Frank Gehry added his name this week to a list of more than 150 art world luminaries who are supporting Israeli actors who refuse to perform in a West Bank Jewish settlement. He is the first architect to sign the letter of support, which is being circulated online by Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), a U.S. organization that promotes peace in the Middle East through equality for Israelis and Palestinians.
The letter was published September 6. It has since been signed by actors Julianne Moore and Wallace Shawn, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner, and composer Stephen Sondheim, among others. Repeated attempts to obtain a statement from Gehry’s office were unsuccessful.
The letter stems from an August 27 incident, when roughly 60 Israeli theater professionals said they would not perform in Ariel, one of the largest West Bank settlements, located about 25 miles from Tel Aviv. Israeli military officials established Ariel in 1978 under the pretext of military needs, and such settlements are now broadly regarded as illegal under international law. The artists protested when a new performing arts center in Ariel announced that it would open its doors with plays by Israeli theater companies.
According to Ynetnews.com, the artists sent a letter to the boards of Israel’s repertory theaters, issuing their “disgust” and stating: “We urge the boards to hold their activity within the sovereign borders of the State of Israel within the Green Line.”
Less than two weeks later, JVP released its letter in support of the artists. “It’s thrilling to think that these Israeli theater artists have refused to allow their work to be used to normalize a cruel occupation that they know to be wrong,” reads the statement.
JVP staffer Jesse Bacon says he doesn’t know why Gehry chose to support the boycott, but adds that “architecture is really key to the conflict.” The settlements are built as fortresses, he says, “shutting out the land around them and claiming the land inside for the Israeli government.” Although there is a temporary moratorium on Israeli construction in the settlements during the current peace negotiations, JVP Deputy Director Cecilie Surasky says construction has continued and will continue until architects and planners say “no.”
Gehry is familiar with the confluence of architecture and politics in Israel. In March, he stepped down as lead architect of the Museum of Tolerance, a 230,000-square-foot museum slated to be built in Jerusalem and backed by the L.A.-based Simon Wiesenthal Center. Specifics as to why he stepped down were not provided; in a joint statement issued in January with the center, Gehry simply said “our staff and resources are committed to other projects around the globe, and thus I will not be able to participate in the redesign effort.” Controversy over the project erupted in 2006, when workers uncovered graves and human remains at the site.