Into - and Out of - Africa

At a time when Israel's standing is shaky on the global front, maybe it's time to learn some lessons from the era, three or four decades ago, when it boasted strong ties with much of the African continent.

Noam Dvir
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Noam Dvir

Forty years ago, on Rosh Hashanah 1970, Haaretz Magazine hailed real-estate developer Moshe Mayer as its "man of the year." In a story headlined "Keeper of Foreign Vineyards," the magazine offered extensive coverage of Mayer's prosperous commercial activities in West Africa, and trumpeted his excellent connections with political leaders around the entire continent.

"The State of Israel is too small for Moshe Mayer," the article fawned. "He is constructing housing, skyscrapers and luxury hotels, and building rivieras and presidential palaces. For over 20 years he has been hopping to and fro ... spending most of his time in airplanes or at his Geneva headquarters."

Golda Meir with Ivory Coast president Houphouet-Boigny.Credit: Courtesy of Wolfson Clore Mayer Corporation Collection

The motivation for Mayer's selection as the most important figure in 1970 was the dedication of Hotel Ivoire in Abidjan, the former capital of Ivory Coast. In circa-1970 terms, Ivoire was a colossal tourism project; it included two towers with 520 air-conditioned rooms, a cinema, an ice-skating rink, restaurants, coffee shops, nightclubs, a private marina and also a luxury casino - a first in Africa. The hotel, designed by Heinz Fenchel, who at the time was also the designer of Israel's Dan hotel chain, reflected still-pervasive Western colonialist interests in wild Africa. For good reason, then, did The Economist hasten that same year to declare the Ivoire the most beautiful hotel in the world.

Israelis looked with admiration at the activities of Mayer, the home-grown millionaire who had succeeded in "making it big." Mayer garnered praise, covered by a thin veneer of envy, of the sort now reserved for high-tech tycoons.

Ivoire was only the first step in the so-called African Riviera project developed by Mayer, which involved creation of a new city of 120,000 along the banks of a tropical laguna outside Abidjan. The project was planned by Israeli architects and funded by international financial bodies - and all was orchestrated by Mayer. The then-president of Ivory Coast, Dr. Felix Houphouet-Boigny, was instrumental in removing the bureaucratic logjams that might have hindered the man he called his "close friend."

"Mayer used to sit with Houphouet-Boigny for nights on end. Together they would dream about the future of Ivory Coast," architect Thomas Leitersdorf, the man who headed the African Riviera planning team, recalled in an interview last month. "He went there with his own money at a time when foreign businessmen were still afraid to go."

Leitersdorf, who was married to Mayer's daughter, wasn't yet 30 when he embarked on his own adventure in Africa .

"When you are handed this sort of project as a kid," he explains, "it is just unbelievable, because in our profession you plan and you plan, and then you tread water until you actually see the bulldozers start to move earth. Yet here they were, pulling the plans out of our hands even before we'd finished sketching them. You have to bear in mind that African leaders like Houphouet-Boigny are practically omnipotent, with all the good and the bad that comes with that. You submit the plans to one person, who is both the planning committee and finance minister. You reach an agreement with him, and that's all there is to it. There's no bullshit. The work begins the very next day."

Notwithstanding its grand dimensions, the Riviera was only one among hundreds of projects planned (and often constructed, as well ) by Israelis in Africa. The "export" of architecture to Africa and Asia was, from the 1950s to the early 1970s, part of a declared diplomatic policy in Israel. The government was interested in breaking through the country's geographic and economic isolation, and finding new strategic partners in what was then called the "second circle" of states, which included Iran, Cyprus and the countries of Black Africa.

Indeed, Israel played a part in the process of modernization there, exporting advanced technologies and top agricultural experts, while helping to establish infrastructure for construction. The developing countries in turn forged collaborative links with Israeli companies and became friendly with the Jewish state in the international diplomatic arena. In 1964, the number of Israeli experts in Africa was double that of all of the member states of the OECD, relative to population size.

One national figure known for aggressively spearheading Israeli involvement in Africa was Golda Meir. An assertive and resolute foreign minister during the years 1956-66, she turned the development of ties with emerging countries in Africa into a personal and national mission. In one of her most memorable statements relating to development in Africa, Meir once told the directors of Solel Boneh, the construction giant: "I don't want you to lose [money] there, but for God's sake - no big profits, please."

