Feature: Old New City
What started out as a utopian garden suburb is today Israel’s center of finance, culture and technology. As Tel Aviv marks its centennial, it is recalled as a shelter for Europe’s outcasts; architecturally, as a symbol of radical newness; and as the ultimate pioneer of urban life in Israel.
Tel Aviv celebrating its 100th birthday? Impossible. It’s like hearing that a friend from college in the ’60s— the one who had hair down to his waist then and who has a pierced eyebrow now, who was a Trotskyite then and has a software firm now—is throwing a bash for his sixtieth. He might turn 60, but he would not shout it out. He is always 19. One doesn’t think of Tel Aviv as having history or mythology. Tel Aviv is supposed to be a constant, off-balance lurch into the future.
I know that the city’s name is a literary translation of Altneuland, the title of Theodor Herzl’s utopian novel—with tel (in Hebrew, a mound of ancient ruins) representing the past. (And yes, there is a real tel, dug-up ruins of a Philistine city, on the grounds of the municipal Eretz Israel Museum.) But in speech, the accent is always on the aviv, the eternal springtime of the spotless mind. In the city’s self-image, the archaeological tel lies unexcavated and undisturbed.
Start with the fact that Tel Aviv strove for an identity apart from Jaffa, the port city just to the south where Jews previously lived alongside Arabs. Its appellation as a “Hebrew city” likewise hinted at newness—a pose of deliberate distance from “Jewish,” with that word’s burden of faith, exile, history and suffering. Up in the mountains, when Jews moved out of the Old City of Jerusalem to establish new neighborhoods in the late 19th century, they did not seek a separate municipal identity. The new quarters wanted to share Jerusalem’s cachet of biblical glory and Jewish longing.
True, Jaffa is also an ancient name. It appears four times in the Bible—in the best-known passage, as the port to which the prophet Jonah came in order to flee from both God and overwhelming responsibility. If only Tel Avivians were looking for a mythic past, they would declare Jonah the city’s founding father and guiding spirit. But Tel Avivians are more likely to be looking for the beach, or shares in a high-tech firm—the animation software startup 3DV, perhaps, or the laser optics company Ophir Optronics—or tickets to a dance performance at The Suzanne Dellal Center, or perhaps to Habimah’s production of The 39 Steps, the best of London theater in Hebrew.
For that matter, modern Jaffa itself was a city more concerned with commerce than history. In the 19th century, Jaffa grew from village to city, due largely to trade. The steamship made exporting fruit to Europe practical. Orange and lemon orchards spread around the town. In the 1870s, Jaffa’s town wall was ripped down, an act that reduced tradition quite literally to rubble. Jaffa was a port bubbling with foreign languages, looking toward the Mediterranean and the West.
Nonetheless, Jews wanted to move out of its crowded quarters. Tel Aviv was founded as a garden city, a new concept fresh from Europe that stressed urban planning and low density. By the 1930s, when Tel Aviv was growing in somersaults and bounds, the reigning architectural vision was Bauhaus—also known as the International Style—an avant-garde design intended to dispense with all local traditions. Imported from Germany, Bauhaus stressed simplicity, stark geometric designs and lack of ornament. Tel Aviv’s white Bauhaus buildings were built with flat roofs, long horizontal windows and curved balconies. Tel Aviv was a futurist vision, dreamed up in an intellectually fervid Central Europe, turned into reality on a Levantine shore and located in the mind on a new planet.
The truly driven Zionists, the farbrent socialist pioneers who created the kibbutzim and stand as giants in Israel’s story of itself, regarded Tel Aviv as a foreign city. The crucial events that sped its growth weren’t Zionist initiatives. The first turning point, in 1921, began with a clash between two far left Jewish groups during a May Day parade between Jaffa and Tel Aviv. British police shot in the air, Arabs thought Jews were shooting at them, and ethnic riots erupted in Jaffa. Nearly 60 people were killed, most Jews. Afterward, Jews abandoned Jaffa for Tel Aviv.
Three years later, the United States shut the doors of Ellis Island to East European immigrants—just as Poland was adopting anti-Semitic economic policies that hit small businessmen particularly hard. British-ruled Palestine became the most accessible refuge. The new wave of immigrants weren’t dreaming of draining swamps, living in communes or dancing the hora wildly all night. They wanted to set up shops. They wanted cafés.
Many years later, a former pioneer interviewed for the Israeli historical documentary Pillar of Fire described his angry awe upon entering Tel Aviv in the 1920s: “They had no ideology. They were the same Jews we’d seen in Poland before we came”—the Jews, that is, against whom the pioneers rebelled. “They weren’t partners in our cause… I didn’t see the workers of Tel Aviv as my partners either. People capable of going around in white pants, white shoes. I regarded myself as a modern aristocrat.… Someone who wore torn pants, half of his rear end exposed, that was the [ideal] man…. How did we know a night was successful? When you danced till the shirt tore on your back.” In other words, Tel Aviv was actually insufficiently new, not enough of a break with history.
After 1933 and the rise of the Nazis, the influx of refugees increased. Tel Aviv was a city of the displaced. It was Frankfurt or Berlin with a sudden dry wind from the desert when the weather shifted. The past of which most new residents dreamed was not ancient Israel but their own former lives. Leah Goldberg described the melancholy in her poem, “Tel Aviv, 1935”:
…How could the air of the small city
hold so many
childhood memories, discarded loves,
rooms emptied far away?
