1948 – Cradle of the State

When the State of Israel was declared on May 14, 1948, at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, people danced in the streets, particularly at the Star of David Square near where I live today. The newspaper headlines in bold letters read “THE HEBREW STATE HAS BEEN BORN!” The emphasis was on a Hebrew, not a Jewish state, since there was a feeling that a new national identity was emerging, based on the revival of the Hebrew language. The fact that Jerusalem was declared an international city by UNGA Resolution 181 (the Partition Plan) and therefore was not a part of the new state didn’t seem to dampen the celebrations.

It was natural that the Hebrew state would be declared in Tel Aviv, since it was known as “the first Hebrew city.” One of the main streets is named after Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, who revived Hebrew as a spoken language, and pre-state high school students used to roam the city throwing rotten tomatoes at people who spoke German or Yiddish, shouting “Jew, speak Hebrew!” The name of the city, founded in 1909 north of the 3,500-year-old city of Jaffa on the Mediterranean coast, came from the Hebrew translation of the utopian novel by the founder of the Zionist movement, Theodore Herzl, Altneuland (Old Newland), which had been translated by Nahum Sokolow into Tel Aviv (Hill of Spring). The novel imagined a future cosmopolitan modern society based on liberal, universal values, with equality for all, where religion would remain in the synagogues and the army in its barracks (very far from today’s reality).

It’s worth noting that 25% of all the 120 members of the first Knesset were kibbutz members, who together with the city of Tel Aviv formed the backbone of the new state, a combination of communal democratic socialism together with bourgeois entrepreneurship. That is one of the primary reasons why the progressive forces around the world supported the establishment of the state; they believed that a socialist society was being built in the Middle East after British imperialism had been removed from the area. The Palestinian Nakba was not yet part of their consciousness at the time, though there was an awareness that a “refugee problem” had been created in the wake of the 1948 war.

A central element in the ceremony on May 14th was David Ben-Gurion’s reading of the Declaration of Independence, which proclaimed that the nascent Jewish state would be based on “freedom, justice, and peace” and would be “faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.” It is noteworthy that God is not mentioned in the declaration, since the state was not founded on the idea of a “Promised Land” but rather on the fact that Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel) was the birthplace of the Jewish people where their “spiritual, religious, and political identity was formed.”

Ben-Gurion lived in Tel Aviv, as did Herut Party Revisionist opposition leader Menachem Begin. So did much of the cultural elite. It had been the home of national poet Bialik, who developed a new secular way of celebrating the Jewish sabbath with his Friday night Oneg Shabbat cultural gatherings, which also spread to the kibbutzim. Tel Aviv was the home of the veteran1948 generation poets, and all the major Hebrew-language newspapers were published there. The national theater, Habima, was located in Tel Aviv, which also hosted the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra. And the two major artists whose paintings reflected a desire to integrate into the Middle East rather than a reliance on Biblical imagery, Reuven Ruben and Nahum Gutman, lived in Tel Aviv.

To return to the Declaration of Independence, it also declared that from the moment the British Mandate ended, a Provisional Council of State and Provisional Government would act “until the establishment of the elected, regular authorities of the State in accordance with the Constitution which shall be adopted by the Elected Constituent Assembly not later than the 1st October 1948…

Yes, a constitution was supposed to be formulated and adopted about five months after the declaration of the state. This did not happen, primarily because Ben-Gurion was afraid of defining the relationship between religion and state that would have alienated the small religious parties. His excuse was that more urgent matters were the first priority, absorbing the Holocaust survivors and refugees from North Africa and the Middle East, building an economy, etc.

The failure to adopt a constitution then leads us to the crisis we are facing today.

Tel Aviv – Center of Resistance

Tel Aviv was always one of the primary centers of resistance to the antidemocratic and authoritarian trends within Israeli society.

In 1950, Uri Avnery and Shalom Cohen bought a weekly magazine called HaOlam HaZeh (This World) which was based in Tel Aviv. It became a muckraking, anti-establishment publication that constantly challenged the authoritarian practices of Ben-Gurion’s Mapai party and was one of the primary critics of the antidemocratic military government that Ben-Gurion 
had instituted over the 160,000 Palestinian Israeli citizens who had remained in the country after the 1948 war.

In 1957, after the Sinai Campaign, another publication was established in Tel Aviv, the English-language New Outlook by kibbutz member Simcha Flapan, considered the father of the “New Historians” and his Jewish and Arab colleagues, inspired by Prof. Martin Buber’s philosophy of dialogue, “I and Thou.” Its goal was to establish a dialogue with the Arab world and eventually achieve peace with all of Israel’s neighbors.

In 1973, Abie Nathan founded the Voice of Peace radio station, which also promoted the idea of peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Although it was supposedly broadcast from a peace ship “somewhere in the Mediterranean” (off the coast of Tel Aviv), many of the broadcasts actually emanated from his home/studio on Dov Hoz Street in Tel Aviv.

