City Journal

Sol Stern
Now City
Tel Aviv, a modern, capitalist-built oasis in the Middle East
Autumn 2010
One of Tel Aviv's more than 3,000 Bauhaus buildings, the most of any city in the world
Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images
One of Tel Aviv’s more than 3,000 Bauhaus buildings, the most of any city in the world

On April 11, 1909, a group of 66 Jews gathered on some barren sand dunes north of the ancient port city of Jaffa for one of history’s most improbable real-estate lotteries. A watchmaker from Lodz, Akiva Weiss, passed around a tin can filled with numbered seashells designating plots on which the participants were expected to build houses. Many were immigrants from Eastern Europe who lived in Jaffa’s crowded, fetid Arab neighborhoods. They were lured to the lottery not only by the promise of garden cottages and sea breezes but also by the dream of national renewal—though the project’s strictly Zionist aspect had to be played down. After all, the land on which the Jews hoped to build was part of the Ottoman Empire. It would have been imprudent to incur the displeasure of the Turkish sultan, claimant for the Muslim caliphate and defender of Islam.

The prospectus for the housing development did, however, hint at its historic purpose. It declared that the new neighborhood by the Mediterranean Sea would eventually develop into the “first Hebrew city”—where, by hard work and enterprise, Jews could disprove the anti-Semitic stereotypes that depicted them as urban parasites. This was a controversial undertaking even among Jews living in Palestine. Many worried that the development would become just another vulnerable Jewish ghetto. According to a contemporary account, a Yiddish-speaking kibitzer stood by on the lottery morning, shouting out to his fellow Jews that they were “building on shifting sands.” The prospects became even unlikelier after World War I broke out and the Ottoman authorities evacuated the Jewish residents from the coastal area.

Yet less than 40 years later, David Ben-Gurion read out Israel’s declaration of independence at the Tel Aviv Museum on majestic, tree-lined Rothschild Boulevard, not far from the spot on the beach where the lottery drawing had taken place. Israel’s founding father could take the gamble of proclaiming independence in part because the first Hebrew city—its population expanded to more than 250,000—had become the economic and political bulwark of the nascent Jewish state. Tel Aviv would then serve as the military command center and arsenal for Israel’s yearlong war against five invading Arab armies.

Last year, the first Hebrew city celebrated its centenary. Celebrities and dignitaries from around the globe joined the festivities, often expressing admiration at Tel Aviv’s emergence as a dynamic world city. The foreign commentators noted Tel Aviv’s reputation as the “nonstop city” and recalled its designation by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site for its abundant Bauhaus architecture. Contrary to the skeptics, the neighborhood in the dunes did not become a ghetto: Tel Aviv is now the most affluent, tolerant, and culture-soaked city in the Middle East.

A recent testimonial to Tel Aviv’s success, albeit a perverse one, came from Time. On the eve of September’s renewed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, the magazine answered the question suggested on its cover—WHY ISRAEL DOESN’T CARE ABOUT PEACE—by citing the country’s booming economy, which had supposedly made its citizens complacent. The prime evidence of that economic energy? Tel Aviv. Five of the six photographs accompanying the article depicted young Israelis enjoying the good life in the nonstop city by the sea.

From an idea in the sand dunes to an economic and cultural dynamo a century later, Tel Aviv is the most impressive testament to the Zionist movement’s practical accomplishments. Yet the city also represents something of a resolution to one of Zionism’s most consequential philosophical schisms.

Many early Zionist thinkers, strongly influenced by the utopian writings of Tolstoy and the European socialists, placed their hopes for Jewish national revival on the ideas of collectivism and of working the land. The influential writer A. D. Gordon, for example, abhorred cities and commerce, believing that urban life forced Jews into parasitic, nonproductive occupations. The best response to European anti-Semitism was thus for Jews to return to Israel and remake themselves, physically and spiritually, in communal agricultural settlements called kibbutzim.

The kibbutzim also offered the strategic advantage of expanding the area of Jewish settlement in Palestine. As frontier garrison communities, they provided defense against the Arab armies that attacked the new state at its birth in 1948. By then, the 200-plus kibbutzim represented just 7 percent of Israel’s Jewish population, but they had an outsize influence on how the world perceived the case for a Jewish state. In the words of philosopher Martin Buber, the kibbutz was the world’s only “socialist experiment that did not fail.”

Buber’s judgment proved wrong; the kibbutzim are now undergoing a profound economic and social crisis. But at the time, the possibility of a truly successful socialism in Israel helped win crucial international political support—particularly from the Left—for the Zionist cause.

