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Israel’s Clash of Civilizations — Part II: Tel Aviv

Does Tel Aviv reflect the secular and liberal aspects of Israeli politics?

August 16, 2005

Does Tel Aviv reflect the secular and liberal aspects of Israeli politics?

Many American Jews suffer a cultural shock when they first visit Tel Aviv, the hustling and bustling Mediterranean “city that never sleeps.”

Having grown up watching reruns of the movie “Exodus,” they often still imagine Israelis as yarmulke-wearing cowboys, valiantly defending their land against attacks from vicious tribes of Arab terrorists.

Arriving in Tel Aviv, these Americans find something entirely different.

They encounter secular, middle-class Israelis practicing their new religion of consumerism and planning their next trip to New York or Paris as their Reebok-shoed children dance to the latest rap music.

Instead of engaging in more heroic pursuits, Tel Aviv residents while away their evening hours in traditional Mediterranean pastimes: eating, drinking, gossiping, flirting and engaging in passionate and noisy political debates.

Israel was supposed to be different — an original masterpiece — not a distant echo of ideas and trends produced in New York and London.

Yet, that is what Tel Aviv, the first Hebrew city, has turned out to be. The city has become a symbol of a Western-oriented, modern Israel.

It has turned into a “post-Zionist” Israel, a term coined by writers and artists who frequent the coffeehouses and bookstores in fashionable Shenkin Street.

It describes an ascending ideological trend that is now affecting members of the intellectual class around the country, not unlike the way original Zionism itself did at the time.

Zionism, which derived its inspiration from the philosophy of “organic nationalism,” was influencing the political debate among the Jewish intelligentsia in Vienna and Warsaw a century ago.

Now, their debates in the cafés of Shenkin Street reflect a growing sense of desperation that most continue to feel in the face of seemingly unending violence.

The violence was brought about by the Palestinian intifadah that started in September 2000 and persevered through the tough Israeli response to it.

But in secular and Westernized Tel Aviv, the cultural capital of liberal Israel, they can still recall the time of the Oslo peace process.

During that era, talk in the American-style business suites and elegant cafés on the colorful seashore promenade was giving rise to dreams of a new Arab-Israeli golden age.

Young Israeli entrepreneurs were already devising schemes for potential business ventures with colleagues from Beirut and Amman — and they may be doing so again as new hopes for peace arise.

A travel agency even created a tour that would have allowed Israelis to reach Europe via Damascus and Ankara. Some Israelis were already speculating about the potential negatives of a peace agreement.

A Tel Aviv paper warned of a possible rise in prostitution and illegal gambling — as a result of the anticipated invasion of the city by rich Saudis and Kuwaitis.

Indeed, the main scenario being drawn in Tel Aviv by members of the nation's secular and liberal elites was one that saw Israel living side by side with an independent Palestine — and one integrated within a European Union-like New Middle East.

With its sophisticated high-tech industries located in the “Silicon Wadi,” its young and dynamic entrepreneurs and a multilingual culture, Israel could have become a global commercial center — one that linked Europe to the Middle East.

There were plans to finally draw up a constitution for Israel that would include a commitment to separate synagogue and state — and provide full civil rights to the Arab citizens of Israel.

And, of course, the main focus at that time was on devising ways to bring about independence for the Palestinians in the West Bank.

This would have involved the withdrawal of the Israeli military from those areas, the dismantlement of many of the Jewish settlements there — and the recognition of Arab East Jerusalem as the capital of the new Palestinian state.

The 1990s were the years of Barak & Barak, named after Aharon Barak, the head of the Israeli Supreme Court, who was the driving force behind efforts to liberalize the nation's legal system.

And Ehud Barak, the former Israeli Prime Minister, who proposed a far-reaching plan for peace between Israel and an independent Palestine, which included the division of Jerusalem and its holy places during the failed Camp David meeting of 2000.

The vision of Tel Aviv in those good, old days created the expectation that a “New Israel” would soon be born in the “New Middle East.”

Despite the destruction and death brought by the continuing Israeli-Palestinian violence, the spirit of Tel Aviv continues to be pragmatic and reformist.

It is marked by a strong desire for security and economic development, if not peace and prosperity. But most Westernized Israelis have stopped dreaming.

Instead, they are searching for practical short-term arrangements that will create the conditions for a separation between the two national communities inhabiting the Holy Land.

There are more than five million Jews who regard the Land of Israel as their homeland — and more than four million Arabs who desire to establish an independent Palestinian state.

These Israelis seek a political-territorial divorce from the Palestinians, not unlike the one that led to the peaceful separation between Czechs and Slovaks — or that between Slovenia and Yugoslavia.

Another example is the current division between Greeks and Turks on the neighboring island of Cyprus.

In short, these Israelis seek a two-state solution — two entities for two people — that would permit Israel to find security and develop behind a real or imaginary wall under the constraints imposed by the Old Middle East.

This trend — reflected among Westernized Israelis — has been gaining the support of members of a left-leaning kibbutz Metzer.

This follows a deadly terrorist attack on the settlement located inside the 1967 lines, and the plan to construct a physical wall that would separate them from their Palestinian neighbors.

The killings “have darkened the world view of a collective that was already struggling to find a place in a new, harder Israel, where the old left-wing pioneer dreams of a democratic, secular Jewish society have been eclipsed by the extremism and harshness that violence generates,” according to one report.

But it would be incorrect to conclude that despite many troubling developments — from the building of a security wall to Ariel Sharon’s hard-line policies — that the spirit of Tel Aviv has been crushed.

Neither would be correct to say that Israel has been moving in the direction of national and religious extremism — as though the Weimar Republic is being replaced with the Third Reich — as some critics of Israel among left-wing West Europeans charge.

The spirit of Tel Aviv is alive and well. The city is first and foremost yearning for “normalcy.” It wants Israel to become modern, to cut the messianic roots of Zionism and create a “normal” nation-state, Israel.

That nation-state would still have strong cultural and religious ties to Judaism and the Jewish world. It would be Jewish in the same way that Poland and Ireland are Catholic, but not in the same way that Pakistan and Iran are Muslim.

In essence, post-Zionists want Israel to move beyond the century-long Zionist revolution. Post-Zionists want to resolve some of the contradictions Zionism and the term “Jewish state” have introduced.