Herzl’s dream comes true in Tel Aviv

The Knesset would do well to adopt some of the city’s liberal characteristics.

Before it sparked into a nationwide protest movement, the present wave of demonstrations was started by a group of youngsters protesting in Tel Aviv against the exorbitant price of housing in the big city. Indeed, Tel Aviv has become a very expensive city – its rentals are higher than mid-town Manhattan – and this is due to many reasons, but above all, to the fact that Tel Aviv is luring thousands of young Israelis to seek some foothold in it.
This is partially natural. Big cities are attractive worldwide, as they offer employment, entertainment and diversity that provincial towns do not.
But Tel Aviv has another dimension that explains its popularity. The city represents an alternative political and social reality. This reality is characterized by a live-and-let-live atmosphere, devoid of the paternalism that is part and parcel of the Israeli experience.
Tel Aviv is open on Shabbat – at least as far as culture, entertainment, sports and dining are concerned – in spite of the fact that the coalition running the city includes Orthodox parties.
Actually, the Orthodox representation in Tel Aviv is similar to the Knesset’s, but different electoral systems produce different power balances.
Direct elections of mayors have minimized the power swing parties.
WALK THE pavements, promenades and beaches of Tel Aviv and you will immediately realize the multicultural, multi-ethnic, multi-color nature of this metropolis. Tel Aviv has a special school – Bialik-Rogozin – where children of foreign immigrants get an Israeli- Hebrew-humanistic education, ignoring the threat of deportation advocated by the Interior Ministry. Its vibrant gay community has an official standing and gets municipal funding and assistance. It has become one of 10 gay-friendly cities in the world.
The result is a city that lives peacefully with all its components.
Sheinkin Street – the mecca of the young and trendy – harbors side-by-side hip-hop clubs and traditional Orthodox synagogues. A Chabad Center sits next door to the famous – or, some would say, notorious – Sheinkin mini park. While in Jerusalem, street battles between the police and the ultra-Orthodox are a common occurrence, in Tel Aviv, pub crawlers mingle at early dawn with the pious who are on their way to early morning prayers.
NOT THAT the city is devoid of social problems. The gap between the northern and southern quarters must worry anyone who believes in social justice and equality. But Tel Aviv is the opposite of the fanatic nationalistic-chauvinistic mood that seems to have overtaken the Knesset.
This mood, promoted by the unholy alliance between the right wing and the ultra- Orthodox, is characterized by coercion: forcing religious practices on secular Jews; forcing rabbinical jurisdiction over Jewish marriages and divorces; forcing ultra-Orthodox conversion laws on those who seek to join the Jewish people; forced flag-waving, anthem-singing and visits to the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron on school children; coercion of the whims of bureaucracy on anyone who seeks governmental assistance; coercion of religious Jews who belong to non-Orthodox communities.
If all these controversial matters were to be submitted to Tel Aviv’s city council, they would have been peacefully resolved a long time ago.
Indeed, Tel Aviv is synonymous with diversity, with recognition of the “other” – including the non-Jewish “other.”
Consequently, unlike the Knesset – and alas, perhaps in the army, too – female singing is not a sin, and Shabbat is a day of rest – given by our people to mankind – as well as a day of entertainment and culture.
This also explains why the young are attracted to the city and not to its satellite towns, where often Shabbat observance is forced by law. The young secular Jews cannot travel to Tel Aviv on Saturdays because of the absence of public transportation. Can anyone blame them for seeking to live in this free-from-coercion city? It seems to me that this craving for Tel Aviv testifies to a yearning for a more liberal society – the sort of tolerant Jewish state about which Herzl dreamt in Altneuland.
Suddenly I recall that “Tel Aviv” was at the time the Hebrew name given to Altneuland.
The writer is a professor of law at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya, a former minister of education and Knesset member, as well as the recipient of the 2006 Israel Prize in Law.