The Anti-apartheid Fighter Who Turned Palestinian Ruins Into Jewish Tourist Sites

He was a South African freedom fighter. She was from the Israeli aristocracy. An archive discovered in Tel Aviv sheds light on Arthur Goldreich and Tamar de Shalit's contradiction-rife lives

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Arthur Goldreich and Tamar de Shalit.
Arthur Goldreich and Tamar de Shalit.Credit: Family album
Shany Littman
Shany Littman
Shany Littman
Shany Littman

The architect Zvi Elhyani has one particularly vivid memory of his design teacher, Arthur Goldreich. During Elhyani’s first year at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem, Goldreich asked the students to design three-dimensional bodies and stipulate their use. Two of Elhyani’s classmates designed something they termed a flytrap. To the students’ astonishment, Goldreich flew into a rage. “No one in my class is going to design traps for a living being of any kind,” he thundered.

Twenty-five years later, Elhyani understands Goldreich’s outburst better. “Today, knowing his life story better, I realize why he objected to architects designing facilities meant to imprison or harm someone. There has been much talk in recent years about architects’ involvement in designing concentration camps or detention facilities such as Holot [in the Negev, where African asylum seekers were held]. Arthur urged architects not to collaborate on such projects.”

Seven years ago, Elhyani had the opportunity to close a circle in his relations with his beloved mentor. In the backyard of the house that Goldreich and his wife, the interior designer Tamar de Shalit, created for themselves in upscale Herzliya Pituah, north of Tel Aviv, stood a Swedish wooden cabin that the couple had used as a studio. De Shalit died from cancer in 2009 at the age of 77, and Goldreich died a year and a half later at 81. In the cabin, their only child Amos, now a London-based architect, found documentation of 50 years of creative work by his mother and father. His discoveries, which he shared with Elhyani, surprised him and revealed much that he hadn’t known about his parents, who are in large measure responsible for the physical development of Israel’s culture of commemoration, as it emerged in the 1960s and ‘70s, with the construction of monuments and memorial sites on kibbutzim and in cities around the country.

For example, they discovered that de Shalit helped design the “set” of the Eichmann trial. He found sketches of the stage on which the judges sat, flanked by the witness stand on one side and the glass box in which the accused was confined. “We found it in the cabin, at the bottom of a drawer,” Elhyani recalls. “It was stamped ‘Secret,’ so we were sure that it had something to do with Arthur. We were flabbergasted when we realized what it was. And then Amos remembered that his mother once told him something about her involvement in the Eichmann trial, but she didn’t like to talk about it.”

Amos Goldreich deposited his parents’ private archive in the Israel Architecture Archive, which Elhyani founded and has managed for the past decade in Tel Aviv’s Shalom Meir Tower. In June, an exhibition of items from the couple’s rich collection opened at the Herzliya Museum of Contemporary Art, which Elhyani curated with Talia Davidi.

With the aid of the archive, it becomes possible to examine the lives of de Shalit and Goldreich in parallel, individually, until their meeting – and then the projects on which they collaborated or worked on separately. De Shalit came from a well-known, affluent family that played a key role in Israel’s development in science, construction and tourism. In her capacity as an interior designer, she took part in key projects, even if not much remains of them today. The relevant documents and other materials show her to have been mainly a distinctive designer of furniture who strove to shatter the conventions of her time while preserving principles of comfort and functionality.

Goldreich, a senior anti-apartheid activist in South Africa in the early ‘60s, who was caught and faced a death sentence, escaped from prison and fled to Israel, where he launched a completely new life (although he had spent time in Israel as a young man). In addition to establishing a new family and forming new social ties, he shifted his professional interests from art to a more intensive engagement in design and planning. His work encompassed residential dwellings, interior environments, stage sets and costume designs for political plays, and above all he developed a magnificent teaching career that had an impact on generations of Israeli designers and architects. The archive and the exhibition deriving from it reveal the constant flow and interconnection between the couple’s private life and their professional activity. The result is a portrait of Israeli cultural leaders and their wellsprings at a very specific time in the history of this land.

