutz defenses in West Bank, looking out towards Dead Sea and Jordan…
If only the authors “zoomed out” a bit, they would see that the planning and the design of kibbutzim goes hand-in-hand with the Palestinian claim of right and the larger Arab-Israeli conflict. Countless birds-eye photos can be taken of the kibbutz, but metaphorically speaking, if they do not show Gaza City only two kilometers away, then a comparative assessment of kibbutzim cannot be fully understood. The authors do not even have ‘Palestine’, ‘Arab’, ‘Conflict’, or ‘Dystopia’ in their Index. The book is as idealistic as the ideology behind kibbutzim is: both are utopian in a dystopian reality.
A view of Gaza from a kibbutz 2km away…
West Bank Checkpoint
Built upon a hilltop, Rawabi means ‘Hills’ in Arabic and emulates Israeli hilltop settlements in the West Bank. With street design imitating an Arab bazaar (marketplace), all of the stone being used from the hills of the site, and Islamic financing methods implemented as a major component of the city’s banking sector, Rawabi is doing its best to be marketed as a contemporary and authentic Palestinian city. Still, many Palestinians disagree with its claim for authenticity, arguing that Rawabi is far from an authentic Palestinian city. Perhaps, it’s simply another pop-up city, like the place-less new cities in China.
However, Israel is not the only problem facing Rawabi. The unorganized, corrupt, and ill-suited Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) has provided almost no assistance to the largest project in the West Bank; indeed, the Qatari government arguably provides more funding. The public-private partnership between Rawabi and the PLO is a failure, and besides official approval, the PLO has not been able to built public infrastructure supporting the city. As a result, has been done privately, including Rawabi’s own waste water treatment plant and public schools.
By designing the Palestinian city, Masri is helping to craft a confident Palestinian identity. He is also increasing economic cooperation between the two future states. Hamas would argubaly not be voted into power if Gazans had hopes for a better future and were not impoverished. So, hopefully developing the economy and infrastructure of the West Bank will lessen Israel’s security concerns and lead to a relaxation of tensions and a smaller security wall. As it stands, many Israelis are supportive of Rawabi as it symbolizes an end to a victim complex, and the start of an empowering strategy. Physical infrastructure can alleviate social, economic, political, and environmental pressures, and Rawabi can positively alleviate Arab-Israeli tensions.
Israeli tanks near the Gaza border…
While many Israelis have voiced concern over the project largely due to security concerns or due to right-wing Zionism and a claim to the land, Palestinians have also voiced criticism due to deals with Israel. Still, Mr.Masri defends his cause, arguing that it is highly impractical to not make a deal with Israel in order to build a beacon for Palestine. He states that “the vast majority of Palestinians understand and know reality… every construction project in Palestine must have components from Israel”.
Palestinians also accuse Rawabi of emulating Israeli settlement design. Indeed, “some Palestinians have criticised the Rawabi project for accepting a donation of trees from an Israeli organization”, which they say mimics “the Jewish National Fund’s project of planting trees in villages whose residents were expelled during and after the Nakba [the Israeli War of Independence]”. They also argue that it looks “very much like a classic Jewish settlement, with neat rows of white houses spiralling round a hilltop”, and that the same design strategies are used for settlements with the exception of red roofs, which identify Jewish settlements for Israeli air force pilots.
Will Rawabi be an “authentic” city? (Amman, Jordan, above… with Roman ruins on a hill…)
Despite concerns, Rawabi is still a beacon for many Palestinians and a center of nation-building and identity construction for the future state. The official website promotes the city as a place to live, work, and play, and provides a live feed of construction in realtime. The site is also clearly a Palestinian site (with a .PS domain), and can easily be translated into Arabic, demonstrating that the website is for Palestinians – albeit the Palestinian elite. The Rawabi project also publishes a newsletter which features numerous propaganda images, including one of a church being constructed in the city. Being in ‘Area A’, Jews are technically not allowed in Rawabi, yet the developers makes a point of welcoming Christians into the city, which could be seen as a political move.
While many Israelis feel threatened by this project – especially the right-wing Zionists living in the occupied territories – many Jews also openly encourage the project. They state that Palestinians are finally doing something productive instead of blaming Israel for all of their problems; indeed, as Mr. Pomerantz in the Jerusalem Post writes, “we cannot complain that Palestinians live in squalor and then protest when they try to do something constructive”. The Palestinian Authority consistently fails to provide services to its citizens just as Hamas continues to attack basic human rights in the Gaza Strip; Rawabi is succeeding without the support of the Palestinian Authority. Israelis on this side of the spectrum contend that Israel “cannot continue to complain that the Palestinians are guilty of letting their people live uneducated and in squalor and then complain, yet again, when they try to do something constructive about the situation”, and they “applaud the plan to build this new city because for the first time in the 62 plus years of the history of the State of Israel, our neighbors who, for the moment, live under our control, are actually doing something constructive about creating a framework that bespeaks economic and social progress”.
Nevertheless, conservative Israelis still are hesitant to support the project. Rawabi is built next to Israeli settlements in the West Bank, which are illegal under international law, and these settlers understand the land of Judea and Samaria (the historical name for the West Bank) to be Jewish. While Mr. Masri has been accused of selling out to Israel, many Israeli companies have also been accused by the far-right of selling out to Mr. Masri. Mr. Masri made all companies working on his city sign a contract that they could not use Israeli products originating from the occupied territories. As a result, right-wing settlers have argued that “‘anyone building Rawabi should know that they won’t build Tel Aviv’”, and that these companies are collaborating with “‘Palestinian economic terrorism’”, selling ‘“their Zionist souls for a deal with the enemy’”. This is an extreme perspective that needs to be opposed.
In the end, many Israelis that are not under the direct interpretation of the Torah understand that Rawabi has productive potential. First, it is a source of socioeconomic development for Arabs; second, it is a catalyst for increased economic cooperation between the two peoples; and third, it could be a physical foundation of political legitimacy for the Palestinian government. Right-wing radical Jews are stalling progress as much as radical Palestinians that deny Israel’s right to exist. Both peoples need to take a balanced approach, make concessions, and build together.
Jordanian King on a billboard in Aqaba…
Divided down the center between Israel (top) and Jordan (bottom)…
(A few miles to the south: Saudi Arabia and Egypt)
New housing in Aqaba…
New hotel in Aqaba…
IMAX in Eilat (FYI, the real pyramids aren’t too far away either…)
The drive from Amman (Jordan’s capital) to Aqaba is absolutely stunning.
Somali Neighborhood in Tel Aviv, Israel
Somali Neighborhood in Tel Aviv, Israel
Somali Neighborhood in Tel Aviv, Israel
Suburban Shopping at Ashkelon, Israel
Joint Development Opportunities in Tel Aviv, Israel
River, Road, and Rail R.O.W. in Tel Aviv, Israel (Accessibility Concerns?)
Bomb Shelter Bus Station in Southern Israel
Public Transportation in Amman, Jordan
Traffic in Amman, Jordan
Petrol in Jordan
War, religion, refugees, oil, climate change, post-colonialism…