Israel at 60: זה מה יש

For those who don’t read Hebrew, the second half of this post’s title means, roughly, “that’s what there is.” It’s the kind of phrase that parents are wont to use when their offspring say they don’t like what they’ve been given for dinner. Lately, I’ve been using it when journalists ask what I think of the state of the state (of Israel) 60 years after its founding.


This is the cover of this week’s “City Mouse,” a weekly culture and entertainment magazine that is distributed in Tel Aviv with Haaretz newspaper. David Ben-Gurion and his sour-looking wife, Paula, look out the window of their Tel Aviv residence (now a museum) at Tel Aviv hipsters celebrating Independence Day armed with cocktails, silly string in a tin and squeaky plastic hammers. “So,” Israel’s first prime minister asks his wife, “Was it worth it?”

The Israeli media seems to be torn between celebrating the big 6-0 (part-y! And don’t forget to buy our newspaper on the holiday eve, ’cause we’ve included tons of special supplements with lots of gossip!) and reminding us of how far we have strayed from the values of the state’s founders. Occasionally, we are served up “rare archival footage” of black-and-white proto-Israelis in embroidered Russian peasant blouses, grasping one another’s hands as they dance in joyful circles. The message is that we should mourn the lost group spirit and hate ourselves for becoming a bunch of materialistic individualists. No one mentions the austerity, the unemployment, the controlled economy and the lack of air-conditioning, but I’m assuming that we are not meant to miss those things.

Meanwhile, the foreign media has been busy informing us that Israel is – more or less, but mostly more – DOOMED. Depending on the editorial agenda of the media outlet (or the personal agenda of the writer), this message is conveyed in tones that range from sober concern to barely-disguised glee. Apparently, the age of the nation-state is totally passe – for the Jews, that is. Everyone else is allowed to live in atavistic bliss.

Here at my neighbourhood cafe, where the espresso is strong and the WiFi runs true, Ido-the-barman just unfolded the nylon (made-in-China) Israeli flag that came with today’s newspaper and jokingly draped it over the shoulders of Selim, the Palestinian-Israeli from Jaffa who reigns over the tuna salads and quiches. Selim handed the flag back to Ido and they both laughed knowingly – because they know that a Star of David and the stripes of the tallit are not symbols that speak to a Muslim. They did not, however, launch into a discussion of whether or not the state’s symbols should be more inclusive of all its citizens.

Israel is a flawed, young state with tons of problems. It is also a flawed, young state that has a lot of good stuff going for it. If it weren’t, I would not live here. I am not religious and I am not a refugee from political or economic persecution. I might be a refugee from Canadian weather, but that’s another story.

If you live in Jerusalem and you spend most of your time at the Knesset, the prime minister’s office, the West Bank and Gaza, and it is your job to report about the problems (because who’s interested in good news, anyway?) it’s easy to feel as though you are living in a cuckoo’s nest. Trust me, I’ve been there. In fact, I still go there far too often, and it’s definitely not a good place to be. Tel Aviv-Hebron-Tel Aviv in 8 hours or less can make your fuses pop. If I were doing the Jerusalem-Hebron trip on a regular basis, I’d probably be on Prozac.

When the political problems get to me, I take a break and spend some time in the healing confines of Tel Aviv – which the great Hebrew poet and translator Shaul Tchernichovsky (1875-1943) described as the best place to be a Jew. These days it’s more of a multi-ethnic town, and it’s got its fair share of urban problems, but it’s a lovely place nonetheless.

If we are going to talk about Zionism (and mostly I don’t, because “isms” make me nervous), then Tel Aviv is, for me, the great Zionist success story. I don’t feel any particular emotion when I look at Jerusalem’s Western Wall. I would certainly never put a note in its cracks – makes me feel as though I’m performing a voodoo ritual. I love to visit the Hurva Synagogue, because the story of the arch is so fascinating, but I do not feel a desire to pray there.