The couple designed a raft of monuments, cultural centers and memorial sites on kibbutzim, notably in border regions. “Often it was defensive, fortification-style architecture. You can see the whole [psychological] complex – a place that is still alive but is already commemorating itself,” Elhyani observes.

In 1967, de Shalit and Goldreich designed the furniture and did the interior design for the headquarters of the Shin Bet security service in Tel Aviv – the building itself was designed by Nahum Zolotov – and in 1972 Goldreich painted a mural on the walls of the pilots club on an air force base. The exhibition also includes thrilling sketches of a residence the couple designed for the mayor of Gaza City, Ibrahim al-Shawa, in the late ‘70s. The structure is still standing in the city’s Rimal neighborhood. For Goldreich, apparently political critique and pacifism went hand in hand and were seen in his designs for the theater and in writing and protests, alongside socially engaged projects, partnership in Israeli statehood and the ethos of sacrificing one’s life on the altar of the homeland.

The villa Arthur Goldreich and Tamar de Shalit designed for Gaza City Mayor Ibrahim al-Shawa in the ‘70s, and still standing today.Credit: Israel Architecture Archive

One of the most important things he learned from Goldreich, Elhyani says, is a principle practiced mainly in the breach by present-day architects: not to disconnect design from political thought. “In the ‘70s,” Elhyani relates, “Goldreich went with his students to conduct research in Gaza Strip refugee camps. In the ‘80s they were active in East Jerusalem until the outbreak of the first intifada in 1987. Arthur thought it would be possible to generate coexistence through planning and infrastructure improvement. They didn’t sit at a table and learn how to plan new cities in isolation, but constantly engaged in field trips to get to know the surroundings. And that was a revolution.”

But to understand the story of Goldreich’s life and his political involvement, one must go back to South Africa.

He was born in Johannesburg in 1929 to a Jewish family with roots in both England and Eastern Europe at the end of the 19th century. His father, a furniture dealer, died when Arthur was just 15. According to Amos Goldreich, his father already had an affinity with Zionism and Judaism as a youth. In 1948, when he was 19, Goldreich and a friend decided to join the Jewish liberation struggle. They made the trip to this country and lived on Kibbutz Ma’ayan Baruch in the Upper Galilee. During the war they fought in the Palmach, the elite strike force of the pre-state Haganah militia. Afterward, Goldreich studied architecture at the Haifa Technion. A year later, he decided to return to South Africa and continue his studies there. According to Elhyani, Goldreich, who espoused Marxist views, was disappointed at what he found in Israel. “He saw the dispossession, the ruins, everything that happened in the wake of the war. It didn’t suit him politically.

Things weren’t any better in South Africa.

Elhyani: “True, but there he was better connected and felt more at home.”

In South Africa, Goldreich was soon marked as a promising painter, won important prizes and exhibited at the Venice Biennale. At the same time, he embarked on a career as a designer of department stores. He married Hazel Berman, who had been active in the communist youth movement, and the couple had two sons, Paul and Nicholas. The image of a successful artist and designer proved extremely useful for Goldreich in his efforts to conceal his growing involvement in the resistance to apartheid.

'Goldreich’s escape from prison made him a hero in the eyes of the leaders of the resistance, Mandela and Walter Sisulu.'

In 1959, Goldreich designed the sets and costumes for the jazz musical “King Kong,” the first production by black actors and musicians during apartheid, with the participation of the acclaimed singer Miriam Makeba, aka Mama Africa. The play, which was based on the life of the heavyweight boxer Ezekiel Dlamini, also scored a big success in London after touring extensively in South Africa. It was considered a subversive and controversial political act, as blacks were very limited in what they were permitted to do in entertainment in South Africa at the time. It was Goldreich’s first encounter with the theater, a sphere he would later engage in enthusiastically in Israel.

