Dark Secrets of the White City

"Whorehouse," the neighborhood children scrawled on the wall of Rachel S.' home at 13 Hayarden Street in Tel Aviv. For three-and-a-half years the neighbors waged a stubborn struggle, sparing no invective, against her. They kept her apartment under constant surveillance and fired off letters of complaint to the Committee for the Protection of the Honor of the Daughters of Israel, which was founded under the aegis of the municipal rabbinate in 1942. According to the neighbors, Rachel was providing sexual services in her first-floor apartment.

Rachel S. immigrated to Palestine from Eastern Europe in 1925. She owned a taxi, which she received in a divorce settlement. The taxi was leased to a Russian-born bachelor for 20 Palestine pounds a month. She was 37 and fluent in several languages, including Russian, German and French. In April 1941, the District Court fined her 20 Palestine pounds for maintaining a house of prostitution in another apartment, which she was renting. But the neighbors on Hayarden Street insisted that she was running a brothel there, too - a charge she and her fiance denied vehemently. The Committee for the Protection of the Honor of the Daughters of Israel ran an investigative service, which looked into complaints of city residents against women and sent warning letters: "Close relations with foreigners are a slope down, which a young Jewish woman sometimes slides without feeling the slow but sure fall. Forming ties, laughter, excessive closeness, debauchery and finally failure: These are the stages she descends, one by one, unaware, a pure and innocent daughter of Israel, until the disgrace or the apostasy."

Nissim Saadia, assigned by the committee to examine Rachel's case, wrote: "After investigating the matter, it became clear to me that the above- mentioned is continuing her depravity in her apartment and outside it as well. Many soldiers pay her frequent visits ... Most of the visits take place on Saturday night and on Sunday evening. The woman in question is connected with other prostitutes in her apartment and also outside it."

The neighbors tried every tactic to get Rachel removed from her home. They continued to send virulent letters to the committee, harassed her, pasted a photograph of an Australian soldier on her front door and put condoms on top of her electricity meter. The committee demanded that the landlord evict her. But Rachel did not give up. In a letter she herself sent to the committee, she declared that she did not engage in prostitution and described how "bad things of men" had been placed next to her door and on her windowsills. She hinted at her difficult past and wrote that she hoped she would be allowed to lead a decent family life. But nothing changed.

About a year and a half later, as the neighbors' complaints continued unabated, the investigator M. Pickholtz reported that Rachel was continuing to host men, including soldiers. The local children kept scrawling "whorehouse" on the wall and she kept washing the writing off. The neighbors constantly complained about drunken soldiers who loitered in the building and bothered every girl who entered.

What became of Rachel S. and the other women whose stories are told in a new book by Dr. Deborah Bernstein, "Women on the Margins: Gender and Nationalism in Mandate Tel Aviv" (Yad Ben-Zvi, in Hebrew)? Did they rehabilitate themselves? Did they survive the vicious harassment? Bernstein - whose book examines the history of migrant women in the backyard of Tel Aviv-Jaffa, including the phenomenon of prostitution during the British Mandate period - reveals only the women's first names and the first letter of their surname, even though all the information is accessible in the municipal archives, together with all the correspondence concerning the prostitutes.

"I did not try to locate the women, and I decided not to use full names. What would I now ask a woman who would probably be over 80: 'Did you run a brothel, and what circumstances led you to do that?'" she asks.

Bernstein investigates the unknown margins of the first Hebrew city from a gender-based standpoint. One of the stories in her book, she notes, is "about a girl who found herself pregnant. The man disappeared and she went to different officials in the municipality saying that she was looking for Yoshke, but didn't know much about him. Women had nowhere to turn. There were no social-welfare institutions. Women did not always have money to pay the membership fees for the Histadrut [labor federation]. Unemployment was rife, so it was hard to find work, and it was hard to find a place to live; women often shared an apartment with other women. It was so hard to be a girl on your own that women looked for an anchor in marriage - that was the avocation."

