Tel Aviv University Is Finally Talking About the Palestinian Village It Was Built On

Amid work on a new master plan for the university campus, a study by graduate students suggests recognizing the Palestinian history of the university and curbing donor influence

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A Muslim grave, with Tel Aviv University dorms in the background.
A Muslim grave, with Tel Aviv University dorms in the background.Credit: Tova Fenster
Esther Zandberg
Esther Zandberg
Esther Zandberg
Esther Zandberg

How does Tel Aviv University treat the Palestinian and Jewish histories of the site on which it is built – the ruins of the Palestinian village of Sheikh Munis? How do the university’s principles of planning and development reflect neoliberal trends (or in other words, how do donors influence the character of the campus)? How does the pattern of involving, or not involving those using the campus – students, faculty, administrators – impact the university’s planning and development directions?

These questions were the guidelines of a comprehensive study done as part of an applied course undertaken by graduate students in the urban and regional planning and design track within the Geography Department.

The building known as 'The Green House,' which is being used by Tel Aviv university and was part of the village of Sheikh Munis.
Tel Aviv University's 'Green House' today.Credit: Uri~

The conclusions of the study, which included historical research, interviews, and proposals for the future, were presented by the students to a select audience toward the end of the school year. Later on, the study will be published in its entirety in book form. Coming amid work on a new master plan for the campus, the findings have been released at an opportune time.

The study was led by Prof. Tova Fenster and by Noy Thaller, with support from the university’s Unit of Social Involvement. Fenster, who founded the track, is a scholar of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as reflected by urban planning. She says that “it took me a long time to muster the courage to address my professional ‘home’ as well, where I have studied and taught for so many years.”

Her courage paid off. Thus, for the first time arose the question of the need to and possibility of preserving the memory and heritage of Sheikh Munis, which has been completely erased from consciousness.

The synagogue from the Jewish village that used to exist at the site.Credit: Tova Fenster

The team of students tasked with the first question found that Arab residents of Sheikh Munis were expelled from their village, but also that in 2014, Jewish immigrants sent there following the state’s founding were evicted – an eviction few are aware of – for the sake of the university’s expansion. Unlike the Arabs, they received compensation and remained in their country.

Few, if any, are aware of the existence on campus of remains from a Muslim cemetery and from an old synagogue. The answer to the first question, therefore, is simple: There is no trace of the past in the university space. But there is an applicable correction, for anyone willing to take up the challenge.

The answer to the million-dollar question about the capital-academia nexus and its impact on the university’s planning and development is far simpler. To illustrate the ties, the students picked three representative structures – The Trubowicz Law Building, which was the first on campus; the Cymbalista Synagogue and Jewish Heritage Center from the 1990s; and the recently completed Broadcom Building.

But even without in-depth study, the phenomenon is well-known and all-pervasive. Since the day of its founding, the university – any university, really – has relied on donations to construct buildings, often with no real need. A representative example on the Tel Aviv campus is the Porter Building for Environmental Studies, a structure less important to the environment, if at all, than to the donor’s ego.

The study notes that the dominance of donors grows from year to year and the students naively recommend the “regulation of relations” with donors, and returning the “interest of the users” to the equation – all this while construction is ongoing on a new building, paid for by oligarch Roman Abramovich.

The Porter School Building at Tel Aviv University. Used mainly to boost the donors' ego.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The third chapter of the study, which addresses the inclusion of the campus’s “users” in the planning process, is in Fenster’s eyes the most important part of the study, and calls for in-depth follow-up. In all her years at the university, and in all six master plans for its development, there has never been an attempt to involve the public of daily users of the campus. In interviews with such users, the input of those who actually experience the space was heard for the first time. Some of the interviewees pointed out difficulties in reaching the campus and a lack of proper public transportation.

Students who were interviewed spoke described challenges in navigating the campus – a problem familiar to occasional visitors as well, marked by a lack of bike lanes, a marked paucity in shade in the (overly) open spaces, lack of social activity and lack of seating areas. Arab students suggested the construction of a women-only gym, and raised the option of opening the university synagogue to services of all faiths.

Others bemoaned the campus’s detachment from its surroundings and recommended that the university “be brought down from the ivory tower.” As to the question of what the campus will look like in 20 years, most respondents replied that the university will combine online learning with in-person lectures “to maintain a sense of community.”

Following the student survey and interviews with Sheikh Munis residents or their descendants, Palestinian and Jewish, the study authors composed an alternative plan for the campus. Regarding the issue of commemoration, proposals were made to create an interactive trail of memory stations throughout the campus, and reviving synagogue, the last remnant of the Jewish village. The Muslim cemetery, which still exists on campus, is mostly located within a closed military zone.

The Cymbalista Synagogue and Jewish Heritage Center.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

On the urban front, proposals were formulated to create a commercial facade on the university’s western boundary, where it meets the city street, and as well as to build tall buildings around campus, allowing for the closure of ground-level parking lots and conversion into green public spaces. Although the study authors sympathize with many parts of the 2021 master plan, they emphasize the need to involve the public – a need that has become one of the central factors of planning these days, and not only in universities.

Speaking of involving the public in planning, it’s worth noting the restoration of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, approaching completion these days. The way the restoration was conducted is a model not only of the wisdom of revival, but also of public involvement. The Paris municipal authorities held a public contest to pick the restoration architects, but beyond that, it held lengthy consultations with local residents and business owners regarding the nature of the works and their impact on their environment. The city went even further, establishing “a committee of random citizens to provide the wider public’s perspective.” No further comment is necessary.

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