The South African-born cultural historian Dr. Louise Bethlehem, from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is the author of an article about Goldreich’s involvement in the production of “King Kong.” It was while he was working on the play that he was recruited by Joe Slovo, from the South African Communist Party, to Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation, or MK for short), the military wing of the African National Congress. Goldreich’s skills were thus used not only in theater design, but also to camouflage the leaders of the new underground, who sought to take anti-apartheid resistance one step forward.

Amos Goldreich maintains that his father was brought into MK – by Nelson Mandela, no less – precisely because of the modicum of military experience he garnered in Israel. Louise Bethlehem also notes that Goldreich passed on combat knowledge to Mandela from his memories of the Palmach. In his autobiography, Mandela writes that together with Goldreich he read Menachem Begin’s book “The Revolt” in order to pick up information about camouflage tactics. Mandela’s impression was that the armed struggle against the British in Palestine took place in conditions similar to those in which the underground in South Africa was operating.

In October 1961, Goldreich, using funds from the Communist Party and the ANC, bought Liliesleaf Farm in the Johannesburg suburb of Rivonia. The Goldreich family – Arthur, Hazel and the two boys – took up residence on the farm and pursued a semblance of average white bourgeois life. It was the perfect cover for a place that was the organizational and meeting site of the underground activists, among them Mandela, who was ostensibly a farmhand named David Motsamayi.

Arthur Goldreich, left, with Nelson Mandela.Credit: Courtesy of the Liliesleaf heritage site

On the afternoon of July 11, 1963, the South African police raided the farm and arrested 19 of the underground members there at the time, including Arthur and Hazel Goldreich. Their children were placed in the custody of Hazel’s sister. Mandela was already in prison, having been arrested a year earlier. The underground members who were apprehended were accused of conspiracy, an offense punishable by death. After a month in detention, before the start of the trial, Goldreich and his party colleague Harold Wolpe, a lawyer, along with two underground members of Indian origin, Mosie Moolla and Abdulhay Jassat, escaped from the Johannesburg police station where they were being held, after promising a young warder, Johan Greef, the hefty sum of 4,000 rand to buy a new car. During the hunt for the escapees, the white regime blew up a plane they had chartered, which was supposed to fly them from Botswana to Tanzania. Subsequently, they disguised themselves as priests in order to cross the border into Swaziland, and eventually got to London. (Greef received the money he had been promised, with interest, albeit 35 years later, when the underground leaders were released from their long prison terms and the apartheid regime collapsed.)

Hazel Goldreich was released from prison after three months and, with her two sons, joined Arthur in London, from where they immigrated to Israel, where Goldreich was eligible for political asylum and citizenship.

Palestinian ruins received renewed, not to say sanitized, life as Jewish tourist and cultural sites, with Goldreich’s full assistance.

In Israel, Goldreich tried to mobilize public opinion against a death sentence for the Rivonia group. He formed an organization of Israelis against apartheid and organized a demonstration in Dizengoff Square in the heart of Tel Aviv, together with the philosopher Martin Buber and the writer Haim Hazaz. Two days before sentence was passed, international pressure did its work and the court made do with sending the Rivonia group to prison for life.

In a 1999 memoir, Bob Hepple, who was one of the original defendants in the case (charges against him were dropped and it was announced that he would be the state’s first witness, but he and his wife escaped to England before the trial), accuses Goldreich of not being sufficiently discreet about the underground activity on Lilliesleaf Farm. Goldreich, he maintains, told people outside the circle of activists about what was going on and, worse, didn’t destroy incriminating documents as he had been instructed. The documents were discovered during the raid and, according to Hepple, were used as evidence against the members of the underground.

