Is Tel Aviv really that apathetic?

An informal survey looks at how - and if - some of the city's population will vote.

tel aviv biz distric 248.88  (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
tel aviv biz distric 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The stereotypical image of Tel Avivians' political attitudes was aptly reflected when members of the National Union-NRP party took a stroll through the city's Rehov Lilienblum nightlife hub recently. MKs Arieh Eldad, Effie Eitam and party member Yehoar Gal paid a surprise visit to the bar compound to bring their right-wing/religious message beyond the party's natural constituency. "The main idea of coming here is to say that at the end of the day, despite our differences and the major dispute we face, we are one nation," said Eitam. As party representatives sat at various pubs over beer and casual conversation with Tel Aviv bar hoppers, activists handed out postcards bearing pictures of "square"-looking right-wing MKs and religious youth, with the tongue-in-cheek caption "Do you want us to be your neighbors?" - an allusion to the party's stance against further withdrawals from Judea and Samaria. The postcard played on the perception that Tel Avivians - especially those who frequent the city's bars and nightclubs - generally don't like religious Jews and settlers and are likely to cast their vote for pro-disengagement parties. "Don't you think the Land of Israel is the natural place for the Jews?" Gal asked a youth having a drink at one of the bars. "I'm a person first and then a Jew," replied the 18 year-old, voicing a common attitude among secular youth. Such an attitude makes Tel Aviv the punching bag of some settlers and right-wingers, who consider the city rife with anti-Jewishness and national apathy. Similarly, religious settlers are often the punching bag of Tel Avivians and leftists, who consider the Land of Israel camp as religious fanatics who pose obstacles to peace and normalcy. But is it fair to paint Tel Aviv in such broad strokes? A walk through the city's streets during the present election campaign revealed that the stereotype of Tel Aviv as home to the Left and apathetic, while containing some truth, is not always accurate. At Shesek, a pub on Rehov Lilienblum, manager Roy Zakeyn, 26, a communications student, takes issue with the argument that in Tel Aviv people don't care about or are ignorant of current events. "We have very strong ideals, I think," said Zakeyn, who plans to vote - although he is yet not sure for whom. "Yeah, we're in a bubble and people say we are apathetic, but we just live our lives. We're not going to sit at home depressed." For example, he noted that when Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was first hospitalized with a stroke in early January, the bar was a little emptier than usual, but the next day it was packed again. "One day is enough for Tel Aviv," he said, adding that Tel Avivians' persistence in living their lives to the fullest is one way to overcome the psychological war underlying life in Israel. He does, however, agree that in general, secular residents of Tel Aviv don't care for religious Zionism or their forebears - the settlers - which generally aligns them with left-of-center parties. "It's a big problem for us because we are ready to give up those places for a greater good. On the other hand, sometimes I see the Palestinians and say it's hopeless." Eitam, who was sitting over a beer at the pub next door, thinks that this divide between the secular and religious stems from the embracing of secular liberal values represented by the Israeli metropolis. "Tel Aviv is the nearest environment to Western culture, to the liberal secular components," he said. "Many Israelis adapt a very extreme version of individualism. They find after a while that they don't have strong ties to the nation and the religious sector." If Eitam had stopped by one of the kiosks in the area, his thesis might have been questioned. "There can never be peace between Jews and Muslims," said one local kiosk owner. Pulling out his pistol and raising it to his chest, he added, "I believe in this. Those people only know this." Of Moroccan descent, the kiosk owner thinks that the Ashkenazi elite, largely represented by the media, academia and Tel Aviv professionals, don't really understand the Muslims and therefore have a false illusion that peace is possible. He was against the disengagement and further withdrawals, even though he is not religious. But his right-wing views make him neither loyal to Israel nor keen on voting. "Some 85% of the politicians are criminals." he said, He plans to pack up and move to Thailand with his non-Jewish girlfriend so as not to be in Israel for the pending world war he envisions between the Muslim world and the West. When people categorize Tel Aviv as the leftist's paradise, they are usually referring to the high life of a city center that boasts the largest concentration of bars, caf s, restaurants and secular singles in Israel. But in the outskirts of the city lives a larger concentration of Sephardic residents who generally cast their vote for right-wing parties. After the 2003 elections, Yediot Aharonot reported that 28.4% of Tel Avivians cast their vote for Likud, while 22.6% voted for Labor; Shinui polled 15.5%, Meretz 11.1%, and Shas 7.2%. These figures differed greatly from Jerusalem, which voted Likud 27.8%, Torah Judaism 18.1%, Labor 9%, Shinui 6.9% and Meretz 4.8%. Sheinkin, the ultra-trendy street in the city center with designer shops and