Tel Aviv at 100
Tel Aviv at 100

Tel Aviv at 100

It’s after 5 on a Thursday afternoon in early summer, and the platform at the North Tel Aviv train station is packed with commuters, mostly going to points north: Herzliya, Caesaria, Binyamina, Haifa.

Traffic on the 19-lane highway that runs parallel to the train station, the Ayalon, has slowed to a crawl, and impatient drivers are leaning on their horns. In the skyscrapers that flank the Ayalon, lights on in the windows suggest that the lawyers, media executives and financial managers who work there are trying to squeeze another few hours out of the work week before heading home.

On the other side of the city, along the beach, the scene is quite different. Paddleball players dance at the water’s edge, hitting a little black ball back and forth with their matkot. In the water, surfers paddle furiously to catch rolling waves while a pair of windsurfers zip over distant whitecaps carried by powerful, unseen gusts.

The chairs on the beach are mostly occupied as an after-work crowd settles in. Cold beers are cracked opened and cigarettes are lit up. Along the boardwalk, joggers dodge baby carriages, bicycles and little boys on scooters. A plane flies low overhead, its landing gear already down for the approach to Sde Dov airport in north Tel Aviv.

Below, the city is filled with crowded coffee shops and restaurants, theaters and concert venues, shopping malls and public parks. Fishermen cast their lines from a pedestrian bridge over the Yarkon River while cyclists along the river’s banks make their way toward the sea.

In the heart of it all, there’s constant foot traffic in and out of the rows of gray-white apartment buildings built in Tel Aviv’s unique Bauhaus style. On Rothschild Boulevard -- an avenue in the middle of the city divided by a tree-lined walkway with little fruit stands and park benches – young women are out walking their dogs or pushing children in baby carriages, scruffy 30-somethings are sipping espressos, and elderly women out for late-afternoon strolls are chatting with their Filipino aids.

Take away the language, the location and the particularities of Israeli culture, and this could be any large city in the world – Amsterdam, Miami, Barcelona.

This, say many who live here, is the essence of Tel Aviv.

One hundred years since Tel Aviv’s founding as the first Hebrew city, what makes Tel Aviv such a special and wonderful place, many say, is its normalness and dynamism in a country wracked by conflict and division.

“For people who don’t know Israel, they only think of Jerusalem, the occupied territories; they don’t see that Israel can be something else,” says Leslie Palti, a French woman married to a Jerusalemite. “Tel Aviv is a city like in any other developed country. But people from the outside don’t see that. Look at what Tel Aviv has managed to achieve in 100 years.”

Founded on the sand dunes outside the old port city of Jaffa by a few Jewish families in April 1909, Tel Aviv has grown up from its origins as a settlement of newly arrived European immigrants to become the anchor of Israel’s biggest metropolitan area, the Jewish state’s economic engine and the country’s cultural mecca.

The Jerusalem-Tel Aviv Debate

There’s a long-running dispute among Israelis about which city better represents Israel ’s true face: Tel Aviv or Jerusalem.

One is a symbol of the historical and religious yearning of the Jewish people, the country’s political capital and a microcosm of the state’s divisions: religious and secular, Arab and Jewish, rich and poor.

The other has comparatively little historical baggage, looks more like Mediterranean Europe than the Middle East, prizes secular culture and liberalism more than it does tradition and religion, and is the country’s cultural capital.

Sha’anan Streett, founder and lead singer of the popular Israeli hip-hop band Hadag Nahash, sings about being pulled between these twin poles of Israeli society in the band’s hit song “Hine Ani Ba” (“Here I Come”).

“Jerusalem’s a great city,” the character in the song begins, singing the city’s praises: “Walking on the street feels like the ingathering of the exiles, a thousand cultures.” But then he grows disenchanted with the city – “it’s gray, there’s no beach” – and packs up for the bright lights of Tel Aviv. At first he finds that “everything’s fresh, and that’s good,” but “after two years of Sodom and Gemorrah,” he doesn’t recognize himself anymore and yearns to return to Jerusalem.

He promises both cities: “You’re the only one – I swear!”

In an interview with B’nai B’rith Magazine, Streett, who lives in Jerusalem, said Tel Aviv unquestionably is the symbol of Israel and Israeliness today.