Goldreich’s escape from prison made him a hero in the eyes of the leaders of the resistance, Mandela and Walter Sisulu, says Dr. Shimshon Zelniker, former director of the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, who knew Goldreich in the ‘80s. Zelniker worked with the ANC in leadership training at the time and became close friends with Goldreich. Mandela and Sisulu “were fond of [Goldreich] before and even more fond of him for managing to escape,” he recalls. “At the same time, many of his less senior friends in the struggle viewed his escape and his departure from South Africa as a form of desertion. Things became even more aggravated because he didn’t stay in London but went to Israel, which even then was perceived by the Muslim elements in the struggle against apartheid as an unworthy state. He was effectively isolated within the movement.”

Amos Goldreich.Credit: Yanai Yechiel

Amos Goldreich remembers that when he first heard about his father’s exploits in the South African underground, when he was 9, “I was sure he was James Bond.” From his childhood he remembers especially a family holiday in Paris; he realized how great a hero his father was considered internationally when a South African taxi driver was thrilled to discover that Goldreich was in his cab and took them on an hours-long tour of the city. “When something happened in South Africa, journalists would call,” Amos says. “Everyone thought that Arthur was a real friend of Mandela, but it wasn’t like that. It was a political partnership. He was reverent toward Mandela; Mandela was his commander. In Israel people always thought they were buddies, which I found amusing.”

When Mandela was released from prison in 1990, the underground activists who were in exile returned to South Africa, but Goldreich remained in Israel. Afterward, his son relates, he was criticized for choosing to live in Israel, which was friendly with the apartheid regime and was also an occupier. Still, he was invited to events in South Africa in which Nelson Mandela also took part. At one event he got his South African passport back, and at another he received an award from the Jewish community.

Glass box

Arthur Goldreich and Tamar de Shalit first met in the mid-’50s at the Central School of Art and Design in London. De Shalit had arrived from Israel in 1951 to study art and interior design, and Goldreich had come for a few months from South Africa, where he was already a well-known artist, to take a course in industrial design. Afterward, Goldreich returned to South Africa and de Shalit remained in London to pursue her studies until 1956.

De Shalit decided that Eichmann would have to look the witnesses in the eye. With the aid of the design, they created an insane tension that only intensified during the trial.

According to Amos, de Shalit read in the paper about Goldreich’s prison break. They met again when he arrived in Israel, in 1964. Not long after his arrival, his marriage with Hazel ended. In Zelniker’s view, Hazel’s harsh experience in the South African prison, and the threats to her children’s life if she didn’t give the authorities information, played a large part in the collapse of the couple’s marriage. Hazel moved to London with the two boys and raised them alone, while Goldreich started a new family life in Israel with de Shalit.

Born in 1932, Tamar de Shalit grew up in a well-known, well-established Israeli family. Her father, Russian-born Moshe de Shalit, was active in the Zionist movement and was a developer who bought large tracts of land near Herzliya and on them built the Herzliya Pituah neighborhood. De Shalit’s mother, who was also from Russia, was a descendant of Rabbi Schneur Zalman, the founder of Chabad. Their firstborn son, Meir, was an officer in the British Army, one of the founders of the Mossad, and after Israel’s creation became the first director general of the Tourism Ministry. The second son, Amos, who at an early age was already an important scientist, established the department of nuclear physics at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, was involved in the construction of the nuclear reactor at Dimona, and by age 39 had already won the Israel Prize, the country’s highest honor, for his work in the exact sciences. He died suddenly in 1969, at 42, from acute pancreatitis.

Tamar, the little sister, was born in Jerusalem but spent her childhood in Tel Aviv, growing up in Beit Engel, an iconic apartment building on Rothschild Boulevard. Though there is no royalty in Israel, notes Shimshon Zelniker, who was a friend of de Shalit and Goldreich, Tamar de Shalit was a princess. “She was one of the few cases of an Israeli girl who was born during the period of the Palmach, grew up in the best society, in what would become the Jewish-Ashkenazi establishment, and even though she was surrounded by all the creaky and abrasive things in Israel, emerged an aristocrat. Smart, sensitive, noble and with an artistic temperament.”

