While Mayor Olmert is trying to make a big deal out of the 3000th
anniver¬sary of Jewish Jerusalem in 1996, his ultra-Orthodox
coalition partners claim that, according to their mathematics, the
extravaganza is premature by at least 100 years. And Abba Eban
recalls that the "3000th Anniversary" was celebrated once before,
back in the 50's, as a clever fund-raising gimmick.
The average Tel Avivian's response to all of this hullabaloo is -
who cares? It's all much ado about nothing.
We all know that Tel Aviv is the real capital of modem Israel, the
center of life, commerce and culture. And while Jerusalem
officially has more res¬idents than Tel Aviv, 579,200
(including 160,000 Palestinians in East Jerusalem) as compared to
355,800, according to the 1994 statistics, Gush Dan (the Dan
Bloc) or Metropolitan Tel Aviv, which includes Tel Aviv-¬Jaffa
(the city's official name), Ramat Gan, Holon, Bat Yam, etc., has
over 1.5 million residents going on 2 million.
Looking backward, we can note that Jerusalem played a minimal role
in the Zionist ethos. Theodor Herzl, the father of modem Zionism,
didn't mention Jerusalem even once in his classic work Der
Judenstaat (The State of the Jews, usually referred to as
The Jewish State, 1896) which was his blueprint for the
establishment of the future state of Israel.
The great early Zionist thinker Ahad Ha'am preferred to live in Tel
Aviv. So did Chaim Nahman Bialik, the first national poet, who
lived on Bialik Street. The State of Israel was officially declared
by David Ben-Gurion in 1948 at the Tel Aviv Museum, and the first
Knesset held its sessions in Tel Aviv. Though Jerusalem was
officially declared the capital in 1948, the Knesset was only
transferred to the city at the end of 1949, as a measure to block a
U.N. attempt to implement the internationalization of Jerusalem
called for by the 1947 Partition Plan.
Ben-Gurion himself never had a great love affair with Jerusalem,
and when he retired, he moved to Kibbutz Sdeh Boker, a symbolic
expression of his belief in the importance of the development of
the Negev desert. Chaim Weizmann, the first president, retired to
Rehovot, site of the Weizmann Institute of Science.
Even Menachem Begin claimed that he would eventually retire to a
set¬tlement in the Sinai (though when the time carne, Sinai
had already been returned to Egypt). Begin was the only Israeli
prime minister who had a private home in Jerusalem. All of the
others lived or live in Tel Aviv.
It's not that I am totally cold and insensitive towards Jerusalem.
I actu¬ally lived there for half a year before the Six Day
War. At the time, West Jerusalem was a sleepy townlet that could be
easily traversed almost in its entirety on foot, distinctly
characterized by its warm "Jerusalem stone" houses. Everything
gravitated towards "The Triangle," the meeting point of King George
Street, Ben Yehuda Street and Jaffa Road in the center of town,
near the quaint old central bus station. It was a divided city,
with snipers on the border rooftops behind the sandbags, the
Mandelbaum Gate, and no Jewish access to the Old City. It was a
Then came the 1967 war; the walls carne down, and there was a
momen¬tary exhilaration created by the sudden access to all
forbidden locations that lay on the other side of the barrier - the
Wall, the beautiful Mosque of Omar on the Temple Mount, the Church
of the Holy Sepulcher, and the colorful aromatic labyrinth of the
multitude of stalls in the Old City souk. At first, it was a
kaleidoscopic circus of sights and sounds, a mixture of
sol¬diers, civilians, Arabs, Jews, tourists, hippies and
always a sprinkling of Biblical-looking prophetic Jesus/Moses-like
figures. I remember wander¬ing around the empty streets of the
Old City late at night, hunting for the fabled Danish Tea House
where young Palestinians from a traditionally conservative society,
who had suddenly been exposed to the enticing free¬dom of
young Israeli women and tourists in mini-skirts and halter-tops,
would be dancing to James Brown's "Sex Machine."
A City of Extremes
But then it all began to change. A conscious effort was made to
"Judaize" the entire city, the houses in front of the Wall were
torn down, the Jewish Quarter in the Old City was rebuilt and
expanded, and new neighbor¬hoods were built to encircle the
Arab side of Jerusalem.
And as Palestinian nationalism grew stronger, a conflict
crystallized between Jews and Arabs over the future of the city.
