Gove's reaction to the censure of Israeli architects involved in illegal construction in the West Bank was to be expected

The Education Secretary's sensitivity on Jewish issues is nothing new

Mira Bar Hillel
Wednesday 09 April 2014 15:41
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Mr Gove has spent much of his political career insisting that he is the not the man for the job of Prime Minister
Mr Gove has spent much of his political career insisting that he is the not the man for the job of Prime Minister

The Education Secretary seems to thrive on strife. If it’s not the teachers, it’s parents, critics of academies or free schools, or any critics for that matter.

His adversaries – and even his own civil servants - fear his cutting wit and influence on Number 10, while his supporters hope he may be moving to that address himself before too long.

He took on architects early on in his career. In February 2011, at a Free Schools conference in London, he said: “We won’t be getting Richard Rogers to design your school, we won’t be getting any ‘Award winning architects’ to design it, because no-one in this room is here to make architects richer.”

Fair enough, some may say, although it annoyed Lord Rogers among others, prompting the architect to write in defence of the important role played by well-designed buildings in helping to deliver effective education.

But his latest assault has a political dimension.

The Royal Institute of British Architects has voted to censure Israeli architects because of their continuing involvement in construction of illegal settlement in occupied West Bank.

The measure was instigated by RIBA past president Angela Brady, on the basis that the Israeli architects’ association has long been in breach of the International Architect's Association’s 2005 Resolution condemning the building of settlements on occupied land.

Gove has attacked the RIBA for showing ‘selective outrage’ by agreeing to lobby the International Union of Architects (UIA) to suspend the membership of the Israeli. At an event organised by the Jewish Chronicle he questioned why it had not taken a similar stance against Syria and China.

Brady replied: “This is not about China or anywhere else and I’m not talking about who is worse than who. This is not a boycott. It is affirmation that architects should not practice in occupied territories; it breaks international law and the UIA’s own code.”

Gove’s move may have backfired, as the RIBA has now been defended by a group of 65 Jewish and non-Jewish supporters - including artist Antony Gormley, Maggie’s Centres founder Charles Jenks and film director Mike Leigh – who said the attacks were ‘politically motivated smears’. A spokesman for the group said: “We are aware of the difficulties liable to be faced by any body which voices public criticism of the Israeli government.”

They have published a petition in support of the RIBA. It says: “We understand that you have taken this action because Israeli architects have been closely involved in the design and building of illegal settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and also in the construction of the Apartheid Wall that runs deep into the illegally occupied area.

“Many people, Jewish and non-Jewish, architects and non-architects, will be heartened by this example of a respected body taking up its ethical and professional responsibilities in so resolute a manner.”

Gove’s sensitivity on Jewish issues is not new. In May 2012 he launched a blistering attack on the AQA examination board after one of its GCSE religious studies papers asked candidates to explain "why some people are prejudiced against Jews".

An AQA spokesman said that “In many exam questions 'explain' is used to mean 'give an account of', not ‘justify’. For example, in the past we have asked students to explain why some people commit crimes. No one has accused us of condoning criminal activity”.

But Gove insisted that “to suggest anti-Semitism could ever be explained was insensitive and, frankly, bizarre."

So much for freedom of expression, or even of thought.

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