A sketch of the trail where Eichmann's trial would be held.Credit: The Goldreich-de Shalit Collection / The Israel Architecture Archive

In 1960, de Shalit began work in the firm of a leading architect and interior designer, Nahum Meron, who was in charge of designing the offices of government ministries. One of her first projects involved the conversion of Beit Ha’am, a cultural center in central Jerusalem, into a courtroom for the Eichmann trial. Elhyani discerns elements in the design of the auditorium that would remain distinguishing features of de Shalit’s work throughout her career, such as the red carpet and its integration with specially designed wood furniture.

“There was an interesting dilemma, which you can see in the drawings, about whether to have the witness’ gaze directly meet that of Eichmann or whether the witness stand and the stand of the accused would both face the bench,” Elhyani says. “In the end, the decision was that Eichmann would have to look the witnesses in the eye. With the aid of the design, they created an insane tension that intensified during the months of the trial.”

Another early de Shalit design project on view in the Herzliya Museum exhibition is for the penthouse intended for the British philanthropist Charles Clore, on the top floor of a dormitory building at the Weizmann Institute. The work, which was done in 1963-64, is ascetic and, according to Elhyani, was influenced by Brutalism. At the same time, it is carefully wrought, colorful and inspired by Bedouin fabrics. “The interior design was very atypical of Israel in that period,” he explains, “The floor was slate, the rugs hirsute. There was a search for very complex textures, in the wood as well. The armchairs were specially designed and were unusually wide. De Shalit liked to challenge the conventional ergonomic design of furniture.”

Thanks to de Shalit’s extensive connections, Goldreich also integrated quickly into the profession in Israel. Already in 1964 he joined her and her partner, Aharon Gelles, in designing the interior and planning the furniture of the memorial structure at Kibbutz Nitzanim, north of the Gaza Strip, for which the architect was Nahum Zolotov. In 1967, de Shalit and Goldreich planned and designed the Eshel Hotel in Herzliya, whose construction was initiated by Tamar’s father.

“It was near the square that was afterward called De Shalit Square, for Tamar’s father,” Elhyani says. “The area was developed by Moshe de Shalit and it became Tamar and Arthur’s playground.” The couple designed the hotel in a saliently Brutalist style, with bare bricks and concrete frames.

De Shalit lived and worked alongside a very dominant person, and perhaps remained somewhat in his shadow.

In 1965, Goldreich was commissioned by the interior architects Dora Gad and Arye Noy to design various items for the new Tel Aviv Hilton, which was being built on the ruins of a Muslim cemetery near the sea. The initiative for the commission came from the Government Tourism Company, which was then headed by Tamar’s older brother, Meir, nicknamed Memi. Goldreich used one of his abstract oils, painted before he left South Africa, as the inspiration for a large wall carpet that he hung in the hotel’s lobby.

In 1966, Goldreich had a solo show at the Gordon Gallery in Tel Aviv. That was also the year he and Tamar were married in the Brutalist home of Memi de Shalit, in an event that brought together the worlds of politics and art. The wedding guests included a who’s who of the time, among them Moshe Dayan, Teddy Kollek, Ariel Sharon, the architect Yaakov Rechter and his wife the actress Hannah Meron, along with David Ben-Gurion’s daughter, Renana, who was a close friend of Tamar.

Mosques and carpets

In the Herzliya Museum exhibition, which runs through November 17 and which Elhyani and Davidi titled “Locale,” the emphasis is on the connection of each half of the couple, each in his and her own way, with the environment they worked in. As Elhyani points out, the second time Goldreich came to Israel, in the ‘60s, this time to stay, he wrote in his notebook that he was very impressed by the country’s level of development, but in the many photographs he took, he chose to document the ravages that war and subsequent construction had inflicted on the Arab and mixed Jewish-Arab cities. On display in the exhibition are photographs showing the ruins of Jaffa, of the Manshiya neighborhood between Jaffa and Tel Aviv, of Acre, and of their residents – the new immigrants and the Palestinians.