Within five years, beginning in 1952, Meir succeeded in establishing diplomatic relations with all of the states of Black Africa. In her 1976 autobiography, "My Life," she explained that the close ties between Israelis and Africans were tied to their shared fate as citizens of states that had been liberated from the yoke of colonialism: "The developing states in Africa had a great interest in what Israel could give and wanted to give. Like them, we were liberated from foreign rule. Like them, we had to learn how to reclaim the land ... Independence was not served up to us on a silver platter, but only after years of struggle, just like Africa ... We could not offer the Africans money or weapons, but on the other hand we did not bear the stain of colonial exploitation, since all we wanted in exchange was friendship ."

'Mutual enchantment'

The planning and architectural assistance Israel provided to Africa in those years helped to shape the national "face" of these young states, after years of colonial oppression. Israelis planned it all: infrastructure, schools, public and government institutions. They conducted studies on residential housing needs, and even aided in drawing up national master plans for Chad and Sierra Leone.

Communal settlements in the spirit of the moshav and the kibbutz were established in Nigeria, Tanzania, Kenya, Ivory Coast, Ethiopia and Zambia. Public housing reminiscent of that erected in Be'er Sheva and Bat Yam was planned and constructed in Ghana, Uganda and Ivory Coast. Foreign assistance programs were coordinated by the Institute for Planning and Development, an arm of Israel's foreign affairs and housing ministries. Thus, architecture became an influential means of promoting Israeli foreign policy.

"In the romance between Israel and Africa, there was a large measure of mutual enchantment," says Dr. Haim Yacobi of the department of geography at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. Yacobi, now a research fellow at Cambridge University, where he is conducting a comprehensive study of Israel and Africa, is about to publish two lengthy articles on their relations - the first in the prestigious periodical Geopolitics, and the second in the Dutch periodical Oase.

"The Africans [were] willing to accept aid from Israel, because it itself is a country that went through decolonization, and because it succeeded in very quickly standing up on its feet," explains Yacobi. "The narrative of shared fate recurs on both sides. I have found many documents related to visits to Israel by African leaders, who in their speeches have been emphatic about expressing the notion that the peoples in Africa and the Jews should be together. All of the Israeli leaders were going there. President Yitzhak Ben-Zvi went there in the late 1950s because Africa was of interest to him as a place to which the biblical Jewish tribes vanished. He was already in his twilight years - a fact that indicates the special importance he attributed to the visit."

Zalman Einav, one of the most active Israeli architects in Africa, spent eight years of his life in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital. Einav graduated from the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology's legendary class of 1954, where his classmates included the architects Zvi Hecker and Dan Eitan. After a few government jobs, when he still felt he was "a technician and not an architect," Einav decided to continue his studies at the prestigious AA School of Architecture in London, where he was enrolled in the department of tropical architecture. Britain, then a colonial power in advanced stages of collapse, was trying to gather planners and architects from developing nations around the world, in order to address, in a comprehensive, wide-ranging manner, the challenges posed by exotic surroundings.

Einav made his first visit to the continent in 1959, traveling to the city of Asmara in Ethiopia (now in Eritrea ), to visit a meat-packing plant run by his two brothers. By and by, a connection was made between Einav and a Jewish family living in the heart of Addis Ababa, and he ended up designing a house for them.

"I arrived there without any equipment. I didn't have any sketch pads or tools, not to mention rulers or sketching pens," he recalls. "I was given a corner in a shop they owned, and that is how I planned everything."

Einav rises from the table in his office in Tel Aviv and begins to root around in a large carton containing mementos from that period. He pulls out a black-and-white photo of the house he planned, and all suddenly becomes clear. The architectural language is amazingly familiar: precast facades (from the period that predated the emphasis on industrial concrete ), neat geometric forms, large sun porches. It looks as if a typical Israeli residential apartment building landed in the middle of an African street.

"In every building I built there, I always looked for technological advances. For instance, in one of my residential buildings I installed one of the first elevators in Ethiopia - made of glass, so that people would be able to watch it move. People would stand there all day long, looking up and down."

Einav's experience in Africa was altogether different from that of the majority of Israeli architects active on the continent. Unlike them, he established a home in Addis Ababa, and even recruited an Ethiopian partner, named Michael Tadoris. In a special issue of National Geographic published in 1965, the partners were photographed side by side under the headline "Ethiopian Adventure." They are elegantly dressed, with Tadoris wearing a little bowtie in the style of Le Corbusier.

Theirs was one of the first business partnerships between whites and blacks in Ethiopia, and the magazine viewed it as an encouraging sign. Einav and Tadoris' business continued to expand, and before long they were working with the Ethiopian government, and in particular with the emperor, Haile Selassie. The two men designed the Ethiopian ministry of foreign affairs, the thermal baths in Addis Ababa and several university buildings. At one point, they even submitted plans for the emperor's new palace.

