By Abe Hayeem, The Guardian – 13 Oct 2009
The glitzy celebrations for the White City’s ‘centenary’ airbrush over a complex history of colonialism
The centenary of Tel Aviv, a city said to date from 1909, has provided a useful opportunity to present the face of Israel as a hip country built by Jewish pioneers on empty sands. Its vibrant cosmopolitan flavour, its commercial centre, its Mediterranean beaches, its liberal society and culture, are seen as signifying a truly commendable Zionist enterprise. According to the blurb on the centenary celebrations “several dozen families gathered on the sand dunes on the beach outside Yafo to allocate plots of land for a new neighbourhood they called Ahuzat Bayit, later known as Tel Aviv”.
After the horrors of the Gaza onslaught and unending blockade, and the evidence of war crimes committed by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) early this year (which Israel has responded to with hysterical denial) no effort has been spared by the Israeli embassy and its propaganda machines to deflect the attention of the world to Israel’s marvellous technical and medical discoveries, and to use Tel Aviv to present its upbeat image. Hence Tel Aviv festivities were organised in New York, Vienna, Copenhagen and Paris, with the creation of Tel Aviv beaches in Central Park and along the banks of the Seine, the Danube and Copenhagen’s canals.
In London this week, the Israeli embassy teams up with easyJet to promote its new flights to Tel Aviv with a series of events around London to provide “a sweet taste of Israel’s 24-hour city” as a “celebration of Israeli culture, which includes the valuable contribution from many minorities in Israel, such as Christians, Muslims and Druze”.
While there is much on the surface that makes Tel Aviv enticing, this picture must be not be allowed to mask the dark underlying history of ethnic cleansing and land expropriation on which Tel Aviv was built, and that still continues today, even in Jaffa, while savouring the Israeli food and the Bauhaus architecture. In fact, the whole myth of Tel Aviv being built on empty sand dunes has been taken apart by various Israeli scholars, but none of this will feature in the promotional events.
As Yonathan Mendel says in his article “Fantasising Israel” in the London Review of books:
It [Tel Aviv] didn’t just emerge from the sand in 1909, as the Zionist myth tells us. Al-Sumayil, Salame, Sheikh Munis, Abu Kabir, Al-Manshiyeh: these are the names of some of the villages that made room for it and the names are still used today. Tel Avivians still talk about the Abu Kabir neighbourhood, they still meet on Salame Street. Tel Aviv University Faculty Club used to be the house of the sheikh of Sheikh Munis.
The Israeli organisation Zochrot has published maps of Tel Aviv showing where Arab localities existed, particularly in Jaffa and its suburbs to the south, and in smaller villages east and north of the city, but which have been erased from maps of the region and its posted signs.
Initially Tel Aviv in its infancy was an adjunct of Jaffa, which Mendel says:
was probably the most prosperous and cosmopolitan of all Palestinian cities, with a port, an industry (Jaffa oranges), an international school system and a lively cultural life. In 1949, after Jaffa had been almost completely emptied of its Palestinian inhabitants (only 4,000 were left out of a population of 70,000), the Israeli government decided to unite the two cities in one metropolis, to be called ‘Tel Aviv-Jaffa’. In doing this, Ben-Gurion not only created a new Tel Aviv that was ‘part of’ biblical Jaffa, he erased the Palestinian city.
The city was subject to intensive shelling in 1948, when more than 60,000 of its residents were forced to leave – mostly fleeing to Gaza. Seventy-five per cent of the city was bulldozed, leaving only 4,000 Palestinians in the now run-down Ajame and Jabaliah neighbourhoods, which in fact today are the subject of intended clearance by the Amidar corporation, who have imposed fines on the residents for “illegally” improving their houses when they had refused to allow them to upgrade
What will be built in their place is luxurious real estate at fantastic prices beyond the reach of the existing inhabitants. Jaffa today has been turned into a picturesque artists’ colony, in the houses expropriated from their Palestinian owners.
Distant from the portrayal of Tel Aviv as a beautiful cultural city is its significance as the centre for the Israeli military and military research in an area called HaKirya, where the IDF has had its headquarters since it was founded in 1948. In addition to occupying large areas in the heart of Tel Aviv it accommodates the Israeli military deep underground, where the pre-planning and the daily orders for the assaults on Gaza were made.
This supposed “mixed city” of Tel-Aviv/Yafo (even the name Jaffa is not used) has only 4.2% Palestinian residents, compared with the 20% of Israel’s wider population – hardly an indication of the city’s vaunted “diversity”. In fact, as the author and architect Sharon Rotbard has pointed out, Jaffa existed before 1909 as mainly Arab, but in fact a mixed city, with many Palestinian Jews in suburbs established in 1887 and 1905. The new Tel Aviv was established by white European Jews, and thus, as Gabriel Ash says the centennial “is legitimising colonialism through the commemoration of the arrival of white Europeans to the orient”.
The American historian VG Smith comments on Tel Aviv’s Bauhaus architecture:
The myth of Tel Aviv as ‘the White City’ rests on the importation of style characteristics from European Modernism into Israel … and can be understood as a vocabulary of forms or as a social movement to achieve a better life through architecture. To mimic International Style characteristics is as false as the nation’s imitation of a modern state.
As an open letter put it last month, protesting at Toronto International Film Festival’s decision to spotlight Tel Aviv:
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 rhapsodising 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.
Abe Hayeem is an architect, peace activist and founder member of Architects & Planners for Justice in Palestine. He has written for the Guardian’s ‘Comment is Free,’ Architecture Week, Building Design, Palestine News, Red Pepper, and the IOA.