But I have been known to get a little misty when I look at Tel Aviv’s Bauhaus architecture and tree-lined boulevards; at the posters advertising dozens of plays, concerts and club events; the theaters and the publishing houses and the art galleries, the stock exchange and the fashionable boutiques. Tel Aviv is the city where the first school with a curriculum taught entirely in modern Hebrew was established. It is where all three of Israel’s major daily newspapers were founded and still exist today, in their original locations. It is the home of the national opera, the national symphony orchestra and more than half-a-dozen theaters. It’s a place where homosexual couples and ultra-Orthodox families live peacefully in the same neighbourhood – even in the same building.

Tel Aviv is also a noisy city with a lot of air pollution. There’s dog shit everywhere. Rents are insanely high. And it is not uncommon to hear of landlords that find excuses to avoid renting to Arabs in Tel Aviv, too.

Yup, good stuff and bad stuff. Tomorrow night we mark 60 years since the establishment of the state. It might not be what Ben-Gurion had in mind, but that’s what there is.


18 responses to “Israel at 60: זה מה יש

  1. Allow me to commend you for another awesome post.

  2. Israel has many problems. No doubt. And yet, as a flawed state it has still managed to stand out in its neighbourhood. It is a country with a sizeable (and some say hostile) minority. Yet it survives as a democracy where this minority still has the ability to influence the manner in which the state runs. It allows people like you to speak their mind, whether it likes the words coming out of your mouth or not. It racially profiles people like me but still lets them into the country. It has many, many faults yet somehow it continues marching forward even with the odds against it. At 60, Israel has done more than many in the neighbourhood have done in 60, 600 & 6000 years. Us neighbours can learn and thing or two from you. Perhaps that’s why we’re not allowed to.

  3. Breathtaking. To this dazzling bad-stuff-good-stuff country, a paean (see, I am you paying back for your “atavistic” that sent me scurrying for a definition review;-) And, to this Not White City, a love song. You celebrate what is so easy to overlook, to miss, to scorn, to despise. Brava, kol hakavod.

    About that made-in-China Israeli flag. Yesterday, when I picked up from Yehudit, second-generation owner of the Weizman-Leeman Flag Store on Tel Aviv’s Brenner Street (to bring her gift of flags to the Beit Avot [Home for the Aged] on nearby Yavne Street, she pointed out where “those made-in-China Israeli flags are improper.” The two sharpest points of the Star of David are facing north and south. Wrong. Who knew? And does it matter, really? Despite everything, Chag sameach. Happy holiday.

  4. great post. there’s an often used phrase here that reflects a similar feeling , es lo que hay

  5. What a lovely love letter to a city.

    But I think for true civilization to kick in Tel Aviv needs to bite the bullet and introduce pooper scooper laws.

    @Lisoosh: There is a pooper scooper law, dammit. It’s just not enforced. And even if it were enforced, the fine is not high enough to be a real deterrent. Welcome to the world of Lisa’s pet peeves.

  6. I just want to say that I’ve been reading your posts for about 2.5 years now, and I love them. I don’t agree with you on some things, for example “isms” don’t make me nervous, and I am definitely a Zionist without any reservations. But your blog is always very thoughtful, sensitive, and informed. Thank you.

  7. Aww Lisa, you made me cry. Chag same’ach. 🙂

  8. a Jew.
    Love is a letter
    addressed to
    the heart of all
    who make this
    “the best place to be.”

  9. A touching post.
    A minor corrrection though: as a former student of Haviv school in Rishon Le’Tzion, I must insist that the first modern Hebrew school was not in Tel Aviv.

    @Avi: And all these years I have been convinced that the first modern Hebrew school was the Gymnasia Herzliya..! I must find out who has been lying to me, and why. Hmph.
    Thank you so much for the link – it’s fascinating.

  10. And I would add:

    “Aval Yeheye Beseder…”

    I hope.

  11. I was engaged in a conversation with an Israeli and we tackled questions of ‘morality’ (of the occupation, the army, etc etc..) and reading you reminds me that, rather than existential questions, it’s people who define a community. It’s a strange ethnic mix at the bus station, it’s an unspoken tension about a national flag, it’s the cohabitation – or lack thereof – of people of different walks of life, races, and ethnicities; it’s the people sitting on a bench enjoying the sun, the guy who goes home from a party at dawn and wears his suit to go straight to work, and the kid selling him the newspaper on his way to work. It’s the sounds, the smells, the bookshops, the food stalls, the buildings (from the architectural hidden gems to the new ugly ones by the beach;), I could go on.
    And from the few times I’ve seen your city, I find it and its people fascinating, bound an unwritten agreement to make this a great place to live for all… Bravo!