One of the larger projects that attracted them was a World Bank tender for the planning of approximately 100 schools in peripheral regions of Ethiopia. Einav won the tender thanks to his use of cheap labor methods that automated certain parts of the construction process.

"I always kept my eyes on the objective: raising the standard of living in Ethiopia," says Einav today. "My best friends were the grandsons of the emperor and other people from the smallish middle class. We loved to sit together and dream of how it would be possible to bring progress to Ethiopia."

The country's foreign ministry building, for instance, reveals a mixture of modern architecture - with exposed concrete - and traditional forms. Its facade is composed of recurring elements of the "Star of Solomon" - the national Ethiopian symbol.

"The emperor wanted a glass tower there, like the UN. In his opinion," Einav recounts, "it was the most progressive thing in the world. I refused, because it had no connection to Ethiopia. In the end, they were very pleased with the results."

In this instance, as well as others in Africa in the 1960s and '70s, Solel Boneh was the contractor.

Along with several friends, Zalman Einav, who speaks Amharic fluently, founded the Association of Architects and Engineers of Ethiopia, and also taught at the local university, where he opened the department of architectural studies. Underlying all his work was a sense of personal mission, and the attempt to build mutual respect between the Israelis employed in his office and the Ethiopians.

"When I hired people from Israel, I would ask each one of them if they would be willing to take orders from an African. Anyone who hesitated or suddenly began to ask questions was on the spot rejected. I never patronized anyone; I always tried to do things together."

Modernism and tradition

The nature of Israeli architecture in Africa was characterized by the Modernist style that was then dominant worldwide. The activity of Israeli architects outside of Israel was, in that respect, an almost direct extension of ideas that had been applied in construction in Be'er Sheva, Haifa and Tel Aviv. At the same time, while expressions of local, traditional symbols were frowned upon in Israel, in Africa the architects dared to try and borrow motifs from the local culture.

One of the prominent examples of this was the University of Ife (now known as Obafemi Awolowo University ) in Ile-Ife, Nigeria, which was planned from top to bottom at the Tel Aviv architectural firm of Arieh Sharon, between 1960 and 1978. Sharon's close ties with David Ben-Gurion and other government officials (fostered in part by the fact that he was the one who devised Israel's first national master plan ), aided him in his contacts with the developing country. When the Nigerians expressed interest in building a new university, they approached Sharon, who had done similar work at home.

The plan conceived by Sharon called for a campus similar to Hebrew University's Givat Ram campus in Jerusalem, with a tightly arranged series of buildings, intended to facilitate pedestrian passage between them. Sharon called it "form follows climate," a paraphrase of the well-known Modernist dictum of the American Louis Sullivan, "form follows function." The language developed on the Nigerian campus thus integrated local artistic and other motifs in Modernist buildings.

Artist and architect Harold Rubin, who worked at Sharon's firm, led the project locally for 15 years .

The upside-down pyramidal form of the campus buildings, the South African-born Rubin explains today, was intended to create a "horizontal gesture" to contrast with the verticality of the jungle that surrounded them. This form also helped to capture the gentle breeze and protect the inside spaces from the intense rains.

Rubin designed a long row of buildings for the university, some of which were completed only in the past few years. The General Assembly building in Ife embodies a combination of African geometric motifs, such as a circle with bisecting lines. In another building, he combined a huge plastic concrete relief with erotic elements.

Tommy Leitersdorf, who was designing on the other side of Africa, notes that the local climate constituted one of the most important planning considerations in his work in the Ivory Coast: "The language is first and foremost derived from the climate. This is a place that has 98 percent humidity and you have to orient your buildings such that they catch the breeze. By contrast, my clientele was European."

Waning affair

Israeli architects' affair with Africa began to lose steam in the late 1960s, and ended conclusively in the early 1970s. Two key events caused the shift in attitude by the African states: the Six-Day War, which tripled the territory under Israel's control and prompted it to be viewed as a colonialist power; and the Yom Kippur War, six years later, during which a sizable proportion of African leaders decided to back Egypt and Syria, and cut off their strategic and economic relations with Israel. Additionally, there were business disputes that at times developed into diplomatic flaps, not to mention widespread corruption among high-ranking African government officials. Jerusalem initially tried to preserve its relations with the continent, but eventually opted to develop closer relations with South Africa, which was becoming an outcast among much of the rest of the world.

