September 11, 2009

Colonial Tel Aviv

The public letter to the TIFF says

In 2009, TIFF announced that it would inaugurate its new City to City program with a focus on Tel Aviv. According to program notes by Festival co-director and City to City programmer Cameron Bailey, “The ten films in this year’s City to City programme will showcase the complex currents running through today’s Tel Aviv. Celebrating its 100th birthday in 2009, Tel Aviv is a young, dynamic city that, like Toronto, celebrates its diversity.”

The emphasis on ‘diversity’ in City to City is empty given the absence of Palestinian filmmakers in the program. Furthermore, what this description does not say is that Tel Aviv is built on destroyed Palestinian villages, and that the city of Jaffa, Palestine’s main cultural hub until 1948, was annexed to Tel Aviv after the mass exiling of the Palestinian population. This program ignores the suffering of thousands of former residents and descendants of the Tel Aviv/Jaffa area who currently live in refugee camps in the Occupied Territories or who have been dispersed to other countries, including Canada. Looking at modern, sophisticated Tel Aviv without also considering the city’s past and the realities of Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza strip, would be like rhapsodizing about the beauty and elegant lifestyles in white-only Cape Town or Johannesburg during apartheid without acknowledging the corresponding black townships of Khayelitsha and Soweto. ( Indiwire)

That hits home, but there is more. Tel-Aviv has an international reputation based on the myths the tells itself about its own identity and history. Tel-Aviv is the opposite of the settlements, the opposite of crazy Jerusalem, of the fanatics of Hebron, it is an oasis of sanity and tolerance. Meir Wieselthier, an Israeli poet, expressing the “anti-war” Tel-Aviv ethos, once said that he would only take up arms if a foreign army were about to cross the Yarkon (a river at the northern side of Tel-Aviv). The singular most important idea about Tel-Aviv is that it is innocent. It is not on occupied land (it was supposedly built on sandy dunes). It has nothing to do with the fanaticism that drives the violence of the occupation. It is secular, young, hedonistic, worldly and diverse. Perhaps it is a tad too materialistic. But when the alternative is the spirituality of a Baruch Goldstein, even crass materialism looks awfully benign.

It’s a good story with fetching characters. But it is also false. Let’s take the issue of diversity first. Although 20% of Israeli citizens are Palestinians, only 4.2% of Tel-Aviv residents are. For a major city, that is an impressive lack of diversity. Moreover, almost all these Palestinians live in a few segregated neighborhoods in the far end of Jaffa, mostly Ajame. Excluding these marginal and poor neighborhoods at the edge of the city, Tel-Aviv is almost completely free of Arabs. As such, the city no doubt constitutes a demographic miracle. The below-margin-of-error percentage of Arabs in this “diverse,” bustling, Mediterranean metropolis is lower than in Paris, Geneva, London, or Brooklyn.

That "diversity" makes Tel Aviv a rare example of successful ethnic cleansing. Until its destruction, Jaffa was an important hub city in the Arab Mediterranean. Today it is home to less than 1% of Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, a marginal and isolated community. Jaffa was conquered by the Jewish paramilitary organizations in 1948 and over 60,000 of its residents were forced to leave as as a result of the shelling of the city. They were literally “thrown into the sea” and had to sail, mostly to Gaza. The conquerors then proceeded to bulldoze 75% of the city. The Ajame and Jebaliah neighborhoods were left standing, with less than 4,000 Palestinians allowed to remain. The area was left to deteriorate and become a dumping ground for municipal waste and a zone for crime and drugs. Moreover, the houses were confiscated and the remaining Palestinians became tenants of the state housing agency, Amidar, which neglected the properties and even refused to let the residents upgrade them on their own. The final turn of the screw in this cruel tale came with the new millennium. As Tel Aviv enjoyed a finance driven speculative real-estate boom, Ajame became attractive for real-estate developers. The obstacle was, of course, how to get rid of existing tenants. Amidar’s ingenious solution was to impose fines on the tenants for illegally upgrading and repairing their homes, and then offer to forgive the debt in return for evacuation. (See Jonathan Cook, Jaffa Renewal plan aims at eviction)

Another part of town, the Old City, ethnically cleansed to the last, and most of its urban space destroyed, leaving only the outer wall and a few Christian landmarks, was turned into a touristic and nightlife attraction. The original Arab street names have been erased, and the Tel-Aviv municipality is happy to let you know that “the alleys of Old Jaffa are named after the signs of the Zodiac and it is possible to find there artists galleries and Judaica shops, jewelry and art from top ranking artists”.( Read that touristic blurb in vain for any mention of Jaffa’s past and its demise. Napoleon’s visit is the only historical event worthy of the tourist’s knowledge; the mark of the fleeting footsteps of a great White Man being more important than the whole of local history. Not mentioned is that Napoleon’s stay included a thirty hour long butchery and rape of the local civilian population followed by the massacre of 4.500 prisoners of war. That is not history, apparently since it did not happen to European Jews.

