Karl Sharro







A City in Surplus to Western Modernity

Tel Aviv, a Shrine for Exiles


By Bilal Khbeiz 



Tel Aviv is often likened to Barcelona, despite the hundreds of Falafel and Humus eateries that line its streets and have now become part of its touristic appeal. Tel Aviv is also a Mediterranean city, but is more suited to beach holidays because of its warmer climate which resembles that of Limassol or Beirut. Like Beirut in its heyday, Tel Aviv is also famed for being a city that never sleeps. For a small city of 400,000, Tel Aviv is well-known for its good food. It is estimated that it has more than one hundred Sushi restaurants, aside from the other types of restaurants serving oriental and western cuisine.


Despite some similarities with other Mediterranean cities, Tel Aviv is distinct in that it is the quintessential modern city. The land that Tel Aviv was founded on was an ever-changing landscape of sand dunes, until 1909 when the land was purchased by Ashkenazi Jews from Bedouins who lived north of Jaffa. The Ashkenazi settlers built the first neighbourhood in Tel Aviv there.


Against the Promised Land


The modern city of Tel Aviv contrasts sharply with its close neighbour the historic city of Jaffa. The two cities never really mixed, despite the Israeli governmentís decision about 10 years ago to place the two cities in the same municipal department. Tel Aviv was contemptuous of such rapprochement; it prides itself on being a unique city in its context. Tel Aviv was built by European immigrants reflecting their way of life and culture. It was the first city in the Middle East to experiment with modernist architecture. Between 1931 and 1939, more than 3000 modernist buildings were built in Tel Aviv. At that time, the cosmopolitan city of Alexandria still retained its traditional look, and Beirutís buildings were predominantly in the Ottoman style, with a few examples of French architecture. In 2003, Tel Aviv was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, because it has the worldís largest concentration of Modernist buildings. In this truly modern city, German Bauhaus architects built entire neighbourhoods. By contrast, Walter Gropius, the founder of Bauhaus, managed to build only one tower in the University of Baghdad, during the reign of King Ghazi.


Tel Aviv was not meant to become so influential in Israel, Jerusalem was always going to be the capital city. Most governmental buildings are located in Jerusalem, but the majority of embassies are to be found in Tel Aviv. Tel Aviv has become synonymous with Israel, much like what Beirut is to Lebanon.


When Tel Aviv was founded, there was no reason to expect that it would play such an important role in the contemporary history of the Middle East. Haifa and Ashdod were the dominant economic centres. Most of Ashdodís Arab residents were expelled in 1948; the ruins of their city became the foundation of the fifth largest city in Israel and one of the most important port cities in the Middle East. Tel Aviv did not attempt to compete economically with its two neighbours to the north and south. Instead, it became Israelís cultural capital, hosting a large number of museums and theatres and also developing into a touristic destination. Within a few decades, Tel Aviv had become the political capital of Israel and the centre of decision making.


Israel is often portrayed as the only democracy in the Middle East, amongst the multitude of dictatorships and totalitarian regimes. Israel was successful in depicting itself as a secular society, a claim that is taken at face value by many commentators. Israel as a secular-democratic state is a product of Western democracies; it has a distinct democratic legal and political system. Israel however was founded on two contrasting ideas. To the West, Israel is the Jewish state but also an oasis of democracy in the Middle East. It is, simultaneously, a religious Promised Land and a secular-democratic state.


Letís not be distracted by the endless discussions about the contradiction between the nature of Israel as a secular democratic state and as the Jewish Promised Land. Of much more interest is the paradoxical nature of the Israeli identity, which seems to be constructed on two binary opposites that lend it its immense resilience.



The City of Exiles


Unlike what the Arabs have proclaimed since the Israeli- Arab conflict began, the Jewish people have no other countries to be repatriated to. They are exiled in this land with no hope of return. Israel is the only country in the Middle East that will attract many more immigrants than the number of those leaving it. Jews all over the world feel obliged to take an interest in Israel despite its remoteness. An Australian Jew might shun the Israeli nationality but will still be obliged to take an interest in its affairs, despite his or her personal opinion about its legitimacy.


