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.