Tel Aviv - A modern city with an identity crisis

Booking a flight to tel Aviv tells you that you will actually flying to Tel Aviv-Yafo - or the twin cities of Tel Aviv and Jaffa; a bit like Newcastle-Gateshead only more interesting - and marginally warmer. But unlike Newcastle which has roots back almost to Roman times, Tel Aviv is a modern city and has only been with us since 1906 - or 1909, depending upon which date you choose as the point at which a group of Jewish families from Jaffa decided for historical and political reasons, to found a new city on the sand dunes of the Mediterranean coast just north of the 4,000 year-old city.

What most people hear about when they come to Tel Aviv is the wonderful Bauhaus architecture, but there is much more that the powers that be don't particularly want the tourists to notice.

I spent three weeks wandering around the city last year with my partner who, as an ex-resident, knew exactly where to take me and what surprised me most was the fact that there are three Tel Avivs: The picturesque White City, now a UNESCO Heritage area, Ayalon City, the commercial centre by the Ayalon Highway and the less salubrious south Tel Aviv, including the Florentin district with funky cafes and and bars and the maze of small workshops on its periphery where you can still get everything from a pair of shoes to a bespoke sofa or an anodised metal tray made.

In The Language of Cities, Deyan Sudjic says that Tel Aviv was founded; "... by a handful of refugees displaced by European pogroms. They gathered on a beach near Jaffa, drew lots for sites on which to build a home and gave the land a Hebrew name." And this being the early 20th century, there was also a handy photographer nearby to record the historic meeting:

But this is all part of the urban myth surrounding Tel Aviv, which promotes the idea that that the city emerged like a sandy Aphrodite from the barren dunes - a handy metaphor for the clean slate of Theodor Herzl's vision for the creation of Eretz Israel (the Land of Israel), in which a new home for all displaced Jews should rise up from the barren desert.

Zionism was a secular political force established by Theodor Herzl at the end of the 19th century. It was a progressive socialist movement that believed that religious Judaism had reduced the European Jews of the diaspora to a meek and downtrodden people. Herzl and his fellow socialist travellers felt that the only way to achieve a revolution in the Jewish soul was by Jews returning to Israel and creating a new Zion by the sweat of their own brows, and this is how the founding of Tel Aviv is often seen.

What actually happened though, was much more prosaic. Tel Aviv was not created as a kind of Jewish Utopia by the children of the diaspora returning home, as imagined in Thodor Herzl's novel Altneuland. It was founded by a group of middle-class Jews already living there reacting to the influx of immigrants. Something we recognise only too well today.

From the middle of the 19th century, large groups of Jewish immigrants, mainly from Eastern Europe were indeed arriving in Jaffa. This was the so-called second aliyah and the city was becoming massively overcrowded, increasing tensions between Jews and Arabs. A group of families therefore decided to move out of Jaffa and found a new Jewish suburb to be called Ahuzat Bayit, after the name of the neighbourhood association. This was in itself nothing new. At the time, there were already five other Jewish suburbs on the northern outskirts of Jaffa with architecture of a distinctly European style: Neve Tzedek (1887), Neve Shalom (1890) and Mahane Yehuda (1896), Mahane Yosef and Mahane Israel, both from 1904. Ahuzat Bayit was itself founded in 1906 and the fact that they held their lot-drawing meeting on the dunes three years later was possibly just chance, although it was later co-opted as part of the political Zionist narrative and exists today as one of the urban myths surrounding the historical origin of Tel Aviv.

Indeed, the city did not actually get its new name until 1910, even though the founding moment is always cited as April 11, 1909 - probably due to the fortuitous presence of Avram Soskin, who took the iconic photograph.

In his superb book White City, Black City - Architecture and War in Tel Aviv, Sharon Rotbard dissects the relationship between Tel Aviv and Jaffa, suggesting that, since the elevation of the White City to UNESCO World Heritage status, its Bauhaus architecture has been used as a political tool serving the interests of the governmental and by implication, the contemporary Zionist narrative. The 'Black City' refers to Jaffa, although for me, it also includes areas of south Tel Aviv such as Florentin. These are the working-class areas that still feature Bauhaus-style architecture as well as crumbling utilitarian apartment blocks and artisan workshops. On my visit, I became fascinated with these areas that are full of vibrant, creative life. However, it is also noticeable that the developers are getting closer and that is the major reason for initiating 'The Tel Aviv Project', a photo-essay on the disappearing buildings of Tel Aviv. See www.imagesworkplus.co.uk.

phil_curry@icloud.com  Sandwich, UK     +44 (0) 7904270274

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