boutique caf s that had it's heyday in the 1990s, is often mocked as the anti-settler, bohemian center of Israel. Elon Gilad, a Tel Aviv representative for the dovish, pro-marijuana legalization Green Leaf party, thinks that Sheinkin may be accused of leaning left, but not of being apathetic. "I find that Sheinkinites are people with lots of ideals, but they're not involved politically. The people who actually live on the street are involved, care and interested - they'll probably vote for Hadash, Meretz or Green Leaf." Election statistics according to voting booths are not available for the most recent elections, but a Central Bureau of Statistics report on the 1996 elections (when the Knesset and prime minister were elected separately) showed that the polling station on Rehov Ba'alei Hamelacha (near Sheinkin) registered 78% for Labor's Shimon Peres and only 22% for Likud's Benjamin Netanyahu. Party ballots gave Labor 28.5%, Meretz 23%, Likud 8.5%, Shinui 5.5%, Green Leaf 4.6% and Hadash (the communist party) 3%. It was the young and artsy Florentine area that gave Green Leaf the most votes at 13%. However, across all cities the number of Likud voters jumped in the 2003 elections, at the height of the intifada. These days, aside from campaigning NU-NRP MKs, one would be hard pressed to find enthusiastic right-wing supporters in the streets of central Tel Aviv. This is hardly a surprise to Liron Zaidin, 24, chair of the Faculty of Zionism, a student activist group at Tel Aviv University aimed at raising Zionist consciousness on the campus. Zaidin, a student of economics, mathematics and political science, also heads the Orange Cell student activist group, which last summer distributed orange ribbons and anti-disengagement materials all over Tel Aviv. Zaidin sees fellow classmates as becoming increasingly disconnected from their Jewish identity and the Land of Israel, and is disillusioned with the shallowness and selfishness he finds around him. He predicts a low voter turnout and more votes for the Green Leaf party, thanks to Tel Aviv. "People care only about themselves and eating a better pizza or drinking a better beer. It's a sad thing that's happening to our country - people care less about the country and more about nothing." Earlier this month, a crew of Orange Cell activists roamed the streets of Tel Aviv to hand out postcards with a picture of the view of Tel Aviv from Ramalla - with the message that should the government give away land in the West Bank, Tel Aviv will not be immune to rockets attacks. They hoped that maybe if Tel Avivians felt directly threatened, they would begin to break out of their bubble and possibly move to the right of the political spectrum. "There were single instances of people who said 'We don't want you here' - they were influenced by media images that show us as scary people," said Ayelet Shiber, a student from Ashkelon who handed out postcards in the Florentine area. "When we spoke to regular people, some looked at it, read it like any other flyer - which is part of the apathy - and said they agreed. I believe that most people agree with us, but the culture today tells them to worry about themselves." At Tel Aviv University, Gilad of the Green Leaf party confirms that the campus ethos is generally not sympathetic to right-wingers or settlers. "I think it's part of a religious-cultural battle that we are having between the religious right and democratic liberalism," he said. During the summer, he recounted, the parking lot of the political science department was filled with blue and white ribbons in support of the disengagement. Zaidin of Orange Cell says the university gave him problems for setting up an orange tent on campus. It's due to this liberal ethos that Ayelet Finklestein, 19, a proud resident of the West Bank settlement Beit El, is not crazy about hanging out in Tel Aviv, which she considers hostile to her way of life. "I just don't think they know. I don't think they really care, and if they do care, then they are usually to the Left because it's very cool and nice to love and want peace and all those nice words. That's the fashion," she says. David Bannay, a clinical psychologist who lives and works in Tel Aviv, took note of the divide between religious settlers and secular Tel Aviv residents after the disengagement and was disappointed with the apathy that people around him had toward the plight of the evacuees. While he considers himself secular, he tied an orange ribbon to his motorcycle not necessarily because he believes in Greater Israel, but to prevent a split in the nation and a major psychological and social trauma among evacuated settlers. "People in general in Tel Aviv hold values of freedom and individualism - Western and non-religious values. Protecting Zionist values looks so outdated and primitive to people who are concerned with hedonism and personal success. Settlers are also a community, and they are fighting for the values of their community. This is strange for the people of Tel Aviv." But there is another factor that contributes to Tel Aviv's notorious self-absorption, says Bannay. "Common people in Tel Aviv are busy with urban survival - you are striving for success and looking for this value of international, financial success. You are admired for wealth, beauty, artistic talents - making films and showing pictures. You are looking for entertainment, a varied sex life, drugs and good gossip. Actually you don't care about anything else. You are busy enough with the bounty of the city of Tel Aviv - the city that never stops."