The Bubble

Tel Aviv versus Jerusalem - it's the eternal battle for the soul of Israel. Do we want to be the Chosen People or the people who have choices?

May 14, 2009 09:18
The Bubble

Shenkin street 88 248. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

In Annie Hall, Woody Allen fretted about how his beloved New York City was perceived. "Don't you see, the rest of the country looks upon New York like we're left-wing, communist, Jewish, homosexual pornographers? I think of us that way sometimes and I live here." Well, substitute Tel Aviv for New York and, ironically, treif for Jewish, and Allen could have been describing how the rank-and-file Israeli views the jet-setting Mediterranean metropolis. But unlike Allen, most Tel Avivians aren't worried about what they call a skewed perception that their 24-hour capital of culture, finance and nightlife is a detached bubble, a den of Sodom-heavy iniquities. They're too busy enjoying it. "Tel Aviv is a big metropolitan city that enables people from all over Israel to live the life of a big city," says longtime resident Gal Uchovsky, a movie producer, journalist and judge on Kochav Nolad (Israeli Idol). "It's where the artists are, where the advertising is. It's where everything is happening, especially for younger people who want to create and live in an international, vibrant, open-minded environment - this is the place to go." So, why does Tel Aviv get a bad rap? Or, more pointedly, is Tel Aviv the quintessential expression of the Israeli spirit, or is it cut off from it? TV host, author and journalist Yair Lapid succinctly outlined the fundamental schism between Tel Aviv and the rest of the country in an essay in Yediot Aharonot earlier this month. "A hundred years after it was born, Tel Aviv is a dilemma: Is it the model the entire country should follow, or will it always remain a state within a state, conducting itself according to its own rules? [The country] has gone in wholly different directions, more conservative, more radical and more traditional. People accused Tel Aviv - sometimes justly and sometimes blindly - of trying to dress up as a cheery and carefree European city, while all the others contend with worries and engage in a determined existential struggle. "This image, as images tend to be, is larger than life. Tel Aviv has no fewer scars than any other city in Israel, ranging from the suicide bombings on the No. 5 bus to the missiles of the first Gulf War. The main difference is that Tel Aviv refuses to be burdened by history. We leave that for the Jerusalemites." TEL AVIV VERSUS Jerusalem - it's the eternal battle for the soul of Israel. Do we want to be the Chosen People or the people who have choices? According to Tel Aviv-based novelist and filmmaker Etgar Keret, Tel Aviv offers the Jewish people a thrilling option from this historical model that has led them for 2,000 years. "Jerusalem is based on history. In Tel Aviv, there's a lack of history, which can offer many advantages. Tel Aviv isn't burdened by the clashes in the region that have been going on for thousands of years," says Keret. "Tel Aviv is not really a geographical place, it's more a state of mind. Very few people are born in Tel Aviv and die there. People pass through the city at some phase in their lives. It's a place to seek philosophical or political discourse, artistic collaboration or inspiration, and innovation. "I think that what Tel Avivians have in common is some form of yearning, a wish to change and the need for an atmosphere in which they can create and remain curious. When I meet people in Tel Aviv, they ask me questions. In Jerusalem, they give me answers to questions I didn't even ask." ACCORDING TO sociologist Oz Almog of the University of Haifa, the original settlers of Tel Aviv aspired to break away from the influence of Jerusalem and create a Middle Eastern version of New York City. And they've succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. "Jerusalem symbolizes our Jewishness and Tel Aviv our Israeliness. It's a city of youngsters, full of vivid nightlife, clubs, pubs, cafe culture. It's an Israeli ritual that once you finish your military service, you spend a year living in Tel Aviv," says Almog. As a result of this pilgrimage, Almog adds, a new generation has been created, one that he has labeled the "party generation." "They know how to have fun and it's a major part of their life. In the old days, the Zionists didn't have the slightest idea of how to have fun," says Almog. "Tel Aviv represents the way of thinking that it's not a sin to enjoy and have fun. There's no doubt there's an element of hedonism about it. It's a realization of the egocentric part of Israeli society." It's precisely that part of society that many Israelis prefer not to be reminded of, which is why they treat Tel Aviv like some black sheep uncle who indulges a bit too much in wine and song and winds up embarrassing the family. But Uchovsky finds that attitude to be somewhat disingenuous. "You know, there's always this game of images," he says. "When there's a war, there's a tendency to gang up on Tel Aviv. In the rest of the country, there's a wave of patriotism and a 'we're so right' mentality of getting behind the war effort. Part of that psyche would be to hate Tel Aviv, where everyone is perceived as sitting in coffee shops and not caring about the war. "But when there's nothing major politically going on, people like Tel Aviv - they like coming to go to restaurants or cafes, see an art show, or shop, or have fun at the beach. Things aren't so monochromatic here - it's always a little more colorful in Israel than that." Almog recalls a 1970s TV series that encapsulated the internal struggle that Tel Aviv symbolizes in the hearts and minds of old-style Zionist traditionalists about a kibbutz couple - Hedva and Shlomik - who search for a new life in the big city. "Everyone on the kibbutz looks at them as traitors for leaving their way of life. When you left the kibbutz, which is the shrine of Zionism, for city life, it symbolized a transition that actually took place. We've actually replaced our kibbutz genes with Tel Aviv genes," says Almog. That Tel Aviv gene, however, isn't so different from the genes in the rest of the country, claims Karen Alkalay-Gut, a poet and Tel Aviv University writing teacher who regularly sets down in verse her thoughts about the city she's lived in for 30 years. "I think what makes Tel