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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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