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Haim Yacobi, Israel and Africa: A Genealogy of Moral Geography

Abingdon, Oxon; New York, NY: Routledge 2016 (Routledge Studies in Middle Eastern Geography, 1)
Ayala Levin
Référence(s) :

Haim Yacobi, Israel and Africa: A Genealogy of Moral Geography, Abingdon, Oxon; New York, NY: Routledge 2016 (Routledge Studies in Middle Eastern Geography, 1)

Entrées d’index

Indice de palabras clave:

influencia, desarollo, modernización, geopolítica

Index géographique :

Afrique, Asie, Moyen-Orient, Israël

Index chronologique :

XXe siècle, 1960, 1970
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Texte intégral

The author of this review has collaborated with the author of the book on the exhibition Mission: Architecture, Planning and Development from Israel to Africa which was held in Beit Ha'Adrichal Gallery in Jaffa in 2015, alongside Eran Tamir and Zvi Elhyani.

1Haim Yacobi’s Israel and Africa: A Genealogy of Moral Geography boldly outlines the significant role the African continent has played in Israel’s political and cultural self-fashioning. Like its Middle Eastern setting, Africa’s geographic proximity and the web of ties this proximity entails are denied in the Israeli society, all the while the continent is produced as Israel’s “other.” Through its relationships with Africa, the author argues, Israel constitutes itself as Western, modern, enlightened, and “white.” The publication could not be more timely as Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has recently embarked on an “African Tour” to revive the close diplomatic, economic, and military relations that once existed between Israel and many of the countries in the continent.

2The book consists of chapters organized around three space-time axes that move between the historical and the contemporary: “Israel in Africa” depicts the “golden age” of Israeli international relations with decolonizing African states that reaches its peak in the 1960s. The first two chapters focus on the Israeli export of models of “development” via national physical planning, frontier settlements, and architecture as part of Israeli foreign aid during the 1960s–1970s. The second part “Africa in Israel,” revolves around the construction of “Africa” in geography textbooks, ethnographic art exhibitions, and travel journals during this period, and arrives to the present with a chapter on the Israeli new town Netivot. This chapter explores how the diasporic imagination and spatial practices of its residents, whose majority is Jewish immigrants from Morocco, have shaped the town’s space via the recreation of symbolic sites from their towns of origin. The third chapter in this section deals with the “racialization” of the contemporary Israeli space through the movement of refugees from Africa in its urban spaces. The concluding part returns to “Israel in Africa” with the revival of Israeli “aid” to African countries in recent years. The various chapters differ in the sources used, which range from archival research and interviews to review of contemporary and historical print media. These are all consolidated under a single thesis concerning Israel’s “moral geopolitics” through which it “whitens” itself domestically and internationally.

  • 1 Eitan Bar-Yosef, A Villa in the Jungle: Africa in Israeli Culture, Jerusalem: Van Leer Institute; (...)

3As the author explains, this book is not about “Africa” but about the Israeli society. The introduction parses out Israel’s various “Africas” that serve as reference points for its own self-construction: the unrealized colonization plans in El Arish (Egypt) and Kenya (the Uganda Proposal) debated at the Zionist Congress at the turn of the twentieth century; the decolonizing countries Israel has had diplomatic relations with since the late 1950s; the analogy its contemporary critics draw between Israel’s discriminatory policies and apartheid South Africa; the presence of Africans and African cultures in Israel, either via the immigration of Jews from North Africa and Ethiopia, or the contemporary influx of African refugees through the Egyptian border. All these “Africas” are refracted in Israel as a reflective mirror, and confront it with the liberal self-image it relentlessly attempts to bolster. In this sense, this book is a welcome addition to recent publications in the fields of literature and cultural studies that deal with the imagination of “Africa” as a critical self-reflection, such as Eitan Bar-Yosef’s A Villa in the Jungle: Africa in Israeli Culture (2013) and Antoinette Burton’s Africa in the Indian Imagination: Race and the Politics of Postcolonial Citation (2016).1 Yacobi’s book joins these publications in the type of questions he raises and the discourse analysis he employs, while adding to their predominantly textual analysis issues of space and policy.

4The case studies presented in the book draw from various fields, ranging from ethnographic art exhibitions through travel literature to urban geography and international relations. Quite naturally, its ambitious multidisciplinary approach renders it vulnerable to disciplinary critiques, such as regarding its indiscriminate use of sources, and the interpretive frameworks employed. Indeed, each of the case studies examined could be situated in an entirely different scholarly context. For example, the chapter on the Israeli town Netivot, which takes the reader on a fascinating journey across geographies in a town that recreates Moroccan symbolic spaces, can be studied in relation to comparable diasporic imaginaries in Israel or elsewhere. Yet this inclusion testifies to the books' unique capacity to bring together such as disparate themes under a single forceful thesis, and to do so concisely and jargon-free, thus appealing to various audiences.