Aviv special is the combinations - the old and the young, the religious and nonreligious, the possibility of meeting people from all different parts of the world," she says. But, despite its outward worldliness, Tel Aviv boasts a very specific provinciality, Alkalay-Gut insists, recalling a joke that illustrates her point. "Two Tel Avivians were in London, and they were seeing so many strange faces. One says, 'I don't recognize anyone.' And the other says, 'Yeah, they must be from Haifa.'" JOKES ASIDE, Tel Aviv, in recent years, has begun to rival Jerusalem as the destination for tourists and visiting dignitaries to visit. When the Foreign Ministry brings over delegations of journalists in an effort to expose the modern Israel, the itinerary is increasingly weighted toward Tel Aviv. "I think Tel Aviv is gaining recognition as a place you need to see," says Uchovsky. "When Jews used to come to Israel, they'd get off the plane and go straight to Jerusalem. I think around five or six years ago, people began to understand that you can come to Israel and visit the Western Wall, but that you can still come to Tel Aviv and have fun, and feel Jewish - because everyone around you is Jewish, and you can feel at home. Why does the Jewish state need to be something only connected to the past, to wars, to bad memories of massacres?" It's that kind of attitude which has contributed to the perception that Tel Aviv is really some kind of bubble, smugly outside of the daily Sturm und Drang of daily life in Israel. According to noted Tel Aviv cultural blogger Lisa Goldman, the "bubble" cynically labeled the city's residents "as navel gazers, draft dodgers and leftists who spend all their time sitting in cafes, sipping espressos, apathetic or indifferent to what goes on in the rest of the country." Uchovsky, together with his filmmaking and life partner Eytan Fox, helped codify that image with their 2006 film The Bubble, which wove a conflict-based story through the lenses of a group of dynamic Tel Aviv friends encompassing gays, yuppies and Palestinians, who intersect against the backdrop of Rehov Sheinkin - the mythical center of the bubble universe. But for Uchovsky, it's not a bubble he's describing - it's life. "It's like in the US - you have New York and you have Iowa. Which one is America, and which one is the bubble? There's always going to be tension between the big city and the Bible Belt, no matter where you are," he says. "People like to refer to Tel Aviv as the bubble. If that's the case, I wish the entire country were inside this bubble," says Keret. "For me, Tel Aviv is basically the best model for life, according to my values. It's the most pluralistic, tolerant city in the entire region. Here, you can find a gay couple next to a haredi family on the same street with an Israeli Arab family." Alkalay-Gut resents the notion that Tel Aviv is somehow out of harm's way, and not susceptible to the existential threats facing the rest of the country. "In 2000, my son opened up a coffee house just as the intifada began. I spent a lot of hours in cafes watching bombs being dismantled. I didn't think Tel Aviv was a bubble then, or in the first Gulf War when Scuds were falling," she says. ALMOG SAYS that the Tel Aviv bubble is symbolic not only of an internal Israeli dichotomy but of the country's position in a fundamentalist, conservative Middle East. "A big disappointment for many Israelis and Tel Avivians is that the majority of the population in the Middle East not only resists the whole idea of a progressive, liberal democratic way of life, but that they would fight to the death against it," he says. "We thought we could bring the Tel Aviv way of life to the rest of Israel and the whole Middle East - that was Shimon Peres's vision, the 'New Middle East.' What he was talking about was really transferring the Tel Aviv way of life. But our neighbors have become even more fundamentalist - they hate us. And the bubble is more of a bubble than ever, making us more vulnerable than ever. "The paradox is that the city is very successful, but it's a double-edged sword, that success can be very dangerous. If the gap between Tel Aviv and its neighbors - both inside and outside - becomes too wide, eventually that bubble will burst." AS TEL AVIV enters its second century, the challenges it faces will include how to prevent that explosion. But according to Almog, as the modern Israeli city continues to thrive, the challenge facing the rest of the country will be how to prevent the Tel Aviv culture from consuming its own. "Tel Aviv is the fulfillment of that Zionist idea to normalize the Jew - that was the conception the early Zionists used as a solution for anti-Semitism. If we 'gentilize' the Jew, and if we have our own land and independence, we can avoid hostility," says Almog. "But maybe we overnormalized. We've been so successful, that from a Zionist point of view, it's become counterproductive. There's been so much normalization that we've become gentiles ourselves. If you live in Tel Aviv, you basically live in a very Western, secular environment, not that much different than London or Rome. And if living in Israel is like living anywhere else, than what's the point? That's the big question, even though it's predominantly an unasked question at this point." According to Almog, there is always a danger of the rest of the country becoming too much like Tel Aviv, and losing its Jerusalem-ness or Haifa-ness. And it all comes down to which part of our Israeli identity that we wish to cherish and retain. "We need all the different sides, but in which proportion? In Jerusalem, among religious, conservative people, the belief is that the Tel Aviv portion of the equation is too strong and is going to take us down the drain," says Almog. "Others say that if we didn't have a Tel Aviv in our society, we'd quickly descend into a fundamentalist, unprogressive country. Thanks to Tel Aviv, they say, we have become a modernized society, a symbol of democracy and liberalism. And we should take pride in it." Like many Tel Avivians, Alkalay-Gut would like to have it both ways, and is convinced that she does. "My son has a restaurant in the Carmel Market. It's an Italian restaurant in the old Yemenite Quarter. And on Friday afternoons, you can sit there and eat, and listen to local Mizrahi and Mediterranean music. How's that for a microcosm of Tel Aviv?"

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