Do Goldreich’s photos reflect a critical gaze or were they preparations for future projects? There’s no easy answer. All those Palestinian ruins received renewed, not to say sanitized, life as Jewish tourist and cultural sites, with Goldreich’s full assistance. He was a partner in planning the Horace Richter Gallery in Old Jaffa, the Khan al-Umdan historical site in Acre, an archaeological museum on Kibbutz Hanita in an ancient Arab structure, and took part in the interior design of the Khan Theater in Jerusalem. The couple also drew inspiration from local elements for objects they designed, such as trays that evoke the coffee trays borne by the waiters in the Old City of Jerusalem, and a set of salt and paper shakers inspired by Bedouin mosques and carpets. All these items were sold in a souvenir and antiques store in Tel Aviv – whose interior design was also done by Goldreich and de Shalit – to tourists thirsty for the enchantments of the Orient.

The couple drew inspiration from local elements for objects they designed and sold in a Tel Aviv store. Pictured: salt shakers trivets. Credit: The Goldreich-de Shalit Collection / The Israel Architecture Archive

Dr. Michal Chacham, from Shenkar College of Engineering and Design and the Open University, who studies the visual and material culture of the pre-1948 period and the early years of the state, went through the de Shalit archive and has written about it. In her view, de Shalit tried to articulate a modernist design language that would also be local.

“She didn’t abstain from Orientalism, but she was very careful with it,” Chacham says. “In the face of trends of Orientalist nostalgia that characterized the period, she formulates it with measured cadences. Her use of biblical sources, which was the other potent element in Israeli design along with Orientalism, is cautious. She doesn’t go to the explicit narrative but distills forms from it.”

According to Chacham, de Shalit is underappreciated in the history of design in Israel. “She did nothing to make herself stand out,” Chacham says. “She also lived and worked alongside a very dominant person, and perhaps remained somewhat in his shadow – unjustly, in my opinion. What she did with her interior architecture in the Brutalist buildings was very significant. She resonated the Brutalist values of sincerity, directness of material and rawness amid the design of the interior spaces.”

Chacham notes de Shalit’s key role in designing the Israeli culture of commemoration. “Together with Zolotov and Goldreich she planned major structures of memory on the kibbutzim. The spaces are meant for people to use, not only to be looked at from the outside. The theme of commemoration became part of daily life. De Shalit represented enlightenment and liberalism on the one hand, and on the other partnership in the Zionist project and the articulation of nationhood through the place of the dead. And that remains a very dominant element in Israeli culture.”

In the ‘60s, Goldreich continued to work with de Shalit and others in interior design and architectural planning, and did theatrical set designs. Overall, though, he turned increasingly to teaching. In 1968, he was a founder of the department of environmental and industrial design at Bezalel, the art and design school. It later split into the departments of architecture and industrial design.

“He realized that if he wanted to have an effect on criticalness, protest, political opinion and on minority rights and general human rights, the only way was through education,” Elhyani says. “In South Africa in the ‘50s, amid a magnificent career, pedagogy wasn’t part of his world. In Israel, when he understood that his activist stage in the struggle was over, he concluded that education was the channel through which he could go on doing it.”

In the view of Louise Bethlehem, Goldreich’s professional persona was as important to him as the political side. “At certain stages he chose to advance the design vision, or it was more dominant at times than the critical. Because in the end, we all act within the society in which we find ourselves. Sometimes contradictions arise.”

Elhyani thinks that the true importance of de Shalit and Goldreich lies in the wide range of fields they engaged in, and in what can be learned from them about Israel in the second half of the 20th century. “You can see all the political, territorial and aesthetic vicissitudes that this place was undergoing, including the left wing of that period, which designs villas in Gaza but also war monuments and signs antiwar petitions, too. Things were less dichotomous then, which is very interesting. We’re starting to write the history of the aesthetics of this place.”

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