After President Sadat’s historic visit to Jerusalem in 1977, when Prime Minister Begin began to hedge on responding to the Egyptian leader’s initiative, what became the Peace Now movement organized its first mass demonstration in support of Israeli-Egyptian peace in Tel Aviv’s Kings of Israel Square in the spring of 1978, with the participation of 40,000 people. On Sept. 25, 1983, during the First Lebanon War, another Peace Now rally drew 400,000 Israelis, one-tenth of the country’s population, to the square to protest Israel’s involvement in the massacre in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila. And in December 1988, after the PLO National Council meeting in Algiers issued a Declaration of Independence while retroactively recognizing UNGA Resolution 181, the square was filled with another Peace Now rally where, under the slogan “Speak peace with the PLO now!”, MKs from the Citizens Rights, Mapam and Shinui parties spoke. Furthermore, for the first time in the movement’s history, MK Abdel Wahab Darawshe from MADA (Arab Democratic Party), a Palestinian Israeli, was among the speakers.

On Nov. 4, 1995, 100,000 demonstrators rallied in the square under the slogan “No to violence, yes to peace” backed by Mayor Shlomo Lahat, with the support of Peace Now, to counter the vicious right-wing campaign against Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the Oslo peace process. Tragically, that was the evening that right-wing national-religious extremist Yigal Amir assassinated the prime minister. The site was later renamed Rabin Square.

In 2011, a mass social protest movement began with the setting up of a tent city on Rothschild Boulevard opposite Tel Aviv City Hall. It lasted throughout the summer, culminating in a huge demonstration on September 3rd with the participation of over 250,000 people at Tel Aviv’s Hamedina Square.

Another center of protest in the city is the Tel Aviv Cinematheque, a progressive venue that has hosted the annual Solidarity Human Rights film festival for the past 10 years as well as several anti-occupation film festivals. When Likud Culture Minister Miri Regev threatened to require all artists to sign a “loyalty oath” to get support for their work, many of them participated in a protest held in the plaza in front of the cinematheque. Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai said that if the state would deprive any local cultural institution of funding based on such a bill, the city would provide funding from its own resources.

Tel Aviv is home to many other venues for progressive cultural and political events, including the Tzavta Club, the Jaffa Theater (formerly the Hebrew-Arab Theater) run jointly by Jews and Arabs, the Tmuna Theater, the Alpha Theater, and the Gada HaSmolit (Left Bank).

We should not ignore the wonderful private initiative by Alice Krieger in her north Tel Aviv home. Every Friday night she hosts six diplomats and six peace activists for a Shabbat dinner. Twice a year, on Chanukah and in August, she hosts about 100 Israeli peace activists and diplomats in her garden, including some Palestinian activist friends when they can get permits to come from the West Bank. The highlight of these gatherings is always her rousing speech against the occupation and in support of activists working to end the occupation.

Tel Aviv 2023 - A Mass Protest Movement Emerges Against the Government’s Plans

With the election of Benjamin Netanyahu’s sixth government in November 2022, together with his extreme Orthodox religious coalition partners, everything changed. If it was up to Tel Aviv voters alone, Yair Lapid would have continued as prime minister, and the left-wing Meretz party would still be in the Knesset.

When Netanyahu and his Minister of Justice Yariv Levin announced their intention to carry out a total judicial “reform” that would undermine the independence of the Supreme Court and the balance of powers, and other ministers began announcing plans to limit freedom of expression and to insert Orthodox religious elements and restrictions into the public and educational arenas, Mayor Huldai’s response was to hang a huge scroll of the Declaration of Independence on the walls of the Tel Aviv Municipality building. This followed Huldai’s response to the passing of the 2018 Nation-State Law which stated that “only the Jews have a right to national self-determination in the Land of Israel,” when he ordered the municipality to prepare and circulate to all the schools in the city a map of Israel showing the Green Line separating the sovereign State of Israel from the occupied West Bank which had been removed from the government maps in October 1967.

A struggle has begun between the idea of majority rule as the basis for democracy supported by the ethno-nationalist right and national-religious and ultra-Orthodox forces, and the concept of a balance of powers between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches and a constitutional bill of rights as the basis for democracy, supported by the center-left (and even some of the moderate right and national-religious).

The first public protest against the government’s plans was organized by the left-wing joint Jewish-Arab “Standing Together” movement and held in early January at Habima Square in Tel Aviv.

Then something unexpected happened. For the first time, hi-tech workers began to publicly protest government policy by assembling outdoors in Tel Aviv’s Sarona area during their lunchtime. This was followed by protests by lawyers, past and present judges and economists who wrote petitions and took to the streets. They were soon joined by reserve and current members of elite Israeli army units, current and former pilots, reserve officers, the 8200-intelligence unit, even a majority of the soldiers who had served in the elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit, former Mossad operatives and former IDF chiefs of staff. Also “Handmaiden” protesters and grandmothers defending women’s and democratic rights. Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, also a former IDF Chief of Staff and one of the most articulate speakers at the mass Saturday night protests who had been Netanyahu’s commander in the Sayeret Matkal, called for massive “nonviolent civil disobedience, in the spirit of Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi” against the attempt to undermine democracy and establish a dictatorship.