The officially unilaterally united city (by Jews in 1967) became
unofficially divided once again, and like many Israelis, my visits
to the Old City dwindled, and after the outbreak of the Intifada,
came to a virtual halt. It's getting harder and harder to find
Jewish taxi drivers who are ready to make the 10-minute ride to
During the same period, a sub-conflict began to evolve in West
Jerusalem between religious and secular Jews which also affected
the image of the city in the eyes of Tel Avivians. As long as
tolerant Teddy Kollek reigned as mayor of Jerusalem (for 27 years),
this conflict was rela¬tively contained. The victory of the
Likud's Ehud Olmert in 1992, and the fact that he owes his success
to a deal with the ultra-Orthodox forces in the city, seems to have
confirmed and reinforced the dangers facing Jewish Jerusalem as an
open, pluralistic and tolerant city.
In the past 10 to 15 years, literally tens of thousands of secular,
mainly younger Jews, have fled Jerusalem, opting primarily for the
freedoms of Tel Aviv. Today Jerusalem looks to me like a city of
extremes, while Tel Aviv is an open, Mediterranean
It's interesting to compare the major plazas in the two cities. I
consider the Kings of Israel Square in front of Tel Aviv City Hall
one of the bastions of Israeli democracy, where workers and the
disadvantaged gather to call for their rights, and the peace
movement masses to protest (400,000 Israelis after the Sabra and
Shatila massacre in Lebanon in 1982) and celebrate (100,000
Israelis after the signing of the Oslo accords), a center for
periodic progressive bonding. The Square is also the focal point
for the annual Independence Day festivities, the annual Hebrew Book
Fair week and var¬ious holiday celebrations as well.
The Jerusalem version of a mass gathering place is the sterile
plaza in front of the Wall, which serves as a weekly gathering
place for the Jewish settlers' nationalist activities and their
ilk, a center for religious-nationalist bonding.
Generous Tel Aviv
I don't want to be misunderstood. I have many progressive and
liberal Jerusalemite friends who are totally devoted to the future
of Jerusalem, and I recognize the city's beauty and
multidimensionality. I respect the reli¬gious attachment of
the Jews, Christians and Muslims to the holy places in the Old
City, and hope and believe that a solution will be found that will
ensure that Jerusalem will remain open and united, a solution that
will provide expression for both Israeli and Palestinian national
aspirations. And there are many spots in Jerusalem that I'm drawn
to, like the Van Leer Institute, the Israel Museum, the Knesset,
the Givat Ram Campus of the Hebrew University, the Cinematheque,
the Khan Theater, the Sultan's Pool, the American Colony Hotel, Ein
Karem, the Katamon and German Colony neighborhoods where I lived,
and so on.
Going back to founding father Herzl, he didn't ignore Jerusalem. In
his utopian novel Altneuland (Old-Newland), Herzl had
nothing but con tempt for the old Jerusalem that he found on his
visit to the land of his fore¬fathers. His characters
encountered "shouts, smells, tawdry colors, peoples in rags
crowding the narrow, airless streets, beggars, cripples, starving
children, screaming women, bellowing shopkeepers ... The once royal
city had indeed sunk to the lowest depths ... [Then they] came to a
wretched alley flanked by the Wailing Wall. The nauseating sight of
the beggars ostentatiously mumbling their prayers shocked them."
"Nothing remains of the Jewish State," says his character
Friedrich, "but a bit of the ancient temple wall. And however
deeply I probe into my racial subconscious, I still fail to find
anything that I have in common with these degenerate exploiters of
our national mourning."
Yet Herzl did see a place for Jerusalem in the New Society of his
revived Jewish State. It featured a major Court Theater which
hosted festivals (the annual Jerusalem Festival?), "the greatest
eye-clinic in the world ... [which] has been an inestimable benefit
to all Oriental countries. Patients come there (to Hadassah
Hospital?) from all over Asia, and from North Africa."
There was even room for a "newly rebuilt Temple" in the new city of
Jerusalem, in Herzl's vision. The Old City, with the Church of the
Holy Sepulcher, the Mosque of Omar on the Temple Mount and the
Western Wall were to remain as he found them. The new Temple was to
be built in the new city because" only here (in the New Society)
had the Jews developed a free commonwealth in which they could work
for the good of mankind."
Meanwhile, Jerusalem is a wonderful place to visit (as long as it's
not on a Saturday on a street where ultra-Orthodox Jews throw rocks
at drivers who dare to "desecrate" the Sabbath on the only weekend
day of rest and pleasure available to the average Israeli).
Tel Aviv is the place to live. And it's a generous place too.
Realizing that Jerusalemites are landlocked, we even gave them a
beach, Hof Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Beach) at the end of
Allenby Street opposite the Opera Tower, the site of the first
Knesset, just a five-minute walk from my apartment.