Savir's Corner: Tel Aviv, the quintessential Israel

Tel Aviv, the city that never sleeps, was a center of global attention last week when Madonna opened her world tour here.

Tel Aviv skyline 370 (photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
Tel Aviv skyline 370
(photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
Tel Aviv, the city that never sleeps, was a center of global attention last week when Madonna opened her world tour at the National Stadium in Ramat Gan, appealing to her fans to support peace, and almost 40,000 people celebrated the queen of pop.
The crowd was a mixture, mostly of Tel Avivians from all corners of the city – young, happy, very Israeli in character yet part of the larger world. Tel Aviv today, more so than Jerusalem, is our bridge to the world thanks to its vibrant cultural life, its attractiveness to tourists as a Mediterranean metropolis and its growth into one of the world’s most important hi-tech centers.
I moved, like many Jerusalemites, to Tel Aviv many years ago, attracted by its vibrant lifestyle and creativity and, most important, by my children who live here.
There is a myth about Tel Aviv being “a bubble” – people have named it the State of Tel Aviv – a state within a state – and therefore, not the real Israel, somewhat like America treats the insular New York.
Yet I find Tel Aviv to be the quintessential Israel – a city that moves like a fast merry-go-round of contrasts, just as Israel itself. But contrasts that do not collide, that live together in an uneasy coexistence, driven by typical Israeli competition – envy, tension, friendships, intimacy and creativity.
You have on one side the secular, liberal Tel Aviv, the majority of its citizens open to the different, one of the best places in the world for gay couples to live, and on the other side, Tel Aviv of Bnei Brak with its courts of ultra-Orthodox rabbis with traditional, biblical conservative doctrine about Jewishness and life.
Each population hypnotized by its own beliefs, each of them Tel Avivians who take advantage of the freedom of expression that the city allows.
There is Jewish Tel Aviv, the great majority – although not monolithic – and Arab Tel Aviv in Jaffa, the Ajami neighborhood, with poverty, frustration and special culture and yet a desire to blend into the city, through its young generation and its well-known restaurants on the Jaffa beach.
Then there is the wealthy skyscraper Tel Aviv, of which the Akirov Towers have become a symbol, and poor Tel Aviv in the south – the neighborhood of hope (the Hatikva quarter) with little hope for social progress. In between is Rothschild Boulevard, which hosted the middle class revolt of last summer and which, under different expressions, takes to the streets of Tel Aviv again this summer as well.
Alfred Akirov, Dafni Leef, and Moshe Cohen from Hatikva, coexisting in one city, with different dreams, frustrations and lives, yet bound together by a common Israeli-Tel Aviv identity.
There is the liberal, bohemian Tel Aviv of Sheinkin, respectful of difference yet somewhat complacent and elitist, and the furious, sometimes racist (definitely lately) anger of the southern neighborhoods, incited by opportunistic rightwing politicians – à la MKs Miri Regev and Danny Danon – into an ugly expression of Jewish racism against black people.
Yet I tend to doubt if north Tel Aviv would have reacted differently if the Africans from Eritrea and Sudan had been housed on Ben-Yehuda Street. The government is more to blame than the inhabitants of south Tel Aviv for the lack of policy and humanity.
Then there is the Tel Aviv of Hapoel (red), of Maccabi (yellow) and of Bnei Yehuda (orange), soccer is perhaps the schism where no dialogue is possible, as experienced during the most recent derby between Hapoel and Maccabi.
Yet the red, yellow and orange colors blend into a collage of identities, somewhat united by the common sea shore of the Mediterranean, which gives Tel Aviv and Tel Avivians their main identity.
There is an old saying that “people of the mountain” are of the fighting type while “people of the sea” enjoy an open horizon and a more open mind. Tel Aviv is a case in point. The azure colors of the Mediterranean dominate, next to the bright colors of the Tel Aviv rooftops – a multitude of little houses, with their characteristic small balconies – all blending into a fairly harmonious landscape as in a painting by Marcel Yanko or Nachum Gutman.
And then there is the Tel Aviv of hope for peace in our region – and the Tel Aviv in which this hope was assassinated.
Malchei Yisrael Square, which saw 400,000 anti-war demonstrators after the First Lebanon War, numerous other massive peace marches and, at the same place, the assassination of the man of security and peace: Yitzhak Rabin.
All these contrasts and their uneasy coexistence give Tel Aviv its very Israeli character. It is in many ways what we are about, for better and for worse, from high points of success in technology and arts, to low points of disaster of racism and political assassination. From the arrogant Forbes 500 companies and individuals in the north to frustrated slum-like neighborhoods in the south and the vast middle class in between, many at the various Tel Aviv universities; from the religious heder preachings in the outskirts to the vibrant bar scene across the city, 24 hours a day and everything in between; Habimah, the Kirya, Hatikva, Hapoel, living side-by-side with competing identities, yet all of it Tel Aviv, all of it Israel.
It is from this metropolitan on the Mediterranean that the hope for a better future for Israel should emanate. It definitely will not stem from the Knesset in Jerusalem. Tel Avivians know better than any others the taste of belonging to a globalized world, and therefore also better understand the alternative of deterioration into a backwards, fractured, isolated pariah state. And most know that the difference between the two scenarios and visions depends on our ability and choice to be tolerant of difference and contrasts, to be liberal and democratic, to respect human rights and be fundamentally democratic and moral, to invest in education rather than in settlements, to fight for social justice and, above all, to make peace with our neighbors.
Tel Aviv can contribute to the desired change as its inhabitants are more open-minded towards one another than in other cities. They practice a sort of Israeli “live and let live” ethos, with a certain Mediterranean flair. They hardly suffer from the Israeli syndrome of turning every issue into life or death and, while they endure and create many problems, they have also created an Israeli success story with this capital of arts and hi-tech, both dependent on belonging to the family of nations.
Therefore the City of Spring (Aviv), with all its contrasts, may yet become the hope for a new Israeli spring. And yes, Tel Avivians, such as myself, are also optimists.
The writer is president of the Peres Center for Peace and served as Israel’s chief negotiator for the Oslo Accords.