Middle Israel: The next Azrieli Revolution

The malls sure reshaped Israeli life, and David Azrieli will be identified with them.

November 2, 2006 13:55
amotz asa el 88

amotz asa el 88. (photo credit: )


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Driving down the Ayalon thruway these days, Middle Israelis are elated: The third and last Azrieli tower, the square one, is fast rising skyward like a submarine periscope's impatient emergence from the netherworld following a particularly long journey undersea. For more than half a decade, Tel Aviv's trademark triangular and round towers seemed so bereft of their younger, square sibling - whose delivery was delayed due to a tax dispute with city hall - that the entire scene offered a metaphor to the broader Israeli condition: on the one hand entrepreneurial energy, imagination and splendor, on the other governmental ineptitude, pettiness and malfeasance. Now, as this national landmark takes its final shape, whereby the number of passengers, shoppers and office dwellers crowding its towers, mall and railway station during rush hour will be about twice the entire population of Kiryat Shmona, Middle Israelis ponder the esthetic, economic and cultural merits and drawbacks of the Azrieli Revolution. ONE DAMP winter day in '96 I stared with David Azrieli into a hole in the ground deeper than a volcanic pit, where an enormous crane pierced the sky while hundreds of predominantly Romanian hardhats were diligently nursing the forest of cement pillars they had planted throughout that crater. "Over there will be the round building," said Menahem Einan, a retired general and Azrieli's right-hand man. The following week, after one of the early suicide bombings, I called Einan for a statement about Israel's reply. He politely declined, explaining "there are bigger experts than me about that." Besides being rare for an Israeli general, there was something about that modesty that sharply contrasted with the skyscraping project he was leading. Now I realize that Einan's attitude was but a reflection of his boss's improbable emergence as a revolutionary whose imprint on the Jewish state has become impossible to ignore. Born in Poland 84 years ago, Azrieli survived the Holocaust by crossing to the Russian sphere and proceeding to Palestine through Uzbekistan and Iran before becoming a real-estate tycoon in Canada, where he emigrated after fighting here during the War of Independence. In 1984, when Israel was experiencing its worst economic crisis ever, Azrieli had the outlandish idea of giving the country its first mall. People thought he was crazy, that customers and shop owners would shun the foreign concept of bunching together competing businesses under one roof. As a gesture to municipal skeptics' demands, Azrieli agreed to build the mall outside Ramat Gan's soccer stadium, but he told them that within a short time people would recognize the stadium as the structure near the mall, and not the other way around. Twenty years and 70 malls later we know just how right he was. Not only have malls sprouted even in godforsaken Beit She'an and Dimona, collectively the malls represent, and fuel, a consumerist age in which a rapidly expanding middle class fills increasingly better cars at increasingly glitzy stores which make it increasingly difficult to find abroad anything that can't be found here, and at nearly the same price. The malls of course did not ignite this consumerist revolution - the 1985 economic stabilization plan did - but they sure reshaped a central part of Israeli life, and David Azrieli will be identified with it, for better or worse, both as its pioneer and as owner of a tenth of all of Israel's malls, and most of its largest ones. Another part of that revolution is Tel Aviv's newly Manhattanesque skyline. HARD AS it is to believe, most of the towers that now line the Ayalon highway weren't there two decades ago, when the faceless Shalom Tower was our only skyscraper and the shabby department store on its ground floor the only one here that vaguely echoed what existed abroad. Now Tel Aviv's skyline is dramatic, sporting an ever-thickening chain of stone, steel and glass structures that are as tall as they are varied, surprising and elegant. Both they and the malls came coupled with a deeper, mental revolution. The malls brought with them a previously unthinkable respect for the customer, ranging from a purchased item's right of return, to polite and informed salespeople who understand they are meant to help rather than abuse buyers. The office towers, with their handsome lobbies, cafes and reception areas fostered a new business-minded seriousness that contrasted the socialist era's disrespect for appearance, planning and discipline. Considering the faith and relish with which he built his malls, and the visibility of his project among the rest of the skyscrapers, it is only natural to name this generally happy transformation after David Azrieli. Yet with all due respect to these breakthroughs, the Azrieli Revolution's Zeitgeist has also had its downsides. First, the malls' proliferation destroyed the inner cities. Jerusalem's Jaffa Road, Tel Aviv's Dizengoff area, Haifa's Herzl Street and Ramat Gan's Jabotinsky Blvd. are but vague shadows of what they once were, whether commercially, socially or aesthetically. The most depressing of these scenes is central Jerusalem, whose dilapidation, besides being visually appalling, blemishes the entire Zionist enterprise. Visitors often wonder: is this continuum of felafel stands and shmatta bazaars the Fifth Avenue of the Jewish state's capital? When told that local commerce has merely relocated - in this case to the Malha Mall - they say: "we too have malls, but we also have Oxford Street, Park Avenue and the Champs Elysees." No less ominously, Israel's consumerist revolution has severely damaged the status of the Sabbath; not as a religious value, but as a major facet of the Jewish state's link to its national heritage. Responding to the recent immigration's frequent lack of familiarity with the Sabbath, a growing number of Israeli malls work relentlessly on weekends, fast making the Israeli Seventh Day even more mundane than America's and Europe's. This, besides being unfair to observant shop owners who lose clients to non-observant competitors, is also prone to further disturb our already troubled religious-secular balance, as it will make religious customers seek religious retailers, and before we know it we will have religious and secular malls. Had David Ben-Gurion been with us, he would have fought this as resolutely as he demanded that the IDF's kitchens be kosher despite his own radical secularism. WE DON'T have David Ben-Gurion today, but we have David Azrieli, who cares for this country's well-being no less than its founding father did, and as a matter of fact keeps his malls closed on Shabbat. Now, as he celebrates the 20th anniversary of the first Israeli mall's inauguration, and as his great architectural project approaches its long-overdue completion, Azrieli can assume leadership in treating his revolution's victims. For one thing, the Ministerial Committee for Legislation is now considering a bill, conceived among others by major Orthodox figures, to make a trade-off whereby Saturday retailing would be banned, while restaurants, cafes and theaters would be allowed to open and public transportation to them would be provided. Azrieli would do well to call on the business community to back this bill. On the urban decay side, where his impact has been more direct, Azrieli can prod the government and the business community to jointly conceive a national rehabilitation plan for Israel's inner cities, where local government has been too poor, apathetic or inept to offer a vision that would change what for now is history's course. Something must be done about the shock treatment that Israel's consumerist revolution has dealt to Israel's public domain. And that something, for its part, had better be done with the kind of drive, inspiration and speed without which the Azrieli Revolution would not have arrived here, warts and all.

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