A world renowned Israeli architect, Moshe Safdie whose firm’s name has been linked to a secret plan that was part of the Israeli government’s campaign for settler homes in private Palestinian lands, will be the chief guest at the annual sessions of the Sri Lanka Institute of Architects (SLIA) in Colombo next week.

Mr Safdie is well known worldwide for his architectural expertise. He is referred to as the ‘Father of modern architecture”. However, the move has raised issues within sections of the Muslim community that largely backed President Maithripala Sirisena at the presidential election, and raised questions among intellectuals in Sri Lankan society. They ask if the new Government in Sri Lanka is veering away from its traditional Palestine policy.

Adding weightage to the question are earlier events. One such instance came when the UNESCO adopted a resolution last year to deny Jewish ties to Israel’s most holy religious sites: the Temple Mount and the Western Wall. Sri Lanka abstained from voting though the resolution was carried. The Foreign Ministry defended its action and declared in a statement that even India had refrained from voting, reminding one of an old joke in the Foreign Ministry when diplomats soon after Independence were asked to follow the Indian ambassador at voting time, and one of them followed the Indian envoy all the way to the toilet – to abstain from voting.

Britain’s Guardian newspaper had this to say: “What can one say about the Israeli architects who follow the state’s policies and aims yet deny that their role is political? Despite all the evidence of illegality under international law and breaches of human rights in the land grabs, house demolitions and evictions, Israeli architects and planners continue their activities. They cannot claim that they do not know: there have been plenty of calls for them to stop.

“More of the illegal projects that have been built over the last four decades are ready to go now that the recent settlement freeze has ended – with no sign of resistance or protest from the Israeli Association of United Architects (IAUA). This applies not only to ultra-Zionist architecture firms but mainstream architects of international repute such as Moshe Safdie and Shlomo Aronson. Safdie has been responsible for the now notorious Plan 1155 for the extreme nationalist settler movement Elad that has, in effect, been given control of Silwan, a Palestinian neighbourhood in East Jerusalem.”

It was only last week that Israel’s Parliament (Knesset) voted to retroactively legalise thousands of illegitimate settler homes built on private Palestinian land, in a highly controversial move described by critics as nothing but a “land grab.” The move has met with international condemnation though Sri Lanka is still to react. It comes in sharp defiance of a call by the former US secretary of State, John Kerry, who urged Israel to rein in the construction of settlements on West Bank land.

Questions were raised this week among certain circles asking if Sri Lankan professionals and intellectuals must not take up a stand on what is right and what is wrong happening around the world, even if their home Governments must be politically correct.

Harsha Fernando, President of the Sri Lanka Institute of Architects which has invited Safdie as the chief guest, defended the position of his association. He told the Sunday Times this week: “We were not interested in his (Safdie’s) personal thinking. Our stand was that he is the first person after Le Corbusier to have a huge impact on high rise buildings. Moshe Safdie was talking 10-15 years ago about mega cities. He made everyone rethink about how we live in cities. That was the very reason to bring him down.

“Personally and architecturally, he is a controversial character. But his thinking can be questioned (at the event). We are not into that kind of political situation but only worried about our professional education,” Mr. Fernando said.

Safdie’s firm is the architect of a high rise building now under construction in Colombo.