`The scornful attitude annoyed me'
A transplanted son of Burma who became a senior lecturer on architecture at the Technion looks back at growing up with the Zionist state.
In the land of his birth, Myanmar (formerly Burma) Hubert Law-Yone heard great things about Israel. His father, who was close to prime minister U Nu during the period of close relations between the two states, told him about the young country and its great leaders. He met many Israelis, read about Israel in magazines like Time and Life and even saw a film about how the Jews expelled the colonialist British from their land.
Israel, he says, looked to him "like a country that had a created a new and idealistic society. I had an image of a wise Jewish people, and this enchanted me."
However, when he came to Israel in 1961 to study at the Technion, "I was in shock because of the gap between the image and the reality," he said this week, more than 40 years after he settled here and on the occasion of his retirement as senior lecturer at the architecture faculty at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, Haifa. "From the first moment I saw there was a mess here. They gave me an empty room and said, `Take a bed, go buy sheets.' I didn't know the place and the language, and the scornful attitude annoyed me. The same stupid people I'd see everywhere in the world, I saw here too."
In Burma, Law-Yone had heard that the Technion was "the MIT of the Middle East, but I found that the level was low and insufficient. I also encountered racism. People stared at my facial features as though I had fallen from the moon, and they jeered. This was not the cosmopolitan people I had heard about, but rather a Third World country."
This difficult landing contributed quite a bit to Law-Yone's ambivalence toward Israel. In the gap between the image and the reality, his complete involvement in Israeli society and his contribution to the shaping of its image were formed, as was his acute and critical voice regarding its injustices.
Law-Yone, 70, who holds a doctorate in architecture and city planning, has been locking horns from day one with the institution where he was a senior lecturer until his retirement. "The Technion is almost an official government institution. It bears a message of governmental hegemony," he says, "and its purpose is to produce professionals in the service of the state. This is its essence. In my philosophy of teaching I try to open the students' eyes to see what is beyond the technology of the profession - the ideologies and the power mechanisms and the capital that it serves."
Over the years Law-Yone has been active in both establishment and alternative academic, professional and public frameworks and in political protest. Among other things, he participated in the urban planning of Kiryat Gat and the Krayot suburbs near Haifa, was a partner to the drawing up of Israel 2020 Master Plan, was active in the Council for a Beautiful Israel, served as chairman of the Architects' Association and also on the Committee for Solidarity with Bir Zeit University, the Yesh Gvul movement, B'Tselem-The Israeli Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, the Adva Center and more.
Of the Technion, he says, "It is most appropriate to describe the relations between us as mutual scorn."
Law-Yone was born in a small village in northern Burma on the Chinese border. "I'm one-quarter Burmese," he says. "In the family there are Chinese and even English roots." In the home of his father, who was baptized into Christianity by missionaries, they spoke only English, when doing so was a status symbol. His father supported U Nu's Western, pro-American, conservative political line.
Law-Yone himself was active in a leftist party, but unlike the Communists he believed that "in order to make a revolution there is no need to take over the government." Since the revolution in Burma in 1962 and the deposing of U Nu by a military junta, Law-Yone has in effect been a political exile ad cannot return to this homeland, where a bloody dictatorship now prevails.
"The right is looking for me because I had been a leftist," he says, "and the left because my father was a rightist and a conservative. Thus, if I go back, either I'll sit in jail or they'll put me up against the wall."
He sees Israel as his only home. He is married to Hava, an Israeli architect whom he met during his studies at the Technion, and they have two daughters and grandchildren. The house where the family lives in Haifa was built in the 1950s and had belonged to his wife's family. This is a modest and pleasant Israeli home, surrounded by an Israeli garden and overlooking the Carmel slopes at a very Israeli landscape.
In the 1970s, after a quarrel with the Technion, Law-Yone's family considered immigrating to the United Staes. But when he saw the discrimination and the oppression of the blacks in the South, he decided to link his fate to Israel after all and fight the injustices here. He speaks Hebrew without a trace of other languages and only a slight accent, and sees himself as Israel in every respect, "sharing a common past with everyone who lives here."