“Jerusalem expresses the Middle East, the people who live in the Middle East, and the religions that exist in the Middle East -- and the appeasement and conflict between all the elements that live here,” Street said. “But Tel Aviv is the most Hebrew city that exists here. Tel Aviv is the expression of the dreams of most of the people who live in Israel. They dream of making it big in Tel Aviv, of being successful in Tel Aviv. They don’t dream of being a success in Jerusalem.”

Two recent public demonstrations on back-to-back weekends epitomize the differences between the two cities.

When Tel Aviv held its annual gay pride parade in mid-June, Mayor Ron Huldai was at the center of the festive, irreverent celebration, which drew thousands of party-goers and culminated in the mayor’s presiding over a sunset wedding on the city’s Gordon Beach for five gay couples. The weddings were not official; Israel does not recognize gay marriage.

“I hope the state of Israel and the Knesset will find a way to change the laws and permit same-sex marriages,” Huldai said as a cheer rippled through the crowd. “Today we have seen a major step forward.”

A week earlier, Jerusalem also saw thousands take to the streets – for a rally that drew thousands of haredi Orthodox Israelis protesting the opening on the Sabbath of a parking lot near the Old City. The demonstration, which Israeli media described as a riot, prompted the city’s police chief to ask Mayor Nir Barkat to shut down the parking garage for the next two Saturdays, until a plan for keeping the peace could be put in place. Barkat agreed.

Those different crowds on back-to-back weekends in Israel’s two largest cities were a symbol of the gulf that lies between 3,000-year-old Jerusalem and 100-year-old Tel Aviv, though the two cities are only a 50-minute car ride apart.

“I used to say: If I live in Israel, I want to live in Jerusalem – or on a kibbutz or a moshav – and there’s no reason to live in Tel Aviv, which after all aspires to be New York or London,” said Oren Harman, a scion of one of Jerusalem’s prominent families. “I was wrong. In Tel Aviv, the first Hebrew city, there is something very Israeli about it. Tel Aviv is a lot closer to what Israelis think of as Israeli than Jerusalem is.”

But Yuval Turm, a physician from Shoresh, a suburb of Jerusalem, says Tel Aviv is not the real Israel.

“Jerusalem is really a balagan,” Turm said, using the Hebrew word for hullabaloo. “Tel Aviv is more ordered. It looks more like a European city. It’s not really Israeli.”

Many Israelis, from the hills of Judea to the kibbutzim of the Negev, identify Tel Aviv with all that’s wrong with contemporary Israel: creeping materialism, a dearth of Zionism, detachment from the travails of those who live in Israel’s conflict zones, near Gaza and Lebanon.

“Their willingness to contribute to the state is zero,” an outgoing police chief in the West Bank, Shlomo Katabi, said of Tel Avivis in an early June interview with Army Radio. “They sit in Tel Aviv, park their SUVs on Sheinkin Street, drink espresso with their legs crossed and allow themselves to criticize [Jewish settlers in the West Bank].”

Katabi’s barb against Tel Aviv was emblematic of the irritation many feel about the city, a stronghold of the political left and a place where the rate of IDF service is below average. Even though military service is mandatory in Israel, it’s relatively easy to evade the draft -- by declaring mental incompetence, providing a doctor’s letter attesting to physical disabilities or objecting from serving on pacifistic grounds. While the rate nationally of draft-age Israeli males who do not serve is about 25 percent, in Tel Aviv it is approximately 30 percent, according to the IDF.

When southern Israel came under fire last winter during Israel’s military operation in Gaza -- with cities including Beersheva, Ashdod and Yavne suffering rocket strikes – Israeli media was filled with commentators decrying the lack of concern among Tel Avivis.

Much of this was scapegoating, of course – the war wasn’t readily palpable in Jerusalem , either, and people there, too, were sipping espressos at cafes – but Tel Aviv stood as the symbol of Israeli disconnectedness.

By the same token, many Tel Avivis look down their noses at Jerusalem – and by extension, the rest of the country -- as parochial, uncultured and fraught with conflict.

“Tel Aviv has become some kind of antithesis to all this,” said Yehuda Melzer, a philosophy professor and founder of the small Tel Aviv publishing house Books in the Attic (Sifrei Aliyat Hagag). “One of the great attractions of Tel Aviv is that it’s so unlike Jerusalem.”

