Despite Success, Israeli Arab Architects Struggle to Break Ethnic Glass Ceiling

Why can’t highly regarded Israeli Arab architects make it in Tel Aviv? 'The public views us Arabs as a burden, as a ‘problem’.”

In the Arab community they’re a “brand,” say civil engineer Ashraf Tivoni and architect Ayman Tivoni, only somewhat seriously. The two brothers run Tivoni Architects and Engineers, which employs a staff of about 30 people, including men and women, architects and engineers, Jews, Muslim Arabs and Christian Arabs.

A partial list of the projects that the firm has planned or is planning includes public buildings, schools, mosques and churches, shopping centers, community centers, residential buildings and private homes, master plans and urban construction in Arab towns around the country.

They spoke to Haaretz at their offices in Nazareth. Our meeting was held at their initiative with the open, unapologetic goal of making inroads to Jewish communities around Israel. “How do we get to plan a school in Holon?” asked Ayman Tivoni, the architect. “Or in Rishon Letzion? If the government doesn’t come to me, I will go to it,” he vowed.

“We’re the salt of the earth. I’m a deeply rooted Israeli. Truth is if I were Jewish, I would be very concerned for the country’s future. You Jews are really in trouble.”

Model of High School in Hora by Tivoni Architects and Engineers.
Tivoni Architects and Engineers

Despite his success in the “Arab sector,” the ethnic glass ceiling over his head has barely been shattered. “All told, we have it good. We are working and enjoying ourselves,” he acknowledges.

“But I think we can do more. We want to reach Tel Aviv, not so much in the commercial sense, but to be part of the culture here. We are Muslims and an example of coexistence among all the [population] sectors. Workers from all the peoples and races work in the office. We go above and beyond in investing in our work, and I think we deserve recognition. The situation now is that few Arab professionals want to work in the Jewish sector, maybe because they have already despaired. We want to push the envelope.”

Ashraf and Ayman are a second generation engaged in architecture and planning in their family. Their original Arab name was Na’ara. The Hebrew name Tivoni was acquired with the family’s planning of the Israeli Bedouin town of Basmat Tabun, and it became a brand, they say.

Their father, Mahmoud Tivoni, who founded the office in 1964, was an engineer and architect, a graduate of the civil engineering and architecture school at the Technion. He viewed the profession, in his sons’ description, as a field that could advance the Arab community and as a link with the Jewish one. Among the projects he was involved in was the Hassan Bek mosque in Tel Aviv.

Model of “Islamic cultural center” in Arabeh in the Galilee by Tivoni Architects and Engineers.
Tivoni Architects and Engineers

Since his father’s death in 2005, Ashraf, 32, a graduate of the Technion’s civil engineering department, has been running the office. Ayman, 42, is the chief architect and the more decisive spokesman. He has a bachelor’s and master’s from the Technion and is a researcher and lecturer on digital architecture. He is working towards a doctorate in the field from AA, the Architectural Association school of architecture in London.

“I went as far as London to escape local political issues, but in London I actually think twice before saying that I am Israeli,” Ayman Tivoni says with an amused tone that reveals a measure of his dilemmas and conflicts. Ayman makes a distinction between what he describes as personal and public considerations when it comes to this country.

“Personally, I have no complaints against the state or Israeli society. It’s also hard for an Israeli architect to build in Israel,” he says, referring to Jewish Israelis, “not just Arabs. Jewish Israelis provided me recommendations for my doctorate, and we work with Jewish developers, but as a group, we have a lot of complaints about discrimination. How do you want me to feel if in the national master plan and in [public] discourse, the public views us Arabs as a burden, as a ‘problem’ that needs to be ‘solved’? How can an architect or planner view any local population as a problem?”

Ayman sees no problem in daily interactions between Arabs and Jews in any area of life, including education. “I’m a Muslim and I studied at a Christian school, and it enriched me a lot, so what’s the problem studying Judaism? Oh, but we have the national conflict here.”

Ashraf and Ayman Tivoni, two brothers who run Tivoni Architects and Engineers.
Rami Shllush

Among their projects is a mosque in Arabeh in the Galilee that they planned and is now under construction. They call it an “Islamic cultural center” and explain that they have dispelled the concept of the mosque as a place exclusively for prayer.

Their mosque also breaks the mold of the classically designed mosque with a minaret in the hopes that it will lead to what they describe as a less conservative interpretation of Islam.

The Tivoni brothers still haven’t designed that school in Holon, but they are working in Accra, the capital of Ghana, in West Africa (adding that an Israeli developer made their initial contact). They also maintain a branch office in Romania. Ayman believes that in just another few years, they will be part of the global elite that controls the field.

“The day before yesterday,” he said, “I told my moderator at AA in London they I was traveling for a few days. I went to Istanbul, from there to Eilat, from there to Nazareth and the day after tomorrow, I’m back to London. So it’s already really impossible to know exactly where the border of London is.”

Model of Arabeh mosque by Tivoni Architects and Engineers.
Tivoni Architects and Engineers