    Besides, if we were to judge communities by how distant their current members are from the values of their founders, I’d probably be plowing a cotton plantation in Louisiana as we speak.

    Enjoy the holiday!

  12. Pingback: 60 « El Nuevo Pantano

  13. Dear Lisa,
    Could you give some references of foreign Media claiming Israel is doomed ?
    Many thanks, and Chag Haatsmaut Sameach,

    Hi Mic – I better not start listing articles here. Some readers are liable to turn this thread into an argument over the relative merits of each, and I might end up offending some colleagues as well. I can send you an email, if you like. Lisa

  14. Lisa,

    Really nice piece. I made sure to link it. Makes me happy that I am coming back home.

  15. Lisa,
    It sounds wonderful despite it’s problems. I can’t wait to go. Thanks again for your down-to-earth perspectives. What happened to the air-conditioning?

    In the U.S. there’s been a significant amount of media presenting the doom-theory, and we’re supposed to be Israel’s best friend! Just imagine what they’re publishing in France.

  16. Hi Laura,
    well – I’ve read some irritating articles in anglo-saxon media (thanks for the refs, Lisa), but nothing really offensive in the French mainstream. French media seems to have been taking it easy with the middle-east conflict in the past years. In Le Monde, for example, although I didn’t search too hard, but haven’t seen any major article regarding Israel’s independence day. A bit strange, though, when I think of it.

  17. I just returned from a recent visit to Tel Aviv from Jerusalem and will be posting my photos soon. I got a feeling from Tel Aviv much like you describe. No longer adherent to Judaism, having abandoned Zionism, the loyalties of Tel Avivi’s lie with their city. It’s more of a city pride than a national, religious, or ideological pride, which could not exist without the rest of Israel shielding the Tel Aviv bubble. I’m not necesarrily saying that this is a bad thing. Well, alright, I’ll admit that as an observant Jew, I feel the abandonment of Judaism by Israel’s ruling elite was a disastrous mistake, but one for which we share much of the blame. But that’s just me.

    It is an interesting post of yours. Happy Yom Ha’Atzmaut.

    Hi Evan – Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I do not agree that Tel Aviv has abandoned Judaism or Zionism, though. And I certainly do not think that the rest of Israel shields the Tel Aviv bubble.

    Tel Aviv has a rich Jewish culture. There is a big Belz community living in the Sheinkin area, for example, alongside the most liberal population in Israel. Where else in this country would you see a gay couple with an adopted baby living harmoniously in the same apartment building with a Hasidic family? Tel Aviv also has one of the oldest and most active Reform synagogue in Israel – Beit Daniel – as well as one of the most beautiful and historically interesting Sephardic synagogues, on Shadal Street.

    As for Zionism – there is plenty of that. Don’t forget that the modern Zionist movement was established by secular Jews. Religious Zionism came late – only in the early 1930s – and national religious Zionism came more than 30 years after that. The modern cities of Tel Aviv were built by secular Zionists – not religious Zionists. The political elite was never religious – neither Mapam, nor Mapai, nor the Revisionists (later Likud).

    Tel Aviv is a bubble in the sense that it is detached from the social and political tensions that plague Jerusalem. Tel Aviv is the heart of Israeli liberalism. But don’t buy into the claim that the city’s residents don’t care about the country and don’t contribute their fair share. That’s a silly, reactionary falsehood that I’ve been meaning to disprove for a very long time.

    Every country has a capital of culture, nightlife and commerce – whether it be New York, London, Paris, or Tel Aviv. Israel would be utterly impoverished – financially and culturally – without this city. I can understand that it might not be for everyone; but surely one need not disparage something just because it is not one’s cup of tea. Lisa

  18. For those who may be interested in French Media coverage of Yo Haatsma’ut , Le Monde, a major daily in the country, finally published an editorial which is pretty sympathetic towards Israel.
    (in French, I can provide a translation if someone would like)

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