Ethan Bronner has a bit of a problem in his latest piece for the N.Y. Times about Tel Aviv’s 100th birthday celebration. He knows there has been too much water under the bridge regarding the controversy over this event for him to write an urban hagiography. So he acknowledges the controversy, but still attempts to get in all the typically sunny travelogue items that are requisite for such stories:
It is no surprise that Tel Aviv is marking its 100th birthday by inviting artists to raise uncomfortable questions about its history and identity — the first Hebrew city, the one that arose out of the emptiness of the sand dunes as an escape from the cramped and tension-filled alleyways of the next-door Arab port of Jaffa.
Ah yes, here we have once again that old chestnut about Tel Aviv arising from a void (tohu va-vohu), those proverbial desert sand dunes. And note that the sunny, western orientation of Tel Aviv is in direct opposition to the dark, crowded, alienness of Arab Jaffa.
In this passage too, Bronner highlights Tel Aviv’s claim to be an oasis of calm and liberal European values a million psychic miles away from the dart fetid struggle actually raging on its doorstep:
Tel Aviv is, in fact, the most politically liberal city in Israel and offers a sharp contrast to the spirit of religious conservatism that informs Jerusalem. It votes to the left and looks to Europe. Many inhabitants yearn for nothing more than to live the life of a hot Mediterranean city, to be, say, the Barcelona of the Middle East and forget the conflict a dozen miles away.
And to a large extent, they succeed. That means that as it observes its centennial, Tel Aviv tends to be engaged in a debate not so much about its past as about its future. Amid the rush to settle here in the heart of the country’s economic and cultural hub, many question the move to build up with luxury condominiums and office buildings. A band of residents see such development as a threat to the city’s affordability and basic feel.
Instead of engaging with this conflict in any way, both Bronner and Tel Avivians struggle with the mighty questions of real estate speculation and sustainable growth (sometimes on the backs of those poor Jaffans sitting so inconveniently on valuable development properties).
The best antidote to this airy superficiality is this incisive analysis of Tel Aviv’s real history by Gabriel Ash. Here he quotes Sharon Rotbard’s seminal book on Tel Aviv history, White City, Black City:
Tel Aviv was not born from the sand. It was born in Jaffa. Yet, its attitude to Jaffa reminds one of the Christian attitude to Judaism, including contradictory violent elements of birth and matricide…, erasure and masking, guilt and exculpation. From the moment the first Jewish neighborhood Neve Tzedek was born from the womb of the “Bride of the Sea,” in the [1890s], Tel-Aviv never ceased to flee from Jaffa and to persecute Jaffa. The war of [creating a] “white city”…is the war of Tel-Aviv against Jaffa….to create that Tel-Aviv of street and grocery shop and invent the normality of a house, a courtyard and a staircase, Tel-Aviv eradicated a whole [urban] space. It conquered Jaffa and her daughters, emptied them of their residents, eradicated neighborhoods, villages, roads and landscapes, destroyed places, houses, streets, public monuments…In doing so, Tel-Aviv erased the memory of Jaffa.
The war did not end with the 1948 conquest and exile of the residents. It continues to this very day. Although Jaffa is a dead city, Tel-Aviv still tortures her corpse…From its inception as a city separate from Jaffa, and in its cultural, ethnic and now historical construction as a “white city,” Tel-Aviv constituted itself through its opposition to Jaffa, as separation from Jaffa, as the dialectical negation of Jaffa. For Jaffa, this dialectic relation was no less fateful. While Tel-Aviv built and wrote itself, it also destroyed and erased Jaffa, fashioning it as its own negation – a city of the night, neglected, criminal, dirty, derelict, and black. (p.126 )
Ash continues with this concluding statement in his appraisal of the truth significance of the 100th anniversary “party:”
What is the meaning of 1909 as the date of the “beginning” of Tel Aviv? What exactly was born in 1909? Was it the point of departure of the urban habitat that is today Tel-Aviv-Yafo? No, since Jaffa has always been there, and Jaffa has been included in Tel-Aviv-Yafo. The history of urbanism in the area does not start in 1909. Was it the beginning of Jewish habitation? No. Leaving aside why a “diverse” modern city should be celebrated based on a single ethnic identity, Jews have always been residents of Jaffa. Was it then the first organized Jewish settlement in the area? No. Neve Tzedek was established in 1887 by Palestinian Jews from Jaffa. Kerem Hateimanim was established in 1905. Jews from Jaffa and from Yemen established Jewish neighborhoods near Jaffa because Jaffa was overcrowded. These Jewish suburbs of Jaffa were incorporated later into Tel-Aviv and allowed to become derelict slums as symbolic punishment for their guilty proximity to Jaffa…1909 is an arbitrary date, chosen…mostly because of the convenient existence of a commemorative photograph of the land raffle for the establishment of the neighborhood Ahuzat-Bait. What distinguishes this neighborhood, not only from Jaffa and the Palestinian villages but also from the older Jewish neighborhoods, is that it was established by white European Jews. It is on the basis of this distinction that the history of Tel-Aviv was written and transformed into a myth of a city created on sands, separate from the natives, and therefore paradoxically pure and innocent of the bloody history of apartheid…
Tel-Aviv is innocent because it is a pure European city! Events celebrating the 1909 birth of Tel-Aviv are thus not only inappropriate homage…They are not only attempts to white wash the massacre of Gaza…By celebrating Tel-Aviv, and especially by claiming the right to separate the city from the conflict and thus confirm its image of innocence and “diversity”, Western curators are able to pay homage to colonialism…
Bronner is precisely the type of “western curator” Ash may’ve had in mind when he wrote this. Of course, I don’t think Bronner is aware of any of this. Or if he is he dismisses it with a sharp wave of the hand as ideological histrionics. What he does not understand is that until he can absorb Ash’s and Rotbard’s point of view into his narrative, he cannot properly apprehend the subject before him. It remains a light and airy thing lacking in historical knowledge and social nuance.
1909 is a convenient fiction adopted by Tel Aviv’s white Israelis and now embraced by the country’s foreign ministry in its campaign to prettify Israel’s image via homages like the one at the Toronto Film Festival. And just as the Tel Aviv celebration at TIFF masks Israel’s crimes in Gaza, it also masks the city’s real, complex and troubled history.