The artist galleries, property of dispossessed Palestinians, were distributed by the state to Israeli artists. You need to file an application to get one. This is one of the ways in which the intellectuals and bohemians of Tel-Aviv have been inducted, made accomplices in the ethnic cleansing of Palestine and given a solid stake in the preservation of a Jewish State. Sooner or later someone will make a list of these towering moral lights, most of them probably self-identifying as members of the “peace camp”, who accepted these gifts. But I’ll mention one famous name as an emblem. Dan Ben-Amotz was a first generation bohemian and writer (he was member of the elite Palmach unit in 1948) who in many ways typified the secular Tel-Aviv-ish brand identity and even played an important role in fashioning it. He was a handsome celebrity, went to Hollywood, befriended Marlon Brando, acted in Israeli films, including one of the most critical ever made in Israel about Zionism (Uri Zohar’s A Hole in the Moon), wrote long profane novels about his sexual exploits, pioneered the Tel Aviv nightlife and club scene, studied Hebrew slang and profanities, was “anti-war” before it was fashionable, ridiculed Israel’s shibboleths in the name of individual expression and put the ‘carnal’ in “make love not war.” Nationalist and religious fanaticism was as meaningful to his persona as coconuts are to the Inuit diet. His first wife was Christian and his signature dress code was an Arab galabiyeh. In addition to being a fixture of Tel-Aviv and a symbol of its anarchic and individualistic streak, Ben-Amotz also took part in creating the Tel-Aviv myth. In 1980 he co-wrote a play that celebrated the establishment of first “Hebrew City.” Yosef Rachelski, an Israeli cultural critic, called him one of the two most influential cultural icons of Israel in the late sixties, the other being Moshe Dayan.

Ben-Amotz lived in an Arab house in Old Jaffa overlooking the mediterranean sea; he also owned valuable commercial property in the area that the conquerors destroyed. After his death a scandal broke out involving rumors about his sexual mores, not always consensual. But there was never a scandal about his real estate transactions, also apparently not always consensual. Ben Amotz’s irreverent and insouciant enjoyment of the racist order he mocked is a symbol of secular and fun loving Tel-Aviv’s relation to the apartheid system of israel.

As architect Sharon Rotbard, who wrote a magisterial book excavating Tel-Aviv's hidden story, and whose insights I plunder here with abandon, claims,

Tel aviv was not born from the sand. It was born in Jaffa. Yet, its attitude to Jaffa reminds one of the Christian attitude to Judaism, including contradictory violent elements of birth and matricide, continuity and separation, inheritance and appropriation, erasure and masking, guilt and exculpation. From the moment the first Jewish neighborhood Neve Tzedek was born from the womb of the “Bride of the Sea,” in the eighties of the nineteenth century, Tel-Aviv never ceased to flee from Jaffa and to persecute Jaffa. The war of [creating a] “white city,” over conquering the symbolic and historic space of the metropolis, is the war of Tel-Aviv against Jaffa and her biological daughters and step-daughter….to create that Tel-Aviv of street and grocery shop and invent the normality of a house, a courtyard and a staircase, Tel-Aviv eradicated a whole [urban] space. It conquered Jaffa and her daughters, emptied them of their residents, eradicated neighborhoods, villages, roads and landscapes, destroyed places, houses, streets, public monuments…In doing so, Tel-Aviv erased the memory of Jaffa. The war did not end with the 1948 conquest and exile of the residents. It continues to this very day. Although Jaffa is a dead city, Tel-Aviv still tortures her corpse…From its inception as a city separate from Jaffa, and in its cultural, ethnic and now historical construction as a “white city,” Tel-Aviv constituted itself through its opposition to Jaffa, as separation from Jaffa, as the dialectical negation of Jaffa. For Jaffa, this dialectic relation was no less fateful. While Tel-Aviv built and wrote itself, it also destroyed and erased Jaffa, fashioning it as its own negation – a city of the night, neglected, criminal, dirty, derelict, and black. (White City Black City [Hebrew], p.126 )

Finally, there is the question of dates and origins. Where to begin? What to choose as year zero? What does it mean, for example, to tell the history of the Americas from 1492? What is the meaning of 1909 as the date of the “beginning” of Tel Aviv? What exactly was born in 1909? Was it the point of departure of the urban habitat that is today Tel-Aviv-Yafo? No, since Jaffa has always been there, and Jaffa has been included in Tel-Aviv-Yafo, the history of urbanism in the area does not start in 1909. Was it the beginning of Jewish habitation? No. Leaving aside why a “diverse” modern city should be celebrated based of a single ethnic identity, Jews have always been residents of Jaffa. Was it then the first organized Jewish settlement in the area? No. Neve Tzedek was established in 1887 by Palestinian Jews from Jaffa. Kerem Hateimanim was established in 1905. Jews from Jaffa and from Yemen established Jewish neighborhoods near Jaffa because Jaffa was overcrowded. These Jewish suburbs of Jaffa were incorporated later into Tel-Aviv and allowed to become derelict slums as symbolic punishment for their guilty proximity to Jaffa, geographically as well as culturally. In the same period Muslims established a largely Muslim neighborhood to the north of Jaffa, Manshiyeh, that was completely erased in 1947 (a single mosque is all that remains today, near a parking lot called "the conquerors").

1909 is an arbitrary date, chosen, according to Sharon Rotbard, mostly because of the convenient existence of a commemorative photograph of the land ruffle for the establishment of the neighborhood Ahuzat-Bait. What distinguishes this neighborhood, not only from Jaffa and the Palestinian villages but also from the older Jewish neighborhoods, is that it was established by white European Jews. It is on the basis of this distinction that the history of Tel-Aviv was written and transformed into a myth of a city created on sands, separate from the natives, and therefore paradoxically pure and innocent of the bloody history of apartheid. The principles of segregation that would lead to an apartheid regime thus becomes the foundation of the claim of innocence relative to that apartheid. Tel-Aviv is innocent because it is a pure European city! Events celebrating the 1909 birth of Tel-Aviv are thus not only inappropriate homage to the financial capital of an apartheid state. They are not only attempts to white wash the massacre of Gaza. They are also opportunities for legitimizing colonialism through the commemoration of the arrival of white Europeans to the orient. By celebrating Tel-Aviv, and especially by claiming the right to separate the city from the conflict and thus confirm its image of innocence and “diversity”, Western curators are able to pay homage to colonialism and justify its role in their own societies.

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