Richard Rogers, or Lord Rogers of Riverside, as he is styled in Britain, is one of the most distinguished architects in the world. From the day the Centre Pompidou opened its doors in Paris in 1977, his career has been a series of triumphs: the headquarters of Lloyds insurance in London, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, the Millennium Dome in Greenwich, Madrid’s new Barajas airport and, most recently, the Welsh Assembly. Rogers is famous not just for his iconic buildings but also for his progressive politics and his extraordinary network of friends, associates and admirers. So when he agreed in February to host the London inaugural meeting of Architects and Planners for Justice in Palestine, the event went unnoticed here.
That is, it went unnoticed until early March, when Rogers found that even a casual association with the Palestinian cause placed all his New York work in jeopardy. Rogers, who’d been awarded the $1.7 billion expansion of the Jacob Javits Convention Center and a commission to redevelop the Lower East Side riverfront, was summoned to New York to explain himself to Empire State Development Corporation chair Charles Gargano. Sheldon Silver, speaker of the New York Assembly, demanded that Rogers be fired from publicly funded projects; he also threatened that Silvercup Studios, a film studio and office complex in Queens, would be unlikely to get tax credits with Rogers as architect. Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, labeled Rogers’s involvement “an affront…to the legacy of Senator Javits,” noting that the late Republican had been a staunch defender of Israel.
The story of Rogers’s American inquisition has no heroes.The son of a Jewish doctor who fled Fascist Italy for London, Rogers might have reminded his tormentors that the British organizer of the offending architects’ group, his friend Abe Hayeem, is also a Jew. He could have pointed out that the group’s criticism of Israel for building its separation wall echoed the findings of the International Court of Justice. Instead, he folded faster than a house of cards, abandoning his colleagues–and the Palestinians–in a recantation that was as brutal as it was effective.
Rogers didn’t just take a dive, ditching the group with the irrelevant declaration that he abhors boycotts. (Though a boycott of firms or architects who work on the separation wall or on West Bank settlements had been discussed, no decisions were made at the London meeting.) Under the expert guidance of Howard Rubinstein, New York’s public relations consultant to the stars, Rogers actually pronounced himself “in favor of [the wall] to thwart terror attacks on Israel.” He recalled the joys of spending his honeymoon in the Holy Land, and said that the Middle East conflict is between “a country that is a terrorist state and a country that’s a democratic state. I’m all for the democratic state.” That was good enough for the formerly furious New York pols, who now pronounced the repentant Rogers kosher.
The whole unedifying spectacle might have been designed as a companion piece for My Name Is Rachel Corrie, the British play about an American woman killed by an Israeli bulldozer in Gaza, whose production has been “indefinitely postponed” by the New York Theatre Workshop [see Philip Weiss in this issue]. If the Corrie “postponement” suggests New Yorkers have no ears for the sufferings of Palestinians, Rogers’s ordeal implies that in the current political climate, Palestinians have become such pariahs that even to appear sympathetic to their cause is dangerous to one’s career. But while theater people and Arab-Americans objected to NYTW’s failure of nerve, Rogers’s rush to retraction cut the legs out from under any protest on his behalf or the public’s, leaving no time to challenge the claim that these modern McCarthyites speak for all New Yorkers–black, white, Hispanic, Jewish, Christian, Muslim. Lost also was the opportunity to puncture the pretense that all–or most–American Jews blindly endorse any Israeli action, no matter how extreme or indefensible. Instead, it’s become even harder to acknowledge the futility, indeed the obscenity, of treating the entire Palestinian people as political lepers whose hunger for justice, or simple compassion, has no claim on our attention.
There’s more at stake here than local politics. Since the “war on terror” began, too many Americans have become inured to enforced patriotism and ideological litmus tests. We hardly notice the way that speech itself has come to be regarded as something to be policed, or the way that dissent, the lifeblood of freedom, is constantly devalued. Rogers’s cave-in is all the more reason for the rest of us to speak up: for the Palestinians, for American Jews who don’t regard Hoenlein as their spokesman, against blacklists, against censorship and above all against the rising tide of fear.