Dr. Yacobi suggests that the 20 years of Israel's involvement in Africa be considered in a comprehensive and critical light. He charges that Africa was a laboratory for proving the Israeli spatial theory, "which is colonialist at its core," as he puts it. "The entire post-1948 settlement project of Israel was a bold attempt, which in many senses proved itself. The Israeli development model, modernization, the melting pot, Westernization - all of these were considered desirable by the African leaders."

Yacobi believes that Israeli activity in Africa a few decades ago, and not only in the architectural realm, had both an important economic dimension and an ideological one as well. "There is a psychoanalytical concept of 'rescue fantasy.' The fantasy that I am going to rescue someone, as a result of my high morality," he adds.

Was it really a colonialist enterprise? Was Israel supplanting the colonialist powers in the 1950s and '60s?

Yacobi: "I am very wary of speaking of colonialism. We're referring to an effort that was indirectly related to the Cold War, and which may perhaps be seen as part of an American imperialist move, in which Israel served as an 'arm' in that effort. I do not believe that Israel's involvement in Africa was colonialistic. Maybe you could say that Israel exported its model, through which it was essentially seeking to 'normalize' itself."

Zalman Einav is more decisive in rejecting the colonialist theory. "There is a current of this sort of thinking among members of the left in Israel, who believe that Israel is colonialist. You have to bear in mind that the 1960s were the African decade. We weren't the only ones active there. There were Yugoslavians and Dutch and British, too. Ethiopia was a magnet for a lot of countries that wanted to move outward. They were attracted for two reasons. One was an egoistic reason. A new market. The second was a real desire to help. When Golda said that Israel wanted to help in Africa, she really meant it. I went there for my own egoistic reasons. I wanted to work in Africa and later on I continued to work in developing countries."

Did you make money there?

Einav: "For sure - there's no shame in that. Architecture is my sole livelihood."

Unlike Einav, working in Africa did not constitute a personal mission for Tommy Leitersdorf. "I wouldn't say that I went for ideological reasons. It's awfully nice to say that, it's nice that Golda had a mission in mind. For me, it was mainly excitement, of the kind you don't find anywhere else," he confesses.

Some argue that an Israeli colonialist enterprise was realized under the cover of architecture.

Leitersdorf: "That is a question I have not considered. If you take the classic definition of colonialism, then you get Britain. It goes somewhere, takes all the treasure, and then goes home. We went somewhere and made a nice living. It wasn't so callous. There was a great deal of good will to give, and whatever we had, we gave wholeheartedly. Their president would say to his rivals, 'They [the Israelis] built the city for us, and then they're going home. They are not taking the city with them.'"

Once their work in Africa ended, Leitersdorf and Einav were extensively involved in the Israeli settlement enterprise at home. Einav also designed Ariel Sharon's home at his Sycamore Ranch, in the Negev, and a series of villas for high-ranking army officers in the Tel Aviv suburb of Tzahala. Leitersdorf planned Ma'aleh Adumim, outside, on what he calls an "African scale" - not unlike Abidjan's Riviera project.

Forty years after the end of the African romance, when Israel is facing growing isolation on the international front, it may be time for it to reexamine its aid programs to developing countries. In a 1972 article, Time Magazine reported that Israel had allocated approximately $10 million to foreign aid, with half that going to African states. A paltry amount, given the future benefits such investment might bring today.

Yacobi maintains that Israel never ceased being involved in Africa, that the involvement only changed in form.

"There are a large number of private entrepreneurs in Africa now. That's what globalization does to these relations," says Yacobi. "Take, for example, the arms dealers operating there. [Official] Israel provides backing for them in all sorts of ways. Or take the agricultural model of the Lachish region, now being reproduced in Angola. Its obvious that Israel is connected to that, too. It is simply a different phase of the same involvement."



Automatic approval of subscriber comments.
From $1 for the first month

Already signed up? LOG IN


בנימין נתניהו השקת ספר

Netanyahu’s Israel Is About to Slam the Door on the Diaspora

עדי שטרן

Head of Israel’s Top Art Academy Leads a Quiet Revolution

Charles Lindbergh addressing an America First Committee rally on October 3, 1941.

Ken Burns’ Brilliant ‘The U.S. and the Holocaust’ Has Only One Problem

Skyscrapers in Ramat Gan and Tel Aviv.

Israel May Have Caught the Worst American Disease, New Research Shows

ג'אמיל דקוור

Why the Head of ACLU’s Human Rights Program Has Regrets About Emigrating From Israel


Netanyahu’s Election Win Dealt a Grievous Blow to Judaism