Tel Aviv is an “oasis of normalcy in an insane country,” wrote Gideon Levy, a columnist for Israel’s daily Ha’aretz, in a scathing response to Katabi’s barb about Tel Avivis. “Between the espresso and the SUV arise art, culture, finance, science, intellect, media, openness and a healthy (albeit insufficient) introspection of the State of Israel, without which it has no real backbone.”

For his part, Tel Aviv’s mayor rejects the notion that his city is detached from the rest of Israel.

“I completely don’t see Tel Aviv as bubble, but as representative of mainstream Israel ,” said Huldai, who has been mayor since 1998. “By the same token one can say that Jerusalem is a bubble, one can say that the Negev is a bubble, one can say that the Galilee is a bubble,” he said. “We are all one state.”

The Tel Aviv Success Story

If Tel Aviv is a bubble, it’s a big one: It encompasses roughly have the country’s population.

While the municipality of Tel Aviv-Jaffa (the two cities merged in 1950) holds just over 380,000 residents, most Israelis identify Tel Aviv loosely as the urban center at the heart of the country’s most densely populated area. More than 3 million people live in greater Tel Aviv, and although the city has not merged with the other municipalities around it, the lines between them are blurry.

Tel Aviv University is technically located outside the City of Tel Aviv, in Ramat Aviv. Tel Aviv’s famous diamond exchange, which produces about 50 percent of the world’s polished diamonds, actually is in Ramat Gan, just across the Ayalon Highway. Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion Airport in the city of Lod, about 10 miles away.

These are not quite suburbs, but part of the megalopolis -- by Israeli standards, at least -- of Tel Aviv.

Over the course of just a century, Tel Aviv has been transformed from little more than a speck on the map into a magnet for young people, professionals and artists. In 2008, the city was ranked 42nd in the world in Foreign Policy magazine’s Global Cities Index, which measures business activity, ability to attract talented and diverse populations, openness to the outside world, cultural experience and influence on global policymaking.

Tel Aviv is home not only to Israel’s stock exchange, opera house and tallest skyscrapers (the country’s tallest building is in neighboring Ramat Gan, a stone’s throw outside the city line), but also the center of Israel’s music scene, its left-wing activist community and the country’s best basketball team, Maccabi Tel Aviv, which has won the EuroLeague championship five times.

Tel Aviv is the place to which young, secular Israelis typically migrate after university, finding homes, jobs and social networks. Jerusalem may be Israel’s capital city, but Tel Aviv is its undisputed capital of cool.

“I’ve lived in many places – New York , Boston , Oxford – and I don’t know any other city in the world that has the energy and the edginess that Tel Aviv has,” Harman said.

Harman’s late grandfather, Avraham Harman, was president of Jerusalem’s Hebrew University and served as Israel’s ambassador to the United States for nearly a decade. The younger Harman, a professor of the history of science at Bar-Ilan University, moved to Tel Aviv from Jerusalem four years ago.

“You go out at 3 a.m. and you see people playing chess; everything goes on until three, four, five o’clock in the morning. The night spills into the day, and the day spills into the night,” Harman said. “Young people come to Tel Aviv to live their lives to the max, and you feel it. It’s electric. It’s very creative.”

Perhaps more than anything else, Tel Aviv’s vibrancy is the city’s most salient element.

It’s a pulsing energy that’s difficult to describe. It’s a place with a thousand established music venues and dance spaces and theaters – and another thousand that were started just yesterday and are just as popular. It’s a place where young people come to make themselves. It’s a place that’s constantly reinventing itself and redefining what the city is.

While Tel Aviv has managed to become a global city, it hasn’t lost its authenticity or unique character. The old has been preserved with the new. Just steps away from the trendy cafes and boutique clothing of Sheinkin Street there is a bustling outdoor market, Souk HaCarmel, that harks back to the state’s early days: You can buy everything there from used clothing to Turkish desserts.

Neve Tzedek, the city’s first neighborhood, which was home to artists and writers in its early decades, fell into disrepair as Tel Aviv raced northward and upward toward the end of the 20th century. Then, a few years ago, young people looking for more affordable digs rediscovered the neighborhood, and over the last decade Neve Tzedek has undergone a marvelous revival. Along with beautifully restored homes, the neighborhood now features galleries, cafes, boutique hotels and a performing arts center.

Neve Tzedek is one of Tel Aviv’s more recent success stories.

It wasn’t always like this.