A major theme of her research, Bernstein emphasizes, concerns the way the women coped with their loneliness. "The book casts a harsh, withering light on the difficulty of being a migrant woman in Tel Aviv. It was not just a matter of loneliness, but also of foreignness in an unfamiliar world in which the rules of the game were not known. I tell the stories of what happened to some young women between 1937 and 1945, when they strayed from the straight-and-narrow and crossed the boundaries of the national collective. Most of the stories began with innocence, naivete, youthful joie de vivre and a longing for love, but ended in degeneration, prostitution, madness and suicide."

An example is the story of "Crazy Pnina," which was reported in Special Edition, a 1930s tabloid. In 1928, Pnina lived in a hovel not far from today's Dizengoff Square. She was a healthy young woman, dark-skinned and beautiful, who had come from Russia to a village in Galilee. She fell in love with a pioneer and the two lived together, but when he found out she was pregnant, he fled. Pnina moved to the city, but could not find a job, fell into prostitution and lost her mind.

This is a book about Tel Aviv, Bernstein says, but one whose boundaries are amorphous and whose edges are no less fascinating than its center. The prostitution theme enables the researcher to recast Tel Aviv as a migrant city, characterized by salient urban features from its inception.

'How great is our shame'

Tel Aviv was created from a cluster of neighborhoods established by Jews north of Jaffa, from the end of the 19th century onward. Ahuzat Bayit, which is officially considered the first neighborhood, built in 1909, was actually preceded by 11 other neighborhoods. Under Ottoman rule, which preceded the British Mandate in Palestine, prostitution was confined to a particular area in Jaffa, where licensed brothels were established. During World War II, British Army authorities opened brothels in Jaffa to satisfy soldiers' needs. Bernstein writes that from the first months of British civilian rule in Palestine, following the Ottoman defeat in World War I, prostitution also existed along the seam between Tel Aviv and Jaffa, on the Jaffa-Tel Aviv road and in the Neveh Shalom neighborhood. In September 1920, the Jaffa rabbinate asked the district governor to close down the brothels.

A letter of complaint to the rabbis of Jaffa stated: "I work in Jaffa. Every day, on my way to work, I have to go through an Arab neighborhood ... To my great astonishment, I saw that these streets are full of brothels. I have learned, your honors, that there are among them many Jewish [Sephardi] women, heaven forbid, who live there with their husbands and children, and Arabs come and go. Oh, how great is our shame! I saw that there are Jewish women like this who are prostitutes ..."

In her research, Bernstein found neighbors' complaints about brothels in Tel Aviv neighborhoods close to Jaffa - Kerem Hateimanin, Neveh Shalom - and on streets in the area: Shabazi, Chelouche and Salameh. During the Arab-Jewish battles of 1947-1948, houses of prostitution continued to operate along the road from Jaffa to Tel Aviv - "so much so that it is impossible to walk there after dark," local residents wrote. In time, the brothels spread northward, to Allenby Road and adjacent streets. Neighbors complained that sexual services were being offered in cafes on King George, Rashi and Rabbi Kook Streets. The phenomenon was also rampant along the boardwalk and on adjacent Hayarkon Street.

"There were double standards," Bernstein explains. "I interviewed a man who told me about his younger days: how on the one hand he and his friends went to prostitutes on the border with Jaffa, while on the other hand with a girlfriend, the boundaries were clear. Walking hand in hand on the street, for example, necessitated marriage. So where could a young man like that go for a release?

"Another side of the story is the girls who went with British soldiers because they liked to have a good time, and enjoyed being courted or being given a pair of nylons as a gift. They were not prostitutes, but in the eye of the beholder this was a breach of the moral boundaries. In the eyes of contemporaries, to go out with British soldiers was depraved."

The criminal code did not forbid a woman from engaging in prostitution at her place of residence, if she lived alone. However, in short order the rented room stopped being private territory. Overcrowding and the propensity for prying into other people's affairs gave rise to what Bernstein calls "social supervision."

Bernstein: "That is an abstract word, because social supervision occurs both when the neighbors peep at you through the window, or when someone takes the trouble to write to the Committee for the Protection of the Honor of the Daughters of Israel that so-and-so's daughters are going out with British soldiers. It also involves norms concerning how to dress and who you can socialize with and what language you will speak. That is the other side of nation-building: to assert what is prohibited and what is permitted."

It sounds like hell.