Tel Aviv’s founders championed a very different path to Zionist fulfillment: commerce, entrepreneurial capitalism, and bourgeois values. The land on which the first Tel Aviv homes went up was purchased from Arabs by the Jewish National Fund, but this wasn’t a collective, organized-from-above enterprise. Individuals bought property, started businesses, won and lost. A severe financial crisis in the mid-1920s caused many residents to leave the area. Then a new wave of Jewish immigrants, with money to invest, arrived from Poland. Later, as Hitler took power, thousands of German Jews with capital and talent departed for Tel Aviv, perhaps reluctantly at first. There they founded banks and industrial and engineering firms and created the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange.

Some of these new arrivals literally built the city. In 1933, the Nazis shuttered the world-famous Bauhaus art school. Several Jewish architects associated with the modernist movement immigrated to Tel Aviv and pioneered a wave of Bauhaus construction in the city. Today, more than 3,000 Bauhaus buildings still stand there, more than in any other city in the world.

Another refugee from Hitler was Berlin department-store magnate Salman Schocken. He purchased the daily newspaper Haaretz for his son Gershom and created a successful book-publishing company—private enterprises that became part of the city’s cultural fabric. Salman’s grandson, Amos Schocken, is now Haaretz’s publisher and, apart from his paper’s leftist slant on political issues, supports the free market. “The welfare of people grows because of private initiative, not a managed economy,” he declared recently.

In 1923, Meir Dizengoff, an original backer of the lottery on the dunes, became the city’s first mayor. He was a towering, autocratic figure who daily toured his expanding city on horseback. Dizengoff stood up for the business community, even as the official Zionist line proclaimed the moral superiority of the kibbutzim and the “workers’ movement.” Against socialist accusations that the blatant commercialism of Tel Aviv reflected the corrupted values that Jews had learned during their exile, Dizengoff unapologetically promoted entrepreneurship and private capital. To believe that commerce warped the Jewish character, he argued, was to accept anti-Semitic premises. “Tel Aviv was founded by the initiative of private citizens,” he wrote. “The victory of Tel Aviv is the victory of the middle class.”

In the first Hebrew city, no contradiction existed between the realms of commerce and of high culture. In the 1920s and 1930s, Tel Aviv was a magnet for European writers, painters, and musicians. Tel Avivans fell in love with their Hebrew poets, and children recited their poems and songs in the city’s schools. Israel’s poet laureate, Hayyim Nahman Bialik, arrived from Odessa in 1924. His imposing two-story house overlooking the beach became a mecca for the city’s leading artists and writers, who met to discuss culture and the political issues of the day. Their arguments also played out in the pages of the city’s array of newspapers and literary journals. By the late 1930s, Tel Aviv’s 150,000 residents could choose from six daily newspapers (three privately owned and three affiliated with the leading political parties), plus several cultural weeklies.

Tel Aviv is an “asynchronic city,” says the Israeli geographer Maoz Azaryahu. “It has no history and no future. It’s the now city.” The implication is that Tel Aviv—unlike Jerusalem, for example—isn’t trapped by its past and constantly reinvents itself, as its citizens also constantly remake their lives. Azaryahu’s idea helps account for the adventurous life of my wife’s grandfather, Yitzhak Katz. As a young child, he fled with his parents from the Russian pogroms of 1905, first settling in Cairo and then, at 19, in Tel Aviv. Lacking higher education or a profession, he found a productive niche in a community that created civic institutions as fast as it added new streets. He invented a position for himself as Belgium’s vice consul in Tel Aviv and then founded the city’s first chamber of commerce. Katz then appointed himself promoter of the city’s modernist painters—including such future luminaries as Reuven Rubin, Yosef Zaritsky, and Tsiona Tagger—and launched venues for their work. In 1983, ten years before his death, he received the Tel Aviv Prize for his role in the city’s cultural efflorescence.

Tel Aviv wasn’t shaped by commerce and polite discourse alone; the city arrived through fire and blood. There was hardly a time when Yitzhak Katz and his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren didn’t find themselves threatened by violence and war. In 1921, Jaffa’s Arabs rioted against further Jewish immigration and murdered dozens of Jewish residents, causing hundreds to flee to Tel Aviv. In the late twenties and thirties, Tel Aviv’s Jews were themselves the targets of violent outbreaks by the Jaffa Arabs.

Because their city faced the Mediterranean, Tel Avivans also became painfully aware of the last-ditch, mostly futile, efforts by European Jews (in many cases, their relatives) to escape the Nazi murder machine. To appease the Arabs, Britain had cut off Jewish immigration to Palestine at a time when the Jews had no other means of escape. Leaky ships full of desperate Jews tried to run the British naval blockade. (Arthur Koestler called them “the little death ships.”) Most were intercepted near the coast and sent back to the inferno.