Law-Yone came to the Technion at the beginning of the 1960s to continue the studies in electronics that he had begun at Stanford University, but in the end chose architecture.
"Architecture enchanted me because an aura had been created around it of the creation of a beautiful new world," he says. After completing his architecture studies, he worked at Ram Karmi's firm, which planned the new central bus station in Tel Aviv, and the aura shattered.
"I saw there a process of decision-making that had no connection to planning," he says, "and for me this was a lesson in how the profession has been corrupted. Architecture is only to build for the wealthy and the powerful, and not what they tell us about a new world."
When he began studying for a doctorate, Law-Yone decided to specialize in city planning, a profession without a romantic aura of "bohemian creativity," but a field that affords tools for understanding power relations.
In a field he helped to found, "the ideology of planning," Law-Yone tried to understand "how it happened that the planning mechanism has become so powerful and controlling. The architects don't talk about this but say, `Let us work undisturbed and create beautiful things. The general public also collaborates with this - it still sees architecture as art. I think that the link between money and bourgeois enchantment gives the profession enormous power."
In academia and in his organizational activity, Law-Yone speaks out strongly against the huge power given to establishment planning in Israel, and against the Planning and Building Law in its current format. "A person who closes a balcony can be put in prison here," he says. "Where has anyone heard of a thing like that?"
Law-Yone, among the first to specialize in city planning at the Technion, says: "My teachers were beneath criticism. They simply did not know anything." And the situation has not improved. The faculty at the Technion today, he calls, "a petrified and obsolete place. For decades now they have been paging through the same materials, on pages that have yellowed, and [hold] irrelevant theories, with no attempt to present the students with critical thought and information about what is happening here and now."
At the Technion, says Law-Yone, they see everyone who comes with a degree from the United States as the be-all and end-all. "They create an imperialism of knowledge that has no connection to the culture and the place. This enables them to be cut off from people - from the Palestinians, from the Mizrahim (Jews with origins in the Muslim countries), from all the `others.' They are connected only to the power centers."
Law-Yone feels that he does not even have anyone with whom to argue. "An intelligent person like Professor Robert Oxman, who was formerly the dean at the Technion, came with a lot of knowledge from abroad. But he never read a book in Hebrew. How can he relate to the local culture?" As a member of various committees at the Technion, Law-Yone sees from close up how "the fact of selection pushes to the margins anyone who tries to present a different perspective. And there is also two-facedness. If there is an Arab student, they encourage him to research his culture. But if he wants to go on to a doctorate, they regard him with suspicion - maybe he'll write something against the state and they say, `We're not certain that he is doctorate material.' In this way, the interesting voices are gradually disappearing, and conformity and mediocrity are taking over."
If there is something that nevertheless saves the faculty, says Law-Yone, it is the fact that to this day the best and most talented students come to the Technion. "If there is any interesting debate, it is with the students. But by the third year most of them already understand that something is not right. They don't succeed in focusing on the problem, they become cynical and they gradually stop coming to class. In the fourth and fifth years they become completely mute. I myself recommend to the good students that they study abroad, for want of a better alternative."
In the lion's den
Some of those who share Law-Yone's outlook - outstanding students of his who are now researchers in their own right - held a symposium in his honor on Tuesday on the occasion of his retirement, under the heading "Between Hegemony and Radical Practice: Professionals and the Production of the Space." The symposium was held at the Technion with the participation of the dean of the faculty, Professor Arza Churchman. But the institution had no part in the initiative. His official retirement, over two years ago, was accompanied by discordant notes, which Law-Yone defines as "a spit in the face." Neither side had reason to celebrate.
After years during which he had fought for every professional promotion, the faculty refused to give him a full professorship. "I expected to receive it," he says with quiet bitterness, "and it was also important to me economically. But I didn't get anything. They just asked when I would clear out of the room."
Why, then, did he remain at the Technion for so many years? Law-Yone: "My aim has never been to be an anarchist whom they put in prison. It is important to me to be in the lion's den, in the place where they do the worst brainwashing, and to subvert it. It is also important to the Technion that they have someone like me, who speaks for them against discrimination and oppression. So now I can still take advantage of this and continue to teach one course, and give the students something to think about. I also enjoy it."