"It is not yet hell - it is part of life. Hell, from my viewpoint, is a girl who ends up working in a brothel, and we don't know how she survived and what it did to her health. I should note that the reason the book focuses on Tel Aviv is that there is a good archive there. In Haifa, for example, there was a lot of prostitution, but there is no documentation."

The voices of the women are not heard in the book. Did you choose to be their voice?

"In a certain sense, yes. I wanted to show unknown scenes from the lives of women. I wanted to tell this story, which is part of the historical story of Tel Aviv and of Israeli society. At the same time, I was careful not to penetrate the realm of what they thought or felt, or why they did what they did. I have nothing concrete to hold onto here - it has nothing to do with 'academic caution.' Many researchers take texts and give them an interpretation. I chose not to do that out of a sense of respect. I could not offer an interpretation of what women did in conditions of distress.

"People fled from Europe. A substantial portion of the people in the Fourth and Fifth Aliyot [the waves of immigration in the 1920s and 1930s] arrived after fictitious marriages. For example, I have a document, which was not included in the book, about a young man in 1937, who saved up each penny so that a friend in Europe would marry his fiancee and bring her to Palestine. The money was stolen, and we have no idea what happened to the young woman, who remained in Poland. I read the document and my heart starts pounding. On the other hand, there were young women here who had no idea what happened to their families in Europe.

"There is an abundance of letters to the Tel Aviv municipality complaining about noise being made by neighbors. People arrived from Germany in the mid-1930s and found themselves in the Levant. They suffered from the heat and the dampness, and opened their windows and everything around them was blowing up. I tried to reconstruct that world, and the readers will go forward and arrive on their own at the emotional place - precisely where I stopped."


Missing from Bernstein's book are the familiar institutions, the political parties and even the employment bureau. Nor were the Bohemian cafes of interest to her. Her focus is residential homes or the cafes on the boundary of Tel Aviv and Jaffa that featured cabaret performances. There is virtually no visual documentation of these establishments - they were not exactly the pride of the so-called "White City." Jaffa itself was off-limits to decent young Jewish girls.

One of the most powerful stories in the book is about the cafe run by Yosef and Simha Batito, Jaffa residents who originally made a living from Yosef's profession as a tailor. After his stores were burned down during the Arab Revolt, which began in 1936, Batito decided to reestablish himself in Tel Aviv. He filed a request with the municipality's licensing department to open a cafe at 16 Yehuda Halevi Street, which would serve oriental dishes. The place thrived, and clients recommended it to their friends because of its cleanliness and the quality of its food. But neighbors complained to the municipality about the abomination of the restaurant of "Yosef Batito the Sephardi." In actual fact, they claimed, the place was a brothel and the very incarnation of everything they associated with the Orient: dirt, noise, pungent aromas, Arab music, lascivious sexuality and moral depravity: "In the greatest filth imaginable, with hands contaminated by pitch and mud, and with germs of the females from Jaffa, he fries the meat ... Commerce in live merchandise is conducted with the aid of pimps even in the middle of the day," and so on.

The Tel Aviv you describe was racist, hypocritical and moralistic.

"Yes, though I hesitate, because 'racism' is a tag. The city's residents espoused a distinctly Eurocentric worldview: The immigrants came from Europe and were deeply immersed in its culture. The Europe of that period was, as we know, racist. They came from a moralistic world and activated it here. From that point of view, the description is correct. A culture developed here that was a compound of moralism, racism and a double standard. But one has to understand the historical context. People did not come from Europe as a 'blank slate.' The story of Batito's cafe reflects the total unwillingness to accept an element that was identified with Orientalism or Arabism. Encounters between Jewish women and foreigners were absolutely rejected - and the foreigners in question were not only foreign troops, but also Arabs. Every such encounter was considered a breach of morals in the sense of the woman's prostituting herself, and of course a breach of boundaries.

"The Batito story proves that not everyone remained in that camp. People came to his establishment because they enjoyed themselves, and nowhere is it stated that the cafe was closed down - despite the large number of complaints. The cafes were a locale where intimacy occurred. But the rules of the game were fluid: One could sit and drink, but there were also dark corners for meetings with foreigners. The cafe, then, was a familiar place, but also a suspect one; a place that had to be kept under observation."


