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.
“Given the need to separate physically, politically and culturally from Jaffa, Tel Aviv was described, in poetry, art and journalistic and literary works, as having emerged like a “reed inserted into a sea of sand,” of as having been built in “the Sahara desert.” So powerful has this imagery of being born “out of the sands” remained that when it celebrated Israel’s 50th Anniversary, the Economist described Tel Aviv as “having hardly any Arabs… it was built by Jews, for Jews, on top of sand dunes, not on top of anybody else’s home.” In conceiving of Tel Aviv emerging out of the sands the editors of the Economist likely had in their mind the iconic photograph of the groundbreaking ceremony for Tel Aviv, which took place on April 11, 1909. The image, featured in most every book on Tel Aviv, showed the sixty families who had purchased the first plots of land standing amidst dunes, with nary a sign of life around them. But if we move a bit outside the frame a different picture emerges, one in which Tel Aviv, while founded on a sandy region near the shore, was part of a complex ecosystem that included citrus orchards and farms, Jaffa and its famous port, mills, bedouin encampments, and six Palestinian villages.”
I recommend Mark LeVine:
(Also see the comments on that)
I was not aware that you are still fighting the ‘48 war on this blog, Richard.
If Bronner’s piece (which was a byline he shared with another writer, but you pick your bone with Bronner as you have previously in other joint bylines) was too light for you then surely Gideon Levy’s would also be too light for you : Tel Aviv celebrates 100 years of Sanity http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1076399.html
Bronner is not an activist. Said that already. The article entitled “journal” is not an in-depth look at history. And Bronner is not a “ western curator”; whatever the term’s originator meant by that. Bronner is basically a reporter, a journalist, yes, bureau chief, but with an editor to get by. But in this short NYTimes article the dark side of TA history is indeed recognized though of course not enough for you. As to who wrote what in this article, who wrote the lines you object to- neither you nor I know but Bronner, as usual, is the go-to punching bag.
Having recently been to Tel Aviv, I can say that being in the city was a breath of fresh air. It looked pretty diverse to these eyes. But we were also stopped by an impromptu checkpoint and asked questions. This city can’t stick it’s collective head in the sand. The conflict is in everyone’s psyche. But they should celebrate like we celebrate here in the USA despite our own history….
Yes, what happened should be told and cannot not be felt, as the short NYTimes article indicates. But others elsewhere can do more in depth articles. Maybe Ken Burns can even do a mini-series if he lives long enough to get to it.
If you bash the Israel within the ‘48 lines,to me that means you are fighting the ‘48 war, as the historian you cite.
Richard Silverstein says
If it isn’t Ethan Bronner’s resident groupie, Suzanne, sallying forth to defend someone who needs no defending.
Bronner is the senior reporter on every story he writes. He’s also the bureau chief. So yes, he’s the one I single out for criticism. I read everything every NYT reporter writes from and about Israel. I critique every article here if I feel it deserves such treatment. Yet wondrously the only articles that move me to speak out are the ones he writes (or co-writes). I have written here more flatteringly of work by previous NYT Israel bureau chiefs like James Bennett and others. The Times reporters get the treatment they deserve.
Maybe you need them checked. Did you visit Jaffo, Ajame or any other neighborhood under threat by developers and too weak to fight back? Next time contact my blogger friend Yudit Ilany & ask for a tour of the neighborhoods you conveniently ignore or are ignorant of. The idea that the lily white Tel Aviv you undoubtedly visited was “pretty diverse” makes me laugh.
Ah yes, the proverbial “bashing Israel” charge from the resident liberals. You’ve heard of Nakba, perhaps? I don’t need to bash Israel, it bashed itself on that one. And if you ignore this then your historical eyesight & memory are faulty.
Donald Johnson says
What’s wrong with revisiting 1948? It is the root of the problem. Even if one doesn’t think a one state solution is practical, it’s still important to understand 1948 so that we aren’t told that something like Barak’s summer 2000 offer was incredibly generous.
The wish to exclude 1948 means we start with the present and start debating how much of the settlements and land Israel has taken since 1967 they have to give back. In that context, if the Israelis offer to return 80 percent it can be portrayed as “generous”. Bringing 1948 into the picture means people keep in mind how much the Palestinians have really lost and then the negotiations can begin from there. It’s not going to lead to a one state solution unless the Israelis make a two state solution so obviously impractical most Palestinians switch over to chanting “one man, one vote”.
Suzanne is like the new PR rep for the White House (Rice or whoever she is) wanting to ‘move forward’ and ‘look ahead’.
Everything comes back to 48′.
The Zionists had already begun ethnically cleansing Palestine before the declaration of Statehood. Blah blah blah blah.
But of course, we must look forward. Keep looking forward! Especially when looking BACK means thinking about the crimes of the State and it’s allies and how it REVEALS a PATTERN of behavior that persists RIGHT UP TO THE PRESENT!
Nothing has changed.
BTW is this the same Suzanne who trolled Mondoweiss all throughout Gaza, ridiculing Palestinian children who were suffering from malnutrition due to the seige?
The Gaza massacre I should say.
I do recall a Suzanne, constantly making snide remarks and insults in a playful tone (sort of like a elementary school bully).
RE: The war of [creating a] “white city”…is the war of Tel-Aviv against Jaffa – Gabriel Ash
MY COMMENT: Several years ago I happened upon an Israeli blog with photos of Israelis dressed in costumes for the Purim holiday. One photo was of three people (Israelis, I assume) on a street (in Tel Aviv, I believe) dressed in identical, immaculate, hooded (slits for the eyes) KKK robes/costumes (and “mugging” for the camera). If I recall correctly, these robes appeared to have the official KKK insignia on them. It might have been some type of replica, but the KKK “cross” was clearly visible.
P.S. “The (Old) Gray Lady” sho’ “ain’t what she used to be”! In Bronner’s case it is probably more a lack of intellect than anything else. The ‘dumbing down’ of American journalism is truly frightening.
OMG, I almost forgot!
DISCLAIMER: No insinuations or generalizations were intended by the author of the preceding comment (located immediately above this ‘reply’).
RE: The war of [creating a] “white city”…is the war of Tel-Aviv against Jaffa – Gabriel Ash
SE ALSO: Tel Aviv suburb starts anti-miscegenation patrol to ‘assist young girls in the habit of mingling with men from minorities’, by Adam Horowitz, 09/17/09
(EXCERPT) Check out this illustrative news story from Mississippi, 1963 (‘Mississippi, 1963’ lined through) Tel Aviv, today. The great Israeli blogs Promised Land and Dimi’s Notes report that the Tel Aviv suburb of Petah Tikva has established a patrol unit to break up dates between Palestinians and Jews. Dimi Reider explains and provides a translation of a Yediot Ahronot article on the program…
ENTIRE POST – http://mondoweiss.net/2009/09/tel-aviv-suburb-starts-anti-miscegenation-patrol-to-assist-young-girls-in-the-habit-of-mingling-with-men-from-minorities.html
Rabbi Tony Jutner says
[No comments will be accepted from this commenter until he provides evidence that he exists by this name and is who he says he is.]
“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"
Mr. Silverstein, I am leaning more and more towards the hypothesis of the Khazarian (and then conversions) of the modern Jews, and the (in my opinion) the descendants of biblical Jews being (gasp, shock) the Palestinians, who in meanwhile converted to Islam.
Just an interesting tangent.