Triumph of life

Tel Aviv exists in a bubble, blissfully apart from the sober reality that simmers a stone's throw away.

Playing in the water at a Tel Aviv beach 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Playing in the water at a Tel Aviv beach 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
The heady talk of impossible peace and atomic annihilation gives pause for thought at large public events. Wedged cattle-like among thousands of young Tel Avivians that packed Rabin Square last May for Remembrance Day, the familiar rows of nondescript apartment blocks bordering the open plaza felt oddly menacing. A patchwork backdrop of dark, unguarded windows. A most tantalizing opportunity, surely, for some dimly defined enemy to score a catastrophic hit.
Surprising, then, shocking even, was the conspicuous lack of heavy security. A few streets were blocked, a modest police presence that wouldn’t have seemed unusual on a Tuesday afternoon in New York’s Times Square loosely monitored throngs arriving from 10 directions, and blasé guards at makeshift entry points administered the perfunctory and absurd oneword interrogation that anyone who has visited an Israeli shopping mall will have suffered – neshek?, meaning “weapon?” – to which a simple shake of the head will almost always suffice.
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And then – nothing.
No catastrophic attack either. Of course everyone knows that real police work happens behind the scenes. Heroes go unnamed, victories unpublished. The legendary Israeli intelligence machine rumbles on stealthily, plainclothes officers spot the crowd, bomb sniffers scour, wiretaps monitor suspicious activity in nearby buildings. One assumes. I assume. My eyes skirt the surrounding roofs expecting – what – snipers? Actually, snipers might be nice.
Bond-esque fantasies aside, even the most sophisticated security apparatus in the world can always be sharpened. Another officer can be added, a more thorough screening process implemented. Unwieldy public gatherings can be curtailed. More can be done. At some point, then, choices are made, consciously or otherwise, about the type of place a society wishes itself to be, will allow itself to become.
WHAT GLINTS most brightly in modern Israel is not a triumph of combat – although its military might is well known, and a virtual eradication in recent years of urban terror is neither coincidence nor luck – but a blissful, crying, upending triumph of life. Along its teeming pedestrian boulevards, on its packed beaches, from the heaving rainbow-colored masses that gathered for the June pride march to relaxed evening crowds sauntering between booths at an outdoor book fair, it is not the wan pall of dread and fright but an unbridled cosmopolitan zest that is palpable like the shock of midsummer heat, that can seem naively carefree, or impossibly innocent in a region that is anything but.
When the uprisings began in Cairo a friend from Manhattan e-mailed to say that he had “obviously” decided to “indefinitely” postpone a planned visit here. And during Palestinian demonstrations along the border I received a message, this time from London, wanting to make sure that “things are okay there, right?” I am always a little struck by these reactions. Not because they seem ridiculous, which they usually do, but because of how rarely it occurs to me to reconcile the intractable reality of Middle East politics, and the very real, very frightening security threats implied therein, with the urban rub of everyday Tel Aviv.
It is said, and often resentfully, that to live in this city is to exist in a bubble, blissfully apart from the sober reality that simmers a stone’s throw away. If there is truth in this it is not for want of social awareness or empathy. People here are informed, conscientious and deeply patriotic. They read the newspapers, they attend rallies, they serve in the national army.
If they forget, sometimes – rather, if Tel Avivians manage to persist, to flourish despite those existential threats, that political turmoil, a most divisive history, then it is a humbling testament to the nerve and sharp dazzle that cuts deep at this dusty place, in these prickly-skinned people. To have lived here these past two years is to have seen that triumph firsthand, a splendid, quiet victory that no military has known, that no peace accord could match.
The writer is a native of Sydney, Australia, and has spent the past two years living in Tel Aviv.