… and behind your back, footsteps drum
a foreign army’s marching songs,
and it seems— just turn your head, and on the sea
your city’s cathedral is sailing by.
Still, that city of expatriates transformed itself into the center of Hebrew culture—the location of newspaper offices, literary journals and theater companies. The wildest-eyed of the café poets asserted that they were not Jews at all, but Canaanites: an ancient and reborn nation of Hebrew speakers, divorced from the diaspora, who would build a Hebrew-speaking empire inhabited by a “mixture of bloods and a confusion of races,” in the words of Canaanite poet Aharon Amir. Their inspiration was the European right. (In his youth, in 1940, Amir asked to be accepted for officer’s training at a military academy in Mussolini’s Italy.) But the idea of a new Hebrew nation was also adopted by journalist Uri Avneri, who by the time of Israeli independence was already arguing for an alliance of Hebrews and Arabs for Semitic liberation, and has advocated reconciliation with the Palestinians ever since.
Yet for all the proclamations of radical newness, Tel Aviv is umbilically tied to the urban tradition of diaspora history: After independence, founding prime minister David Ben-Gurion and his Labor Zionist governments tried mightily to spread Israelis, especially immigrants, to new farming villages and instant towns away from Tel Aviv. It was like fighting a river with a broom. Jews wanted to live in the big city. The outlying development towns remain mostly stunted to this day. Kibbutzim have privatized and sold shares to their industries on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange. Which proves, as if proof were needed, that Greater Tel Aviv is still the center of the country, psychologically as well as physically.
The population of Jerusalem surpassed that of Tel Aviv after the capital was reunited in 1967. But the Tel Aviv metropolitan area is still the most populous. Tel Aviv’s brain industries, finance and high tech, have made the city prosperous, while factories in outlying towns struggle. The three Azrieli towers rising over the city symbolize the office-and-commerce economy. In their imposing glass hugeness, they are actually the heirs of the low white Bauhaus buildings of earlier Tel Aviv: One tower is round, one square, one triangular—geometric simplicity, absolutely international. I once visited the office of a former Knesset member on the 25th floor of the round tower. Recovered from politics, he now invested in real estate and alternative energy. A secretary served me espresso; I expected to find a remote control that would switch the language she spoke: Hebrew, Russian, English, French. From the window I could see across the city to the Mediterranean, a reassuring reminder that the office was located in a particular country. Economically, Israel’s pressing challenge—beyond surviving the present downturn—is how to spread Tel Aviv’s success to the rest of the country.
Occasionally, a book of fiction or nonfiction or an opinion article recasts the biblical past to give ancient roots to Tel Aviv. The Book of Tamar (Modan), a Hebrew novel by Shlomit Abramson, explores the lives of Tamar and Judah, son of the patriarch Jacob. Jacob’s clan—puritanical, cruel and monotheistic—lives in the mountains. Tamar, brought as a wife for Judah’s son, is from a related tribe that lives in the lowlands, populated by sensuous, easygoing people, at home with the gods of the age. The subtle suggestion is that Tamar’s people foreshadow easygoing Israelis of the lowlands, and that Jacob’s are the progenitors of the religious Jews of the hills—of Jerusalem and the West Bank settlements.
Yet the supposed distinction between Israelis of the coast and Jews of the mountains has been more popular among religious settlers, especially since the Gaza pullout. The Israelis, in this telling, live in the ancient land of the Philistines on the coast and have abandoned both Judaism and the real land of Israel, the hill country of Hebron and Shiloh. One night, in a mobile home in the illegal hilltop outpost of Amona, north of Ramallah in the West Bank, I heard a settler explain to me that when Abraham left Ur of the Chaldees, he was saying “that to be a Jew in his generation…and in ours means to leave the city.” I thought of Jews who have lived in New York, Berlin, Krakow, Fez, Cairo and Rome. My host’s vision of what it meant to be Jewish left out large chunks of our past.
In religious language, he was actually restating the pioneer’s complaint of the 1920s, but in a plaintive tone. The political argument about the future of the settlements remains alive. But culturally and numerically, the city—the City, Tel Aviv—has defeated pioneering as a model for being Jewish in the Jewish homeland. That victory, ironically, is evidence that Tel Aviv has much more continuity with the Jewish past than its surface image acknowledges.
Still, at age 100, the city should be confident enough to acknowledge its location and complex parentage. An exhibit called “The Secret History of Tel Aviv” at the Eretz Israel Museum (www.eretzmuseum.org) is a start: It delves back 20,000 years, reminding visitors that hippopotamuses once lived in the Yarkon River before anyone imagined freeways and glass towers.
But that’s only a start. Tel Aviv can afford to turn its collective head from the sea and the West to look at the Middle East around it—to remember that Jaffa is not just a poor neighborhood at the southern end of the city, but also the womb from which Tel Aviv was born. Beneath the first “Hebrew city,” it could acknowledge, lie the multiple layers of Jewish urban history. Even the constant argument with that past, the loud rejection of tradition, is an old Jewish skill, honed in the coffee shops of a hundred other cities. A birthday party? Maybe it’s an opportunity for the perpetually young city to grow up just a bit and admit who it is. H