In Washington: In praise of Tel Aviv

Choosing to live in Hebron or other settlements in overwhelmingly Palestinian areas is to reject Zionism.

mjrosenberg88 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
I've just returned from an Israel Policy Forum leadership trip to Israel, and there was not much of the end-of-the-world rhetoric one hears so often at pro-Israel conclaves here. Take former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, for instance. Although here in the United States he sometimes sounds pessimistic about Israel's future, on his home turf he was bullish about Israel and particularly about its economy. (His one caveat was that all bets are off if suicide bombings resume). But all in all, Netanyahu, like his colleagues from across the political spectrum, was anything but apocalyptic about the future. As for the Iran threat, it rattles them, but they believe Israel has the resources to deal with it - especially if the international community is emphatic with Teheran about the diverse costs it will be forced to pay if it pursues the nuclear weapon option. Contrary to some of the rhetoric emanating from Jewish organizations here, no one we spoke to likened Israel's situation today to that of European Jews in the 1930s, with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad playing the role of Hitler. Israelis find that kind of rhetoric both laughable and offensive. After all, if Israelis are as powerless as stateless Jews were 60 years ago, their state has been a failure. That is not how they view Israel. Not by a long shot. The invocation of the worst years in the history of the Jewish people as analogous to today's situation seems particularly absurd when you are walking along the seafront promenade in Tel Aviv. Tel Aviv has always been my favorite Israeli city. There are other wonderful places in Israel, but it is Tel Aviv and not Jerusalem that is the embodiment of the Zionist accomplishment. Jerusalem is beautiful, and suffused with holiness, but it would be beautiful and suffused with holiness even if Jews had never returned to their ancient homeland. The most beautiful aspect of Jerusalem - its skyline dominated by the golden Dome of the Rock - was not built by Jews anyway, nor were the gates and walls of the Old City. With the exception of the Western Wall, the Romans and other occupiers of ancient days destroyed imposing physical reminders of the long Jewish connection to Jerusalem. But Tel Aviv would not exist if the Jews hadn't returned. In 1909, Zionist pioneers chose a spot among the sand dunes north of the ancient city of Jaffa and declared that it would be the great city of the future Jewish state. They divided lots in the sand and started building. And, last week, 98 years later, I once again got to see their accomplishment. I THINK today's TA is precisely what the founders had in mind. Like Rio, Chicago and Beirut, Tel Aviv is one of those cities which grew up alongside the water. But not with its back to the water (like New York), but facing it with its pastel high-rise buildings right along the Mediterranean. Tel Aviv is, unlike Jerusalem, an overwhelmingly Jewish city. I love Jerusalem's Arab parts, especially the Old City, and I know east Jerusalem well (I once lived on Salah-El Din for three months). But I'm a Zionist, which means, as Israel's national anthem, "Hatikva," puts it, "Jews living in freedom in their own land." Although there is nothing wrong with being part of a minority, the whole point of Israel is to have one place in the world where Jews are not one. And that is Tel Aviv. Secular and religious, fashionable, tolerant (gay Palestinians come to Tel Aviv to be part of the lively gay scene), Tel Aviv represents the best of Zionism. It is also, not coincidentally, the place in Israel that is most antithetical to the Zionism of the settlers who choose to live not in an Israeli city, town, village or kibbutz but as a tiny minority among a Palestinian population hostile to its presence. While the Jews of Tel Aviv would never choose to live as a minority, the Jews of Hebron and the far-flung settlements just outside Ramallah and Nablus are determined to do just that, despite the obvious threat to themselves and their children from living where their presence is a provocation. The settlers also present a threat to Zionism itself. As Alon Liel, former director of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, told us: "Zionism is not about the past. It is about preserving a Jewish democracy for the future." The settler movement, and the preservation of Israeli control over the West Bank which is its sine qua non, undermines the future of that Jewish democracy. The good news is that less than 5% of the Jewish population of Israel has chosen to abandon life in Israel for life on a hostile frontier. Not only do few Jews even consider living in a place like Hebron, where a tiny Jewish minority routinely abuses the majority Palestinians - not many more than that even choose to visit there. Hebron may once have had a vibrant Jewish community, but that was long ago. Today, choosing to live in Hebron or the other settlements in overwhelmingly Palestinian areas is to reject Zionism in favor of the ghetto. Jews rejected that option a long time ago. In fact, it was not one they ever chose for themselves. The beauty of Tel Aviv is that it epitomizes the Zionist dream which is, despite the critics, not a movement designed to impose Jewish control over Palestinians but to enable Jews to control their own destinies. Freeing Jews to control their destinies does not require preventing Palestinians from controlling theirs. In fact, it requires just the opposite. The writer is the Director of Israel Policy Forum's Washington Policy Center.