Fear and Privatization in Every Home

The rise of the Israeli household shelter contributes, in its own way, to the delay of a better solution to our nation's ills.

The residential secure space, or sheltered space known in Hebrew as the mamad, is the elephant in the room of Israeli architecture.

Reams are written about architectural styles and trends, about sun porches and coating, but hardly anyone mentions the mamad, probably the most prominent element in the last decade in every residential building in Israel, looking out on the street with its heavy steel wing for all to see, causing unease.

The mamad pretends to be another room, while it actually isn’t. Its mere presence brings into the home and the soul of everyday life an array of existential fears and anxieties, and underlines, as sociologist Baruch Kimmerling put it, that “a whole society is geared towards constant preparation for war.” One can add that in order to achieve this goal it uses a full repertoire of fear-bolstering means. The phenomenon and its ramifications were at the center of the exhibition “Eretz Miklat” ‏(“Safe Haven”‏), presented in 2010 at the Tel Aviv University gallery.

“The walls [of the mamad] are thick and made of concrete. The window is relatively small and it requires a heavy door opening to the exterior of the room. These make the mamad an inferior room compared to others, a well-known fact to anyone who tried to hang a picture on the wall, or open the window all the way,” wrote architects and culture researchers Shelly Cohen and Tula Amir in their article “Privatization and civil defense” for the exhibition.

“Opposite the mamad door a concrete wall is demanded, causing an unnecessary lobby in the apartment. The moment the tenant crosses the raised threshold of the mamad, he experiences, in his own home, one swift, forced moment of alienation and fear.”

In their article Cohen and Amir point to yet another disturbing attribute of the mamad − as another syndrome of privatization trends in Israel, a state that privatizes even the security of its citizens. “At first there was the public shelter built by the local authorities in an open public sphere such as the neighborhood playground, offering shelter for the tenants in residential buildings, private houses and even passersby,” wrote the architects. “In a later stage the circle diminished to include only the tenants of the residential building. Soon enough the ‘secure space’ was limited to every floor of the building, offering an inner shelter for several apartments. The mamad is currently the last step in the process of convergence and diminution. This process doesn’t only involve a decrease in time and distance to the nearest shelter but also the decrease in the government’s responsibility to defend the citizen, laying that responsibility on the citizen himself.

“Privatization of the mamad, similar to other privatization processes in the market, makes the use more convenient for some, while enlarging the socioeconomic gaps, harming solidarity even in times of emergency,” they add. “Who will notice if the elderly citizen, the solitary resident, the handicapped neighbor or the single mother actually reached the mamad? Did they manage to open the door? Did they manage to put on the gas mask? Are they alright?”

The existence of the mamad as a necessary evil, and all its parameters concerning design and technicalities, are dictated by the authorities, beyond the authority of architects and designers, who accept the verdict without any objection. It is not inconceivable that this essential defensive element that has pervaded the private quarters of so many of us has contributed in its way to the postponement of an even more essential element in our lives − a political solution to the national conflict − while gradually transforming Israel from a country that provides shelter to a country that is in the shelter.

Kenia Plagov