Israeli filmmaker, Avi Nesher, once said, in an interview for The Jewish Telegraph, that the real struggle in the Middle East is not between Arabs and Jews but between modern and traditional values.

On the one hand, traditional values stem from religious traditions where man and women have different but complementary roles. They typically emphasize the importance of the collective focusing on marriage and family. Traditional communities do not deal well with deviance from norm or individual decisions that fail collective scrutiny.

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Modern values, on the other hand, stem from the Enlightenment. They focus more on individual choices than on group standards.

Israel, a modern democratic western society and also a confessional state where civil marriage does not exist and citizenship is attributed on the basis of ethnicity, is where this struggle is more apparent. In fact, this tension goes to the core of the balance that sustains the Jewish State. Sometimes, in the daily life of Israelis this contrast between modernity and tradition is separated by walls or even by some meters on a sidewalk.

When eight Polish Hasidic families founded Bnei Brak — nowadays, a center of Ultra Orthodox Judaism — as an agricultural village in the late 1920’s, Israel was not even an independent country. Their leader, Yitzchok Gerstenkor, created a theocratic city, a bubble of theology, within the wider anthropocentric Zionist movement. Not far, the Jerusalem neighborhood of Mea Shearim shared the same religious fervor, in a completely different context. Jerusalem has always been a sacred city, not only for the three main monotheistic world religions, but especially for Judaism.

Bnei Brak was built a mere 6 km away from the Arab city Yafo. Yafo’s twin Jewish city, Tel Aviv, is not a biblical city. To avoid it being named after the leader of the Zionist movement, Theodor Hertzl, the city got its name from a biblical term used to translate one of his books to Hebrew.

From day one, everything about Tel Aviv was secular. The main building of the first settlement was a school and not a synagogue. Moreover, its socialist leaders in the 30’s and 40’s introduced the international style of architecture based on Bauhaus modernist ideas so they could place man and his needs at the core of city life. Tel Aviv would grow to become the largest economical center in the Middle East and a beacon of modernity.

 In the same interview, Avi Nesher explained that the bikinis in the beaches of Tel Aviv are the true reason for the discontent of Palestinians. He went further on saying that those same bikinis also bother the religious Jewish backbone of Israel.

If Tel Aviv grew in the last 60 years, so did Bnei Brak, which reached the astonishing number of 188,964 inhabitants in 2006.  But it was not only Bnei Brak that grew. The religious movement in Israel, backed by large families and the friendly policies of successive right wing governments, has also grown to an astonishing 30% of the total population of the start up nation, according to a 2015 WIN/Gallup poll.

This means that just a short 6 km ride away from the bikini filled beaches of Tel Aviv and the most risqué S&M club in the Middle East, the Dungeon, there is a city where the beginning of Shabbat is marked by the sound of a siren, and the use of an immodest attire can see you beaten or even stoned.

 However, to find the coexistence between tradition and modernity Nesher spoke about, you do not need to go all the way to Bnei Brak. You can find it on the beaches of Tel Aviv themselves. Religious people do not mix with the wider Israeli population when they bath in the Mediterranean. In the north of Tel Aviv, in a secluded area, the city reserved a closed beach just for the use of religious people. There, men and women have different days of attendance and tall walls separate the users from the rest of the secular world.

There are two Israels, the lightning bolt of technological modernity that needs supermarkets open on Saturday, and a 18th century theocracy that needs buses to not circulate on that very same day. Like a skilled trapezist who never looks down, Israel walks the thin wire that separates both sides of itself. 

 
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