Western democracies were shaped by their struggle with the Church. This centuries-long process excluded other religions. The emergence of modern democracies in Europe in the nineteenth century coincided with the most violent waves of anti-Semitism which culminated with Hitlerís Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. Jews all over the world were left with one of two choices: to die in Auschwitz amidst an international collusion, or to immigrate to Palestine and settle there. Needless to say, not all Jewish migration to Palestine was in search of the Promised Land and as a desire to build the Kingdom of Israel. Modern


Tel Aviv was built next to historic Jaffa, which was founded more than 4000 years ago, and was mentioned several times in the Old Testament in connection with the prophet Jonah. Yet Tel Aviv shunned Jaffa. The early Jewish immigrants wanted to build cities that remind them of the countries they had left. Tel Aviv was to be a monument to the eternal nostalgia they felt for the cities they had left forever. Israelís second foundation was in sharp contrast to its first. Israel is considered by Arabs and Muslims in general to be the land and the nation of the Jewish people. In their minds, it is represented by Jerusalem and the Wailing Wall. But Israel represented a place of exile for the early Jewish immigrants, an alternative to the cities that expelled them. Eichmannís trial illustrates the paradoxical nature of this duality. Eichmann claimed that his task was to facilitate the immigration of the Jews, which was requested by their community leaders. In accordance with the brutal Nazi logic, those who were not lucky enough to immigrate were considered to be redundant and had to be exterminated†


Tel Aviv became more prominent than Jerusalem, despite the latter being the official capital of Israel. The concept that Tel Aviv was founded on was not contestable. It is a modern city intended to represent Jewish modernity the way that European modernity can be seen as Christian in a sense. Jerusalem in contrast is a religious city, perhaps the most religiously significant city in the world, and therefore is continuously being contested. Arabs will contest the identity of Jerusalem, but they recognise that Tel Aviv as an Israeli city.


In that sense, Israel appears to be a state for those excluded from Western modernity because of their religion. The rate of Jewish immigration to Israel fluctuated in accordance with the level of political instability in the countries of origin. The Ethiopian Jews immigrated during the famines, and the Russian Jews left the crumbling Soviet Union and the tumult in Eastern Europe. The last Lebanese Jews immigrated on the eve of the Israeli invasion of Southern Lebanon, in fear of being held responsible for the invasion. Many stories are told about Iraqi, Yemeni and Egyptian Jews who refused to immigrate to Israel but were forcefully sent there. They were trapped in Israel, it was impossible for them to return to their home countries and they were destined to die in Israel.


An Implacable Identity†


Israel was founded on an incredible crime against the Palestinian people. The entire population was expelled, and Israeli towns and villages were built on the ruins they left behind. This is a fact accepted even by Israelis. This should not prevent us from accepting a bitter truth: the Jewish people were still regarded as Jews, even when they were building their secular and democratic state. Immigrants to Israel probably ask themselves why they should leave Moscow or St Petersburg to a country surrounded by enemies. This hesitation does not deter them from taking the risk, in a troubled Russia they face murder and blame for the problems that Russia faced after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Russian Jew immigrates to Israel and defends to death Israelís land and existence. By comparison, Arabs immigrate from their troubled societies towards more stable and peaceful countries. The disposal of Saddam Hussein did not encourage the millions of Iraqi immigrants to return to their homeland, most of them preferred to stay in London and Berlin were social stability is far more established than in Iraq. In contrast, when Soviet Russia went through a crisis, Russian Jews immigrated to Israel: a state that was born out of a crisis, went through several wars, and still faces several wars ahead.


The Israeli identity is constructed on two imperatives. Firstly, Jewish people could face the risk of becoming undesirables wherever they lived in the world, and will find themselves without protection whenever their societies experience social and political instability. Secondly, the State of Israel is a demonstration of Jewish secularism and modernity. Because of the paradoxical relationship between its two main foundations, the Israeli identity appears implacable. The Israeli citizen is on the one hand a Jew fighting a religious war, and on the other a modern citizen seeking acceptance by the civilised West.





Bilal Khbeiz is a Lebanese writer. 


First published in Arabic in Annahar cultural supplement, no 847, 1 June 2008.


Translated from Arabic by Karl Sharro 2008.