A generation ago, Tel Aviv was a dirty, teeming city that aspired to be like a hundred other world-class cities but seemed to lack class of its own. The high-tech boom that fueled Tel Aviv’s growth over the last decade had yet to take place, and the city’s most prominent feature was the Shalom Meir Tower – a building reminiscent of a Soviet apartment bloc.

Tel Aviv was seedy back then, from its grimy central bus station to the shirtless old men who plied the city’s beaches.

The old Tel Aviv bus station is still grimy and seedy – it’s a haven for the city’s barely concealed houses of ill-repute – but most of the rest of Tel Aviv has moved on and grown up. Today, Tel Aviv is a place of professionalism, respectability, affluence, culture and social consciousness.

It has illegal laborers working in the shadows, but it also has dozens of advocacy groups dedicated to helping them secure their rights. It has luxury apartment buildings in north Tel Aviv that advertise to Diaspora Jews in France and the United States, but it also has community service programs in indigent neighborhoods like Hatikva to help inner-city youth and the elderly.

It has legions of lawyers, businessmen and computer programmers, but it also has bohemians, Hasidim and Sudanese asylum-seekers. It has five-star restaurants that serve shrimp and calamari, but it also has down-home hummus joints with blue-collar and white-collar followings. It has put up eight new skyscrapers that have surpassed the 36-story Shalom Meir Tower, but it also has invested in restoring historic structures in neighborhoods like Neve Tzedek.

Looking Ahead

It’s difficult to say where Tel Aviv will be a decade from now, let alone in another century.

One of the city’s great deficiencies is that while it has grown more and more dense, Tel Aviv has failed to adapt adequately to that density. For one thing, the public transportation system is wanting, as the mayor is quick to acknowledge. Bus lines crisscross the city, but traffic is a nightmare and traffic patterns make it difficult to get around. Tel Aviv has considered several proposals for a light-rail system, but the city has yet to green-light any particular plan. Parking is a nightmare, and expensive.

Tel Aviv’s density also has made it one of the most expensive places to live in Israel . Young people routinely complain about the lack of affordable housing. To capitalize on the high demand for Tel Aviv dwellings, some landlords illegally carve up their apartments into tiny, little-ventilated units, renting them to the highest bidder.

“What I miss most about the old Tel Aviv is a certain sense of innocence that was there,” said Melzer, who was born in the 1940s and grew up in the city. He recalled the soccer fields and orchards that used to exist in Tel Aviv. Now, he says, the city is like a little Manhattan.

“Though this whole area is like a small Manhattan , I still can smell the orchards, the swimming pool and a zoo that was here in the 1950s,” Melzer said wistfully. “I could hear the lions from my bedroom.”

Still, Melzer says, Tel Aviv remains a wonderful place to live. Melzer spoke to B’nai B’rith Magazine late one evening, having just returned from spending three hours on the beach playing with his two young grandchildren.

“There’s something very nice about Tel Aviv -- if you’re not too poor,” he added.

While there’s still a sizable gap between rich and poor in the city that runs north to south (north is wealthy, south is poor), Tel Aviv recently has stepped up investment in some of its poorest neighborhoods. Notably, more than $1 billion has been invested in Jaffa over the last decade, according to the mayor’s office. Much maligned and neglected for most of Israel ’s existence, partly because of its Arab demographic, Jaffa now is undergoing a gentrification process. The expense of living in Tel Aviv proper has abetted this trend as young Israelis have gone to Jaffa in search of affordable apartments. Today the neighborhood is two-thirds Jewish, one-third Arab.

Huldai dismisses the claim that young people cannot afford to live in Tel Aviv, noting that 30 new kindergartens have opened in the city in the last year as evidence that young people are moving in.

But Tel Aviv still ranks as among the 15 most expensive cities in the world.

As it enters its second century, the biggest question the city faces in its immediate future is how it will weather the global economic downturn. Development projects and plans to ease congestion are being put on hold or scaled back, and residents are worried about quality of life deteriorating.

In truth, however, the challenges Tel Aviv faces during tough times are simply different – not necessarily harder or easier -- than the challenges it has faced in good times: How can the old be preserved while building the new? How can the city ensure that economic interests do not trample social and environmental concerns? How can the city serve both rich and poor?

What seems certain is that Tel Aviv’s place as Israel ’s most admired and reviled city will endure.