In November 1947, the United Nations General Assembly voted to partition Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab states. Almost immediately, units of the Arab Liberation Army slipped into Jaffa and launched deadly assaults against neighboring Tel Aviv. During the ensuing War of Independence, Egyptian warplanes bombed Tel Aviv, and the Egyptian army advanced to a point just 20 miles south of the city.

Tel Aviv was also the main arena for the sometimes deadly rivalry between Haganah and Irgun, the military wings of the two main Zionist factions—the socialists under Ben-Gurion and the Revisionist Zionists led by Vladimir Jabotinsky. Leading up to independence, the two groups sometimes cooperated in underground military actions, launched from Tel Aviv safe houses, against the British occupation forces. At other times, the Irgun “broke discipline” and took actions against the British on its own. In response, Haganah rounded up Irgun fighters and turned them over to the authorities.

The final, tragic chapter in this conflict occurred on June 16, 1948, a few hundred yards off the Tel Aviv beach. A ship was bringing in a huge arms cache for Irgun units not yet integrated into the new state’s army. Irgun’s commander, Menachem Begin, refused Ben-Gurion’s order to turn the arms over immediately to the army’s central command. With hundreds watching from the beachfront, Haganah gunners, commanded by Yitzhak Rabin, fired on the ship, killing 15 seamen and Irgun fighters. Passions grew so inflamed that the two military forces verged on war. Begin averted a national disaster by ordering Irgun units to stand down and recognize the authority of Israel’s new army under Ben-Gurion’s command.

Even after Israel won the war, Tel Aviv was not safe. Over the past two decades, Palestinian suicide bombers have periodically penetrated the city, murdering hundreds of innocents on public buses and in restaurants and discos.

It was inevitable that the first Hebrew city and the ancient city of Jerusalem would compete for cultural and political preeminence—just as there have been national rivalries between Moscow and Leningrad, New York and Chicago, Madrid and Barcelona. In the first two decades after independence, however, there was no contest, for Jewish Jerusalem barely survived the 1948 war. First, Arab troops forcibly expelled all the Jewish residents from the Jewish quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City. The Jordanian Arab Legion then cut off and encircled West Jerusalem, where most of the rest of the city’s Jews lived. West Jerusalem was eventually saved by armored convoys from Tel Aviv that broke the siege. But for the next two decades, Jordan prevented Jews from visiting their historic holy places in the Old City. Meanwhile, Tel Aviv was welcoming hundreds of thousands of new immigrants. In 1950, Tel Aviv’s municipal boundaries expanded southward to absorb Jaffa. (Henceforth the city’s official name became Tel Aviv–Jaffa.)

For Israelis, the most emotionally satisfying outcome of the victory against Egypt, Syria, and Jordan in the June 1967 war was the conquest and reunification of Jerusalem. There was hardly a dry eye in the land as Israelis heard a recording, played again and again on the Voice of Israel radio network, of soldiers from the elite paratroopers’ brigade announcing that they had broken through the Jordanian lines and reached the Western Wall of the ancient Temple. The popular Israeli songwriter Naomi Shemer wrote “Jerusalem of Gold,” its words evoking the return of the Jewish people to the “ancient city’s walls.” The song became a kind of alternative national anthem.

Israel’s political and cultural center of gravity now shifted to Jerusalem. For 20 years, Israelis focused on the city’s reunification, which opened access to all the holy sites. Jerusalem began to attract the majority of foreign tourism. Even secular Israelis delighted in exploring the Old City and, with the Palestinian West Bank temporarily peaceful, going down to Jericho and hiking in the Judaean hills.

Tel Aviv suddenly seemed passé. That’s certainly how I felt when I worked in Israel as a foreign journalist in the early 1970s. I chose to live in Jerusalem because it was the politically serious place to be, but its beauty and historical sites were a bonus. Compared with the ancient city’s seven hills, its new neighborhoods constructed out of glittering white Jerusalem stone, Tel Aviv looked worn out, even ugly. It was hard even to recognize the distinctiveness of the Bauhaus architecture because so many buildings, weathered by the salty sea air, had fallen into neglect.

The pendulum began to swing back in the early 1990s. Secular Israelis became uncomfortable with the growing political power of Jerusalem’s hard-line religious communities and complained that it was affecting their own quality of life. The ultraorthodox neighborhoods in Jerusalem erupted in violence whenever their residents believed that some secular encroachment had violated their community’s autonomy—even though the law had never sanctioned those claims of autonomy. At the same time, Tel Aviv’s city fathers, aware of the invidious comparisons with Jerusalem, launched programs for improving the city’s infrastructure, making the beaches more accessible to residents and tourists, as well as fixing up the crumbling Bauhaus buildings so that one could again appreciate the smooth, unornamented white facades with their eye-catching rounded corners and balconies. Tolerant, fun-loving Tel Aviv no longer looked so unattractive to young Israelis.

