Pinkwashing Zion Square

Comment International Urbanism
The vibrant nightlife at Zion Square; Orthodox Jews dance to techno in the public plaza. (Courtesy Daviddje/Flickr)
The vibrant nightlife at Zion Square; Orthodox Jews dance to techno in the public plaza. (Courtesy Daviddje/Flickr)

When the Freedom of Information Act became law, many of my comrades from the struggles of the sixties sent away for their files. For a number there was a terrible outcome: The files were empty. How terrible to think of yourself as a dangerous enemy of the state only to discover you’d been completely beneath its notice!

Slightly similar feelings arose when I received a note from the director of media affairs at the Israeli Consulate General wondering if I would be interested in covering a just-announced architectural competition for the redesign of Jerusalem’s Zion Square, a Mandate-era public space in West Jerusalem that has, since the 1930s, been a commercial center (the eponymous Zion was a cinema) and the go-to site for a wide variety of demonstrations, including mass rallies by both right and left. The competition is intended to refresh the site as well as to rebrand and repurpose it, “From Protest Square to Tolerance Square.” As the press release elaborates this false—even invidious—antithesis, “Zion Square, which drew demonstrations and protests, will become a square of tolerance and mutual respect.” Apparently my old pieces denouncing the fraudulent “Museum of Tolerance” (currently under construction on the site of an historic Arab cemetery not far away) and originally to have been designed by Frank Gehry (who wisely backed out) hadn’t made it to my dossier! Perhaps I have no dossier! Let one be opened and let my protest against this grotesque undertaking be the first page!



This isn’t the first time there’s been an effort to reconsider the square. In 2006, the Jerusalem Foundation proposed to rebuild it and to rename it Rapoport Plaza, “in honor,” according to the Jerusalem Post, “of the Waco, Texas, tycoon who pledged two million for urban improvements,” including a colossal Cor-ten sculpture by Ron Arad. Although this scheme disappeared quickly, the funkiness and formal incoherence of the time-altered place has been an enduring source of dismay to bien pensant planners, concerned with its failures as a streetscape. The design brief for the new effort at transformation is couched in anodyne architectural language and calls for an “innovative, creative, and sustainable” solution to create a “beating heart of the city” that will become the “focal point of the city’s cultural activity,” supporting a “heterogeneous” “target audience” of “residents, tourists, and visitors” while attentive “to the needs of a diverse population, including children, seniors, and those with disabilities.”

Concealed behind these “universal” categories is the more salient fact that this transformation will further ratify and reify steps already taken to shut down the square as a political space. In 2012, after the opening of Jerusalem’s light rail, the municipality signed a contract with CityPass, the system operator, which “prohibits the train being stopped by a roadblock.” This smooth-sailing clause has been enabled by, among other things, the government’s ongoing denial of any permits for demonstrations by anyone in Zion Square, through which the tram passes. In formulation and practice, here, tolerance is equated with prohibition and silence, with restrictions on speech rather than its encouragement. The competition organizers attempt to divert attention from this effective intolerance by a vaguely formulated dedication of the project “in memory of the 16-year-old stabbed during last year’s Gay Pride parade in Jerusalem.”

Two municipal workers arrange and distribute free Friday newspapers in the square. (Courtesy zeevveez / Flickr)

Two municipal workers arrange and distribute free Friday newspapers in the square. (Courtesy zeevveez/Flickr)

As a further marker of the particular species of exclusionary tolerance hovering over the affair, the adjudicating jury is made up entirely of Jewish Israelis, including the Likudnik mayor of Jerusalem, three highly placed municipal officials (two current, one former), four architects, and the mother of Shira Banki, the girl murdered by an unrepentant, settlement-dwelling, Haredi homophobe, who killed her shortly after his release from a 10-year prison term for having stabbed five people at the 2005 Pride march (he knifed another six in 2015). What a sad exploitation of grief to serve such a cravenly elastic idea of tolerance. But the self-congratulatory propaganda that seeks to use one form of ostensible liberality to mask a far more endemic repression is, alas, an old story. For many years, Israeli officialdom has been working hard to celebrate its welcoming attitude toward gay tourists. According to a  much cited op-ed by Sarah Schulman in the New York Times in 2011, the government launched “Brand Israel” in 2004, a marketing campaign aimed at men aged 18 to 24 (posters galore of buff boys on the beach), which was expanded a few years later in a $90 million ad blitz to brand Tel Aviv as “an international gay vacation destination.”

The strategy has been widely described as “pinkwashing” for the calculating effort to universalize gay “solidarity” in order to obscure Israel’s attitude towards more intolerable forms of identity. As Jasbir Puar and Maya Mikdashi wrote in the e-zine Jadaliyya in 2012, pinkwashing functions to help the Israeli state “gloss over the ongoing settler colonialism of historic Palestine by redirecting international attention toward a comparison between the supposedly stellar record of gay rights in Israel and the supposedly dismal state of life for LGBTQ Palestinians  in Occupied Palestine.” The ploy is even more fundamentally invidious: Makdsashi argued in an earlier piece, that this focus on gay rights—or women’s rights—serves to displace attention from the larger question of political rights and calls out the canny, if racist, Israeli self-promotion as advertising “a safe haven for Palestinian queers from ‘their culture.’”

Conspicuously absent in the PR announcing the architectural competition is any acknowledgement of an earlier attack in Zion Square, the attempted lynching (a word widely used in the Israeli media) of four Palestinian teenagers by a Jewish mob in 2012, which resulted in the near death of 17-year-old Jamal Julani. The incident was itself marked by its own particular version of “tolerance”: As a headline in Haaretz put it, “Hundreds Watched Attempt to Lynch Palestinians in Jerusalem, Did Not Interfere.” That the organizers of this competition have chosen, in effect, to so narrowly celebrate a particular form of intolerance with the commemorative dignity of a refreshed architecture only demonstrates—like the opposition it offers between “protests” and “mutual respect”—that intolerance will not be protested here.



There’s a fine essay by Herbert Marcuse—written in 1965 as part of the volume A Critique of Pure Tolerance—on the subject of “repressive tolerance,” in which he describes how the idea of tolerance acquires a particular valence depending on the circumstances of its promotion. Marcuse elucidates the conundrum of the ideal of tolerance in an environment of violence and “total administration” in which the exercise of nominal democratic liberties (voting, demonstrations, letters to the editor) serve to reinforce the ability of the system  to pursue its own bad ends.  In effect, tolerance—the enlargement “of the range and content of freedom,” something devoutly desired as an ultimate good—is made the instrument by which all it strives for is ignored. “Tolerance” becomes a fig-leaf for intolerance. Such unquestioning is used to make dissent meaningless, purging truth-seeking by offering effective equality to any value at all under the guise of an impartiality that reinforces the status quo.

The Jerusalem government—through this competition—seeks to create an advertisement for its own warped idea of tolerance rather than to enable the thing itself. As Marcuse put it, “When tolerance mainly serves the protection and preservation of a repressive society, when it serves to neutralize opposition and to render men immune against other and better forms of life, then tolerance has been perverted.”

No designer of conscience should participate in this awful sham, which only insults the memory of the victims—and the heroes—of Zion Square.

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