Thursday, April 02, 2009

Happy Birthday Tel Aviv

Thursday - Tel Aviv at 100

No two cities complement each other better than Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Yet the denizens of Israel's political and spiritual capital often view their compatriots 60 kilometers down the road as if they were from another planet. Which is fine with Tel Avivians, who think of their coastal city, the country's commercial and cultural capital, as the real Israel.

Jerusalemites, whose city lies smack between Judea and Samaria, are sometimes exasperated when smug Tel Avivians act as if the Green Line were 1,800 kilometers away, instead of just 18.

Yet we would invite those quick to disparage Tel Aviv as a pale imitation of Miami, or to decry its sultry summer climate, to take a second look. Tel Aviv is an absolute delight in the spring and fall, as anyone who strolls along its beachfront promenade and boardwalk will readily acknowledge.

This is arguably Israel's most civilized and tolerant city. So what if the atmosphere on Shabbat is different from that of Jerusalem? The beauty of 21st-century Israel is that it offers both environments. Yet the city is all too simplistically dismissed as home to "Hebrew-speaking gentiles" when, in truth, interest in Judaism has never been greater there.

So all Israelis - haughty Jerusalemites included - have reason to celebrate this month's centennial anniversary of the founding Tel Aviv-Jaffa, a new beginning in a land steeped in history.

It does not detract from the sanctity of Jerusalem to appreciate Tel Aviv's beaches, museums, parks, Bauhaus architecture and soaring Azrieli towers. That's why the theme of this year's Independence Day celebrations will be "100 Years of the First Hebrew City - Tel Aviv-Jaffa." In fact, the celebrations begin Saturday night at Rabin Square, with a sound and light show accompanied by the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Zubin Mehta.

TEL AVIV-JAFFA is the nucleus of a metropolis that extends from Rehovot in the south to Herzliya in the north. Today's Tel Aviv, with its skyscrapers, urban sprawl and gentrified neighborhoods, was intended to be a garden suburb of the port city of Jaffa, itself first settled in 1820 by a Jewish traveler from Constantinople.

Over the years, Jaffa became home first to Sephardi, and then Ashkenazi Jews. With monies raised by the Jewish National Fund and despite the obstacles placed in their way by Ottoman authorities, Jews began buying land beyond Jaffa's city walls.

On April 11, 1909, Tel Aviv's founders met on the beach to allocate plots for a new neighborhood to be called Ahuzat Bayit. The name Tel Aviv was coined on May 21, 1910 and was the title Nahum Sokolow gave to his translation of Theodor Herzl's novel Altneuland, though you'll also find the name in Ezekiel 3:15.

When the Ottoman rulers expelled its Jews during the First World War, Tel Aviv-Jaffa extended 1,000 dunams beyond Old Jaffa. The residents obviously welcomed the British Mandate with open arms.

During the Arab riots of 1921, most of Jaffa's Jews fled to Tel Aviv.

In the years following WWII, Tel Aviv was a center for "illegal immigration" by sea. When the War of Independence broke out, the city was shelled by Arab positions in Jaffa. It was when the Hagana captured Jaffa that most of its 100,000 Arabs fled.

At independence, Tel Aviv had 210,000 residents. In 1949 it and Jaffa were amalgamated, along with nearby abandoned Arab villages. Today, Tel Aviv-Jaffa boasts a population of 400,000 residents.

Iran refers to Tel Aviv as the capital of "the Zionist regime." And, in fact, all foreign embassies are located there. Perhaps it's easier for foreigners to acknowledge an Israeli connection to a city with "no history" than to one which abounds with Jewish associations going back millennia.

But Tel Aviv represents the first Jewish city that was "not a ghetto," in the words of Marcus Ehrenpreis in his 1927 Soul of the East.

The poet Haim Nahman Bialik wrote that he loved Tel Aviv because it was "established by our own hands… because we need not feel obligated to anyone for its good points, or apologetic for its bad ones. Is not this the whole aim of our redemption… to be owners of our body and soul, masters of our spirit and creation?"

Indeed.

No comments:

My Archive