One of the central elements of the protest that began with the hitech industry, a key foundation of the Israeli economy, is the concern that if the independent powers of the courts are undermined, Israel will be seen as a less democratic country and its credit rating will go down, foreign investments will decrease, and local capital and skilled workers will begin to leave the country. Even some Likud members are beginning to say “this isn’t what we voted for.” And Tel Aviv and its metropolitan area are very much the basis of the Israeli economy, the people who create the export products and pay the taxes that enable the country to function and flourish. The first small public protest was soon replaced by huge Saturday night protests, originally in two Tel Aviv locations: one organized by the Movement for the Quality of Government in Israel at Habima Square, and the other organized by a coalition of citizen’s initiatives that took place on Kaplan Street opposite the government’s Tel Aviv offices. Eventually the two protests merged, and they grew enormously, week by week, 80,000, 100,000, 150,000, 200,000 and they began spreading to Haifa, Beersheva, Jerusalem, and other cities throughout the county. Soon a midweek “Day of Disruption,” “Day of Resistance to Dictatorship,” and “Day of Increasing the Struggle” were added. It was estimated that a total of 500,000 Israelis participated in the protests held on Saturday night, March 11th. Many Israelis, a majority according to public opinion polls, feel that the very nature of their way of life is being challenged by the extreme right-wing governments’ plans, and people who had never gone to a demonstration before in their lives are now out there in the streets every week.

One of the most interesting and controversial elements of the mass protests is the fact that the waving of Israeli flags has become one its primary symbols. This has never happened before. In recent years, the mass use of Israeli flags was associated only with the annual Flag Day march in the Old City on Jerusalem Day, carried by mainly young settler marauders who harass local Palestinians. Essentially, what the protesters are saying is that we are taking back the flag as a symbol of the democratic country that we want. At the first small demonstration Palestinian flags were raised, symbolizing the need to end the occupation as a basis for defending Israeli democracy. In the subsequent demonstrations, a small group of anti-occupation activists continues to bring Palestinian flags, although this was discouraged by the organizers who felt that it would enable the right to brand the demonstrations as “anti- Israeli.” However, an anti-occupation corner is present at every Tel Aviv demonstration.

There is no question in my mind that the continuation of the occupation of another people, the depriving of basic human rights to the Palestinian people in an apartheid-like situation, is the fundamental cause of the development of antidemocratic trends in Israeli society. In the long run, there is no chance of developing and maintaining democratic norms in Israel without ending the occupation. This has to be based on a joint Jewish Israeli-Palestinian Israeli struggle. Strategically, however, I think it has to be a two-staged struggle. The current protest movement focusses on defending the foundations of democratic, liberal institutions within the State of Israel. The next stage is to promote an end to the occupation as the basis for the possibility of democracy for both Israelis and Palestinians.

This is the first time in Israeli history that a serious discussion about the nature of democracy has begun. Hopefully, it will eventually lead to an understanding about the connection between democracy and the occupation and the need to end the occupation in order to guarantee that Israel become a full-fledged democracy.

Yair Lapid has proposed that the Declaration become a constitutional Basic Law, thus guaranteeing that its principles become the guidelines for Israeli life. He and the Movement for the Quality of Government in Israel have called for the drafting of a Constitution and a Bill of Rights. Politicians are not leading these mass protests, which are organized via various WhatsApp groups, but politics will be needed to resolve the crisis.

It’s not clear how the struggle will be resolved. People frequently refer to “the Tel Aviv bubble,” though that bubble seems to be spreading throughout much of the country. Demography is on the side of the religious right with their large families, though currently the country is split down the middle, and the anti-Netanyahu bloc actually won a slight majority of the popular vote in the last elections. A not insignificant number of the secular and traditional Likud voters are uncomfortable with the current situation as well. According to the polls, 25% are opposed to the judicial revolution, want a stable economy, and don’t want a country run according to Halakhic law. There always remains the option of declaring “the independent state of Tel Aviv,” an idea that was first raised in the 1990s by Tel Aviv Mayor Roni Milo, who grew up in the Likud and left like many of his moderate, liberal colleagues. Out of frustration, some people are suggesting a future cantonization of Israel/Palestine, divided according to ideological, ethnic, religious, and national preferences. In such a scenario, Tel Aviv would be the center of a liberal, secular canton. If a canton arrangement can work well in Switzerland, can it also work in Israel/Palestine?

Meanwhile, Tel Aviv is participating and, in many ways, leading the struggle over the future of the State of Israel.