Real change in Tel Aviv?

"If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? But if I am for myself alone, what am I? And if not now, when?" - Hillel (as cited by Pinsker in AutoEmancipation)


Recently, residents of Tel Aviv were treated to the now-annual summer social justice protests. Last year, the protests had brought a refreshing whiff of possibility, but by the end of the summer, with the protest tents, the makeshift kitchens, and the even more makeshift toilets strewn around the city, the whiff of change began to stink.


This year, the energy and excitement that coursed through the streets of Tel Aviv in the spring and early summer of 2011 just never arrived. In their place came anger and resentment, which eventually found expression in the form of vandalism, committed by the protesters, and violence by the police. The notion of change -- let alone an ideal of social justice -- seemed to have evaporated.


But last week, at an event unlike any I''ve attended in Tel Aviv, I discovered that the momentum of the social justice protests of 2011 is not entirely lost. The event was an education session run by ProjectT.A., an informal partnership between the Tel Aviv city government and the city''s "internationals," or expat residents in their 20s and 30s. ProjectT.A.''s stated goal is "to enable and inspire Tel Aviv internationals to form specific goals and to begin to make the city in that beautiful image."


Whether intentionally or not, the Tel Aviv municipality, or Irya, in Hebrew, has managed to maintain an almost majestic aloofness from its public. Though there have been some major improvements over the past few years, including a streamlining of the city''s service department in place of the bureaucratic Byzantium that used to exist, the Irya still remains a bit of an abstraction.


But ProjectT.A. seems to indicate a possible pivot away from Tel Aviv''s old approach to city governance. Maybe even more importantly, it also seems to represent the emergence of a much needed alternative to the kind of social activism we''ve seen on the streets these past two summers.


Last week''s event, the second meeting of ProjecT.A., was an education session led by Daniella Rob, the head of "Rova Lev Ha''Ir," the district council for the city''s center.  Rob provided a detailed breakdown of the city''s governing structures, including the powers and responsibilities of the district and neighborhood councils, which, it turns out, have a real ability to implement neighborhood-level social and environmental changes. The session was held at Mazeh 9, the city''s center for young residents, and was led by the center''s director, Michael Vole.


The presentation was important, but the follow-up question-and-answer session with attendees turned out to be the main event. There was discussion about creating community gardens, the kinds that have beautified blighted areas of Paris, New York and London. It''s the kind of thing that might sound trivial at first pass, but if you look at the empty lots that pockmark Tel Aviv, the value of properly tended gardens placed around the city -- and the idea of those who might gather to tend them -- can easily be seen.


Others (many others) had comments about the city''s physical appearance. "Tel Aviv is beautiful, but it''s under construction. How do we create some kind of aesthetic in the city?" a French gentleman said, mentioning the proliferation of forty-story buildings rising up over three-story neighborhoods. A contingent of North Americans commented on the mounds of garbage left on Tel Aviv streets (alongside other sorts of leavings).  


Lian Kimia, a recent transplant from Los Angeles, spoke about "taking the initiative ourselves to just go out and clean up graffiti or whatever else is needed, the way the halutzim [pioneers] did during Israel''s inception, when everyone physically contributed." In other words, change doesn''t simply show up like the 405 bus to Jerusalem, but has to be created.


For all the forward-looking and proof-of-purpose at the meeting, there was, however, one crease in the cloth. It came in the form of an older Israeli woman who has likely endured for decades the kind of buck-passing and obfuscation that manages to outrage new Tel Avivians in a matter of months. She was there to complain and to express a frustration that is surely well within her rights.


Interjecting, she made a demand from the city representatives at the meeting: "You have told us this will change and that will change, but what are you going to do, when are you going to do these things--" And here she was interrupted: "It''s not you, it''s we. What are we going to do, what am I going to do to make change?" said Ariel Harkham, my good friend and co-founder of the Jewish National Initiative. He was met with a round of applause.


The following Friday, sweltering under the awning of a cafe on Pinsker Street, the Tel Aviv cross-street named after that giant of political Zionism, I was telling a good friend, a young Israeli poet who fully supports the social justice movement, about ProjectT.A. and its mission to beautify the city. He didn''t get it.


"What?" he said. "The trash and the dog charah are great! That''s what keeps the bourgeois out. What we really need is cheaper prices." Here, I''ll leave the juxtapositions to the reader.


It''s still hot and damp in Tel Aviv, and spring is certainly not in the air. But maybe change -- actual, meaningful, substantive change -- is. It''s no longer about waiting and seeing what comes of the protests or how the government and its committees might respond. It about going out and making change happen, for ourselves but not by ourselves, and now, not tomorrow.