My friend David Ackerman sent me this photo, a piece of street art or maybe even what some might call graffiti, from Florentin, a neighborhood in South Tel Aviv. That part of the city now enjoys a renaissance, a polite term for formerly not so nice areas which respectable middle-class people avoided, and which now command hefty prices for residential or commercial properties. This phenomenon includes adjacent Neve Tzedek and Yafo. This dynamic challenges many urban areas all over the world. Neighborhoods deteriorate: declining values, crime, drugs, poor schools, lack of commerce, joblessness, and a marked decline of the building stock. The poor get left behind, tied to the area by history and inability to leave.
Then often because of the prime location middle-class pioneers venture in, looking for bargains for themselves. Can these gentrifying neighborhoods manage to hold the older and newer more recent populations? This remains a question mark. The cities renew themselves: they get less dirty, more bright and shiny and fixed up, more prosperous, as populations shift within its confines, some people feeling like the winners, other like the losers.
Israel faces this challenge in its own unique way, given its history. Founded as a "New Society" in Herzl's vision it should and could be both socialist and capitalist, combining the virtues of fairness and freedom, equality and liberty, community and innovation. As Americans we often feel and appreciate the denseness of community life in Israel: the noticeable lack of privacy, the disregard of boundaries, the ways in which kids feel safe in the streets of their neighborhood, the person we barely know lending us a helping hand, and the like.
So the fact that Tel Aviv has become so expensive vexes Israelis. The city bustles, one hears and sees all of the construction and the new office buildings, suggesting the energy of the place, even as it partially conceals the reality that some Israelis feel left behind as others in the society race ahead. Some can afford to move up; others struggle not to fall farther down the ladder.
So this picture fills me with mixed emotions. "If I forget thee, O Jerusalem..." Psalm 137 intones, "let my right hand forget its cunning." The artist knows her Scripture. But then she continues "That would be on account of Tel Aviv." Maybe it's ok to choose Tel Aviv over Jerusalem, the new versus the old, Zionism over Judaism?
The pioneers who built the city named it Tel Aviv in honor of Herzl's utopian novel, Oldnewland, the story of the Zionist building of its new society. They built the first modern Hebrew city. By that logic we should celebrate choosing Tel Aviv over Jerusalem, the present and future over the past of the Jewish people.
Choosing Tel Aviv over Jerusalem puts me in mind of the culturalist stream of Zionist thought, made famous by figures like Ahad Ha'am and Chaim N. Bialik. They fought not so much with the secular socialists as with their rabbinic forebears, who claimed Zionism either ought to be rejected as too modern and secular or made to fit into Torah Judaism. The culturalists insisted Jews and Judaism required regeneration, a new identity and a new culture (as opposed to religion), centering around the modernizing of the Hebrew language and the creation of modern literature and art.
Those sorts of thinkers and activists would have liked this piece of street art I think. Knowledge and love of Jewish tradition and Scripture, combined with the embrace of the new, expressed in a new form and a new space. As a Zionist writer put it, "When someone comes and asks you, 'Where is your Jewish culture?' you will answer, 'What do you mean?' and take him through the streets of Tel Aviv." (Marvin Lowenthal, "This Hebrew Renaissance" )