5In addition to the above mentioned chapter on Netivot, of interest to architectural historians is the second chapter that deals with the export of Israeli architecture and planning to African countries in the 1960s–1970s. In this chapter, Yacobi discusses Team 10 member Yona Friedman’s theoretical work, as well as the lesser-known work of Arieh Sharon in Nigeria, Zalman Enav in Ethiopia, and Tommy Leitersdorf in the Ivory Coast. Yacobi situates each of the architects in the different contexts in which they operated, and which in turn enabled them to gain access to projects in the African countries. The inclusion of Friedman, who is mostly known for his work after immigrating to France from Israel where he spent a number of years following World War II, is innovative considering that his Israeli sojourn is usually mentioned, if at all, only in passing. Situating Friedman’s Ville Spatiale in the context of Israeli experiments in mass housing plugs him into the Israeli canon, while giving an international credence to the architects that follow in this chapter, and whose stronger ties with the Israeli establishment (both the private and public sectors) paved the way for the implementation of concrete projects in the continent.

  • 2 For studies on architectural and construction aid in African countries from socialist and Non-Alig (...)

6As the case of Friedman demonstrates, the lenses one needs to employ when dealing with Israeli architects’ work in African countries are both the local and international disciplinary discourses. The question that should be asked is how Israeli architects competed over a foothold in the development market in Africa by claiming, for example, a specialized expertise in adapting disciplinary international knowledge to African needs. While Yacobi briefly attempts to differentiate Israeli architects’ work from their colonial predecessors, he nonetheless links it to European-imperial knowledge networks. Regrettably, perhaps due to the brevity in which each case study is discussed, the tension between the two is not fully articulated at the level of the architectural analysis. Moreover, this analysis does not acknowledge the multiple new players that entered the Cold War development race, especially since the 1960s, from both blocs and the Non-Aligned Movement.2 As a result, this study does not account for the complex and variegated terrain in which architects had to negotiate modernity and modernization beyond the strict binary of European modernity versus the “undeveloped” non-West. For example, when situating Arieh Sharon’s plan for the University of Ife in “global” Modernist architecture, Yacobi limits Sharon’s references to visits to campuses designed by modernist heroes Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, and Alvar Aalto. This list of names obscures the fact that the Nigerian university committee visited campuses in Latin America, which served as important models for non-European modernism.

7As a critical genealogy, this book does not attempt to say the final word on the subject, but to generate a productive discourse around the issues it raises. Each of its chapters should be read as an open invitation for further study, which, in turn, could shed new light on the thought-provoking set of propositions posed in the introduction concerning the inadequacy of the colonial or center-periphery frameworks to fully capture Israel-Africa’s relationship, or how this relationship invites us to revisit the theory of Orientalism with a new exploratory lens. Moving forward, it would be truly riveting to situate and examine this research in a comparative framework with the Arab world’s historic and continuing involvement in the African continent, beginning with the important role Gamal Abdel Nasser played as one of the leaders of the Non-Aligned Movement and the Organization of African Unity. How have modernization processes and “development aid” been historically perceived in the Arab countries, who similarly to Israel acted as both recipients and donors of aid, and how was their Arabness constructed (as white?) vis-à-vis its complicated affiliation with the African Muslims? This kind of groundbreaking analysis will help situate Israel’s modernity in a relativist moral-geopolitical frame, and will challenge its claim for regional exceptionality. Indeed, given the many players—of different color, religion, and political alignment—that have participated in the development race since World War II, one could wonder whether the binary categories of “white” versus “black” or “east” versus “west” are still useful in analyzing the globalized world as it has been shaped since the mid-twentieth century.

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1 Eitan Bar-Yosef, A Villa in the Jungle: Africa in Israeli Culture, Jerusalem: Van Leer Institute; Ha’Kibbutz Ha’Meuchad, 2013 (in Hebrew); Antoinette Burton, Africa in the Indian Imagination: Race and the Politics of Postcolonial Citation, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016.

2 For studies on architectural and construction aid in African countries from socialist and Non-Aligned countries see Łukasz Stanek, “Architects from Socialist Countries in Ghana (1957–1967): Architecture and Mondialization,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, vol. 74, no. 4, December 2015, p. 416–442; Łukasz Stanek, “Introduction: The ‘Second World’s’ Architecture and Planning in the Third World,” Journal of Architecture, vol. 17, no. 3, 2012, p. 299–307; Dubravka Sekulić, Three Points of Support: Zoran Bojović, exhibition catalogue (Belgrade, Museum of Contemporary Art, 18 September–22 October 2012), Belgrade: Museum of Contemporary Art, 2013 (I thank Vladimir Kulić for this reference); Cole Roskam, “Non-Aligned Architecture: China’s Design on and in Ghana and Guinea, 1955–1992,” Architectural History, vol. 58, January 2015, p. 261–291.

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Ayala Levin, « Haim Yacobi, Israel and Africa: A Genealogy of Moral Geography »ABE Journal [En ligne], 11 | 2017, mis en ligne le 05 octobre 2017, consulté le 16 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Ayala Levin

Northwestern University, Department of Art History, Evanston, IL, USA

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