Tel Aviv’s second cultural explosion, like its first, was largely made possible by the success of the city’s entrepreneurial and commercial class. Over the last two decades, the Tel Aviv metropolitan area has become Israel’s center of high-tech start-ups. Indeed, Tel Aviv has become one of the most technologically influential cities in the world, and its high-tech sector is “an engine of global technology progress,” in the words of tech guru George Gilder (see “Silicon Israel,” Summer 2009).

The city’s economic revolution has helped make many Israelis rich. Israel’s GDP reached $200 billion in 2008, with an impressive per-capita income of around $28,000. People are even richer in Tel Aviv, where they spend their money on high culture and entertainment. For its 400,000 residents, the city now offers more than a dozen symphony orchestras and chamber ensembles, lots of theater groups and dance companies, countless art galleries, museums, and bookstores, and a fabled nonstop nightlife. And Tel Aviv still loves its poets: the greatest Hebrew verses of the century, from Bialik’s to Yehuda Amichai’s, have been engraved on the glass facades of public bus shelters. Despite its high real-estate prices, Tel Aviv has again become the place where ambitious and talented young Israelis want to live.

Tel Aviv is the Middle East’s most socially liberal city by far; in some respects, it is even more socially tolerant than Michael Bloomberg’s New York—the self-appointed beacon of urban toleration. Out magazine, for instance, calls Tel Aviv “the gay capital of the Middle East” (there’s not much competition, true). As long as civic peace is maintained, few Tel Avivans think that another citizen’s lifestyle is any of their business.

Liberal though the city is, Tel Aviv’s youthful individualism thoroughly rejects the Bloomberg-style nanny state. The city’s entrepreneurial café owners would go to the barricades if authorities forced them to post calorie counts, eliminate trans fats, or ban customers’ dogs. That ingrained libertarianism shouldn’t, however, be confused with anarchy: Tel Avivans are creative about preserving their liberties while accepting accommodations that are necessary to maintain civic peace. For example, in a city with many unapologetic smokers, the unwritten rule is that customers don’t light up inside cafés, bars, and restaurants, but that all outdoor tables and facilities are open to individual choice. It doesn’t require city bureaucrats to enforce the understanding.

Goodwill by all sides also characterizes Tel Aviv’s approach to some of the touchy issues of religion in the Jewish state. Though the city’s population is overwhelmingly secular, both the secular and the religiously observant accept that there will be no public transportation on the Sabbath and that all establishments will close on the holiest days of the year—Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Tisha b’Av. With these the only real prohibitions, Tel Aviv residents and businesses are free to follow their own consciences about all other aspects of public religious observance.

It is deplorable, verging on calumny, that the pundits at Time take liberal Tel Aviv’s affluence and joie de vivre as a sign of indifference to war and peace. Almost all of my Tel Aviv friends and relatives have been active in one or another of Israel’s peace and human-rights groups. Every one of them has favored a two-state solution—independence for the Palestinians and an Israeli withdrawal from the Palestinian territories. Yet as much as they supported (and still support) a generous settlement with the Palestinians, they are also—thankfully—sane. They don’t allow themselves the dangerous luxury of disregarding the evidence. In 2000, their government, then headed by the Labor Party, offered the Palestinians a state; in return, Israel got the second intifada, including murderous suicide bombings in Tel Aviv. In 2005, a government led by Ariel Sharon pulled out of the Gaza Strip; in return, thousands of lethal rockets fell on Israeli cities a few miles south of Tel Aviv. Tel Avivans are acutely aware that they have chosen to live in one of the world’s danger zones, targeted for destruction by a mad, Jew-hating regime about to go nuclear. In case they should ever forget, directions throughout the city point to the nearest air-raid shelter. Every family has also been issued a supply of gas masks.

Concluding reluctantly that the issue of war and peace is now in the hands of the Palestinians (and the Iranians, Syrians, and Hezbollah), Tel Avivans have decided to keep on living and building. Time may find that unaccountable. But it’s simply what their courageous grandfathers and grandmothers have done, under similar conditions, for 100 years—ever since that fateful lottery on the “shifting sands.”

Sol Stern is a contributing editor of City Journal, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, and the author of Breaking Free: Public School Lessons and the Imperative of School Choice.

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