Tel Avivians are rubbing their eyes these days. Until lately so little thought of by the world that many tourists to Israel never bothered to visit it at all, their city is suddenly high on the places-to-be lists. First, last summer, National Geographic magazine rated it one of the "top 10 beach cities in the world," placing it ninth, behind Sydney and ahead of Vancouver. Then, as if that weren't improbable enough, the Lonely Planet guidebook series awarded Tel Aviv third place in its "top cities of the world" competition, between number-two Tangier and number-four Wellington.
It's hard to believe. Once (and in parts, still) grungy, grubby, shabby Tel Aviv the third "top city" in the world?
Of course, one needs to read the fine print. Although Tel Aviv (which has been recognized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO for its unique concentration of pre-World-War II Bauhaus architecture) has been spruced up considerably in recent years, it's not for its beauty that it's being praised by National Geographic and the Lonely Planet. It's for its ambience—specifically, for its being (to cite Lonely Planet) "a modern sin-city on the sea," and (according to National Geographic) a "Miami Beach on the Med . . . the Dionysian counterpart to religious Jerusalem." That's not everyone's idea of a compliment.
Nor is it an entirely deserved one. Tel Aviv isn't as sinful as all that. It does have a lively singles scene, lots of pubs and dance clubs, and (to quote Lonely Planet again) "a large gay community," but most Tel Avivians, when they aren't struggling to make a living like people everywhere, enjoy themselves by other means than liquor, drugs, loud music, and promiscuous sex. They sit and chat in the city's many pleasant neighborhood cafés; eat in its excellent restaurants; walk, bike, or jog on its wonderful beachfront promenade; sunbathe on its sand and swim and windsurf in its sea that doesn't get cold before December and warms up in May; and frequent its numerous art galleries, theater performances, and music and dance concerts. Although it may seem a den of iniquity when viewed from heavily Orthodox Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, though more cosmopolitan than other cities its size, is no wickeder than most.
The fact is that, as shown by the Israeli scholar Anat Helman in her new study Young Tel Aviv: A Tale of Two Cities, Tel Aviv always had an exaggerated reputation for libertinism, not only among Orthodox Jews but equally among Labor Zionists, whose collectivist, socialist values were at odds with the city's mercantile and individualist style of life. Practically from its founding in 1909, writes Helman, a senior lecturer at the Hebrew University, Tel Aviv became "a symbol of non-pioneering materialism. Tel Avivians were accused of being unproductive, profligate, and hedonistic . . . pleasure seekers who were apathetic to the sacrifices being made by pioneer workers." Although the pleasures in question, as Helman describes them, were rarely more shocking than dressing fashionably, frequenting cafés, dancing the tango and the rumba, watching Hollywood movies, and engaging in a modest level of conspicuous consumption, they struck the more religiously and politically puritanical as morally scandalous.
Helman concentrates in her generously illustrated book on the twenty years of the British Mandate period between World War I and World War II, which saw Tel Aviv grow from a small town of 2,000 inhabitants to a middle-sized one of 160,000. Her study is organized topically, starting with an opening chapter on the city's physical development, and continuing with "Public Events," "Tel Aviv's Consumer Culture," "Entertainment and Leisure," and "Subcultures in the First Hebrew City." The latter reflected the different origins of the Jewish immigrants who flocked to Tel Aviv in the 1920s and 30s, mainly from Germany and Poland. Largely middle-class, they were regarded with suspicion by the Zionist Left.
And yet as Helman also takes pains (although perhaps insufficient ones) to point out, pre-World-War-II Tel Aviv was a crucial part of the Zionist enterprise, which would have been unimaginable without it. It was the center of Zionist political life; of the economy of the Jewish Yishuv; of the nationalist Hebrew press; of the politically engagé Hebrew literature of the period; of the Histadrut, the national trade union that was socialist Zionism's main pillar of strength; of the Haganah and the Irgun; of frequent mass demonstrations on behalf of Zionist goals and against pro-Arab British policies; of competing Zionist youth movements belonged to by large numbers of youngsters, many of whom eventually joined or founded kibbutzim. Labor Zionism may have needed Tel Aviv as a foil for its attacks on bourgeois values, but bourgeois Tel Aviv was necessary for Labor Zionism's success.
Today, of course, it is the Israeli Left that identifies with Tel Aviv and elements on the Right that have turned it into a symbol of a-Zionist or anti-Zionist licentiousness. No doubt this partly explains why publications like National Geographic and the Lonely Planet have become Tel Aviv's ardent boosters. A Jewish city that would rather make love than war is just what the publicist ordered. Yet this involves no little hype. While Tel Aviv is indeed, for those who can afford it, a nice place to live in and well-worth spending a few days in if one doesn't, only an unspoken agenda could turn it into the world's third most attractive city.
"Miami Beach on the Med" or not, Tel Aviv faces dangers that Miami doesn't. Tel Avivians know well that, no matter how much love they make, their city is closer today to experiencing the full horrors of war than it has ever been in the past. Should all-out hostilities erupt with Iran, Hizballah, Syria, or all three, Tel Aviv will be the main target of their missiles—which, unlike the ineffective Iraqi Scuds of the Gulf War, will be capable of inflicting great damage. What mere sinner without a deep if perhaps unexpressed attachment to country and people would choose to live in such a town?
Hillel Halkin's books include Letters to an American Jewish Friend, Across the Sabbath River, A Strange Death, and, most recently, Yehuda Halevi (Nextbook/Schocken). He lives in Israel.
You can find this online at: http://www.jidaily.com/telaviv