Terra incognita: The imagined ‘State of Tel Aviv

One of the main narratives portrays the “city-state of Tel Aviv” as a bastion of progressive liberalism, and the rest of the country as “Neanderthals."

Bubble (photo credit: REUTERS)
(photo credit: REUTERS)
 In the aftermath of the recent elections there was an unprecedented outpouring of hatred directed at Israel, by Israel. One of the main narratives portrays the “city-state of Tel Aviv” as a bastion of progressive liberalism, and the rest of the country as, in the word of one radical artist, “Neanderthals,” who have “stolen” Israel from the good people. At the heart of this binary world view is an imagined community.
Emblematic of this narrative is Michal Yudelman-O’Dwyer.
She defined the non-Tel Aviv public as “observant, Mizrahi and ultra-Orthodox” and contrasted it with her “secular tradition” which “founded the state.” Supposedly her Tel Aviv embodies “humanity’s primordial desire for individuality, free thought and expression and creativity.”
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She claims those who founded Israel “including my parents’ generation who came as pioneers and fought for Israel’s independence” wanted a state based on those values. However, “Other [religious] communities who followed have their own customs and traditions.”
The imagined Tel Aviv community “supports freedom and equality” and is juxtaposed with “Mizrahi communities” in the rest of the country. O’Dwyer asserts she cannot “accept those whose vote was motivated by racism and hatred,” a reference to Benjamin Netanyahu’s election- day bigotry; through which she paints a sweeping generalization about the vast majority of Israelis.
This op-ed merely builds on a larger narrative that has portrayed Netanyahu as winning the election because he “speaks fluent Mizrahi” according to one commentator.
In another post-election episode an extremist former professor went on a morning show and attacked Moroccan Jews in Israel, saying, “Nothing bad would have happened if your parents had stayed in Morocco and rotted there.” Asked to leave the show, he wrote in a blog that “Israel...chooses to cater to people who reside in third class countries and seek a quick upgrade to second class....If we need more computer programmers, there is no reason to bring in carpenters even if they are wearing yarmulkes.”
The implication of those who support this ideology is that everyone in Israel who is not of European origin or doesn’t vote the “correct” way is somehow a “second class” person (and that to be a carpenter is somehow a lowly profession). The author of course forgot that in the 1890s when Jews were leaving Russia to come to the United States, few of them had skills, some of them were carpenters, and yet they became engineers of the growth of American wealth in the 20th century.
Dovetailing with the superiority complex is another view directed at Israel: “They voted for Bibi, let them suffer,” was the commentary of one Facebook group and a plethora of people who said after the elections that the poor in Israel don’t deserve charity or support because they vote the wrong way.
A depressing view came from Guy Spigelman, the CEO of PresenTense Israel. In an op-ed in Haaretz he wrote, “You want people like me to stay [in Israel]? You want the almost one million citizens who voted for Zionist Union and Meretz, whose form of Zionism and Judaism don’t align with yours, to not disengage from the rest of Israel? Prove to me that we are not outside the fence – because that is how it feels at the moment.”
It is an incredible sentiment, and needs some time to digest.
“Why should we feel extra responsibility for the education, health and welfare of all Israelis?” he asked.
How to understand this disillusionment? It’s based on a misreading of the Israeli political landscape. Only 34 percent of Tel Aviv voted for Zionist Union and 13% for Meretz; 18% voted Likud, 12% Yesh Atid, 7% for Moshe Kahlon, and numbers for other parties. Even within Tel Aviv the majority are actually outside the bubble. Outside of Tel Aviv in many areas where Likud performed well such as Carmiel, Upper Nazareth, Tiberias, Beersheba and Kiryat Gat, the Zionist Union gets between 10%-20% of the vote.
The real story of Israel is that it is a diverse country.
Spigelman wrote that he could “understand the gut reaction” of those “few Tel Aviv residents [who] in their frustration declared that they would no longer donate to the poor in the south or the north [of Israel].” The majority of Zionist Union voters live outside Tel Aviv.
Did he forget Haifa, Nahariya and many other places? Of course every Israeli must support the health, welfare and education of all Israelis. Why would you punish a child born today because of how the parents voted? Part of the problem is a self-fulfilling superiority complex that takes the form of a catch-22. They claim to be superior and then wonder why the country doesn’t align politically with them. Minority communities or the poor can’t identify politicians who don’t even visit their neighborhoods, see how they live or bother to recruit a diverse list for elections. How did the “Mizrahim,” for instance, end up in the “periphery”? They were forcibly settled there by the “founders” of Israel in the 1950s. What is “secular” and progressive about forcibly segregating society into Arab and Jewish schooling, religious and secular schools, which is what the so-called “secular” founding generation did? When you don’t allow people to join the club, you can’t then complain that they aren’t members.
Rather than condemning people for not voting your ideology, try listening to the problems people have and reaching out to them.
THE BEAUTIFUL Israel of the south and north, the periphery, the Mizrahim, Arabs, Ethiopians, Russians, religious and non-religious, Jerusalem, Haifa, Nazareth, are being written off as if they were some sort of problem.
Some people want to “disengage” from this Israel, as if it were a bag of trash that can be thrown away when it doesn’t vote or behave correctly. Real progressives would see this as an opportunity to double down and support more education and programs for all of Israeli society, to build a shared society of all the citizens, not further balkanization.
Investing in education and supporting poorer communities is a priority, no matter how they vote.
Do left-wing parties in the West win elections by bashing the majority of voters? Don’t they win by building coalitions, reaching out to all groups and representing different sectors instead of insulating themselves? The tendency after the recent election to hide inside a bubble is losing strategy. Building more walls or acceptance committees is a recipe for failure. Eventually the increasingly insular worldview inside the bubble will run out of air.
The ideology of “let them suffer” risks alienating another generation of Israelis and balkanizing the country further. It is about closing minds, insulating worldviews and only associating with “my own kind.” That is a dangerous, noxious mix of ethnocentrism that is, ironically, the opposite of the worldview that Meretz and Zionist Union need to promote.
The imagined community should open its eyes to the rest of Israel. I spent the weekend walking with Beduin activists and the Joint Arab List’s Ayman Odeh for 25 km. of their 130-km., four-day “long march” to the Knesset from the Negev. It was an inspiring day of walking with dedicated activists from the north and south. Even if one doesn’t agree with the entire agenda of the march, it would have been worthwhile for more people to engage with it and learn about it.
That’s the real Israel, even if it is balkanized and its communities don’t always get along. The beautiful Israel is the diverse one. Those who want to disengage from it forget who it is they are directing their anger at. Who do you think works security at Azrieli and Dizengof in Tel Aviv? Who do you think mans the Iron Dome battery at night? Who do you think builds the high-rises in Tel Aviv? Who washes the dishes when you go out for dinner? Who cleans the toilets? Who takes care of the elderly? Who teaches your children? Who are the nurses in the hospitals? Have you even talked to them and asked them about their lives, what their hopes and dreams are? Jewish Israelis are about sit down for Passover dinner.
The narrative of the dinner is about escape from slavery.
Israel needs an escape from the mental slavery of balkanization and hatred between the various groups in Israeli society. Make this the year that Israelis stop calling each other “primitive” and “Neanderthals,” stop stereotyping people, stop bashing people for being “carpenters” or attacking others for their ethnic background or country of origin. Erase the differences between center and periphery, don’t perpetuate and exacerbate them. Stop romanticizing the past and declare that instead you will invest resources and energy in making the future better.
Follow the author @Sfrantzman