Prof. Deborah Bernstein has been teaching in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Haifa since 1976. For years she has been researching the status of women in Israeli society. She was born in Chicago in 1944. Her family arrived in the United States in the wave of immigration from Russia and Eastern Europe in 1881. Her father, Herbert Bernstein, a chemist, went to Palestine with his wife, Sylvia, and their daughter in 1947, and worked at the Daniel Sieff Research Institute in Rehovot (which became the Weizmann Institute of Science in 1949). Three years later, the family moved to Haifa, where Herbert established a chemicals plant. Debbie attended the prestigious Reali School in Haifa. Her brother, Arik Bernstein, a film producer, was born in 1952. She served in the Nahal paramilitary brigade, and remained on Kibbutz Revivim, in the Negev, to which her Nahal core group was posted, for two years after her discharge.

She then obtained a B.A. and an M.A. in sociology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She wrote her doctoral thesis on the Black Panthers - the Israeli social protest movement - in 1971-72, at the height of their activism. The thesis was completed in England, at the University of Sussex, Brighton. There she found an academic world radically different from the one she had known in Israel. "In England I encountered Marxist and neo-Marxist theories," she says. "It was a world that integrated sociology, history and philosophy."

The newly published book is the third she has written. Her first, "The Struggle for Equality: Urban Women Workers in Prestate Israeli Society" (Praeger Books, 1986), was the first study by an Israeli scholar to examine efforts made during 1919-1939 by city- dwelling women in the Jewish community of Palestine to breach traditional divisions in the realms of work, family and political-movement activity. Her second book, "Constructing Boundaries: Jewish and Arab Workers in Mandatory Palestine" (State University of New York Press, 2000), focuses on labor relations in Haifa during the period of the British Mandate. She wrote the book in cafes in Hadera, where she lives in a detached home (in the acknowledgments, she thanks the waitresses in three cafes where she hung out to write the study). "My studies combine basic sociological concepts of power, inequality, social stratification and gender with my powerful desire to tell a new historical story, which I call social history. My projects describe social strata that are not part of the leadership, and they do not deal with elites."

Her newest work is dedicated to her longtime partner, Yosef Shem Tov, who died last summer, and to their son, Yotam, 23. Shem Tov was one of the leaders of the first ethnic uprising in Israel, the Wadi Salib revolt. In fact, he was the "defense minister" of the revolt, which takes its name from a small, narrow street in lower Haifa. The uprising erupted in July 1959 under the leadership of David Ben Harush. In the book's foreword, Bernstein also thanks Shem Tov's first wife, Hanna Shem Tov Stern (who met Yosef while covering the Wadi Sali events for the newspaper of the Israel Communist Party). Hanna, who is friends with Bernstein, is the mother of Shem Tov's two other children; they are all one big, warm family.

Shem Tov was a crane operator in Haifa until his retirement. He was an unusual person, a Bohemian, with a wide range of friends. He and Bernstein met through a mutual friend when she returned from England after completing her doctoral thesis in 1974. "He was divorced and working in the port. We lived together for 30 years," she relates.

As a researcher of workers in this country, did that relationship constitute a realization of Marxist theories?

"We do not feel the essence of our choices when they are made. I loved the fact that my life was not the regular academic life, that I lived in a number of worlds. I loved coming back from work to our apartment in the Halisa neighborhood at the end of the 1970s - it was mostly an Arab neighborhood, and poor. We did not live there for political reasons. By saving up pennies we bought a key-money apartment, a spacious place with a view of the sea. Yosef was very much a romantic. I was not the dominant person in the family thanks to having academic degrees. Nor did I toe the line in my academic work, in either my theoretical approach or concerning the objects of research. I was part of the critical stream in sociology, which in time became the mainstream. The same holds true for my feminist approach. These were ideas that became mainstream, but 25 years ago they were anything but that.

"Yosef arrived in Israel in 1949 from Morocco with his mother. He was a 16-year-old boy, without a father, and he went to work. He was a fisherman, and his world was formed not through study and education, but through observation, thinking, talking and music. I learned so much from him. My whole life has been doing things more or less like everyone else - but a bit different."W