Tel Aviv, I Love You, but You're Bringing Me Down

Once upon a time, my friends and I were the material from which this city was built. Now we’ve become refugees again. People are fleeing the city like rats deserting a sinking ship.

People sit, walk and ride bikes on Rothschild Boulevard, Tel Aviv.
Rafael Ben-Ari / Dreamstime

I’m celebrating 15 years of living in Tel Aviv. Quite an accomplishment, one could say. In 2000, when I moved here, it seemed like a marvelous fantasy – certainly in comparison to Haifa, the bland city I hail from.

I didn’t go to Tel Aviv with measured steps; I fled here, as fast as I could. It was an asylum for me, and I was a proud refugee. I packed a few boxes and didn’t look back. I didn’t leave either my heart or my conscience in Haifa. I rented an apartment with a roommate next to the Carmel market for $550 a month and thought: This is exactly how one should live. I’d come home.

It’s 2015. Tel Aviv has become a nightmare. Once upon a time, 15 years ago, my friends and I were the material from which this city was built. Now we’ve become refugees again. I know people who are fleeing the city like rats deserting a sinking ship. There’s an argument about which way the ship is listing. I say that Tel Aviv is on the way to the depths. Apparently I’m wrong. Tel Aviv is sinking upward. Toward the sky. This is not a city for rats. It’s a city for lions and tigers. The bohemians have been supplanted by speculators, the veteran Ashkenazim by French paranoids.

I’m no longer weeping for Tel Aviv’s bitter fate, because I’ve grown used to the situation. Still, after 15 years of living in a city I have loved, I cannot but shed a tear for the way things were. In 2000, we didn’t think about money. Today, money is all we think about. That’s the only way to survive in this city. The negative migration from Tel Aviv consists of everyone who’s fed up with thinking about money, because thoughts don’t pay the rent.

These days, to live in Tel Aviv means to be in constant fear: Hold on, in another minute you’ll be kicked out. I still don’t know whether there are more people kicking or being kicked in the city, but the direction is clear. The weak are out. In this sense, Tel Aviv is an integral part of the cruel country. It has its own way to vomit you out. And we are all candidates for expulsion, for political or cultural reasons, or because we’re just sick and tired of it all and the foreign passport is calling out from the drawer.

Tel Aviv is not a “bubble.” I have to insist on that. In the past few weeks, in the wake of reports on Channel 10, that cliché is again raising its ugly head. If Tel Aviv is a bubble, then Israel is the liquid soap from which the thing itself is blown. Tel Aviv is not a canton; ambitions for autonomy are of no avail. If the operation succeeds, the patient will die.

Abstract illustration.
Sharon Fadida

We’re talking about identical Siamese twins: There is no center and no periphery in Israel. This whole country is one little cockroach, and Tel Aviv is the bug’s legs, so what’s all the fuss about? Two hours in every direction, that’s the proper proportion. No serious discussion is possible with dimensions like that.

True, it’s perhaps the most racist place in Israel, including the most extreme settlements. It’s closed and insular and blocks the path of anyone who doesn’t suit its imagined standard. No entry for foreign workers, Arabs or Mizrahim. The irony is that the old elites of Tel Aviv are now themselves being pushed out by big capital. So there is some historic justice.

But don’t be quick to rejoice. Tel Aviv will never be egalitarian. It was exclusivist from the moment it was founded – a city established for the fortunate and those who could afford it. They always were and always will be the choirmasters, even when the identity of the soloists is transformed dramatically.

Tel Aviv is a vast kibbutz. Even today, when millions of dollars are pouring in, and skyscrapers are springing up like mushrooms, it has managed to preserve a vital principle of its identity: It is primogeniture territory. That’s how the city’s aristocracy is constituted. When I moved here, my mother warned me that I would need protektsia – connections. That without it, I wouldn’t get into university or land a job, because it’s all one big old-boy network. I thought she was talking nonsense. That was a Soviet mindset: fear of arrangements committees and commissars who appoint cronies.

Today, after all these years, what continues to astonish me is that Tel Aviv is such an amazing family city, with an inbuilt apparatus. Everybody is someone else’s child. I’ve never felt as orphaned as I have here. It’s a city of magnificent genealogies. That guy is the son of a Knesset member, she’s the daughter of a real estate tycoon, this one is the son of a Habima actor, that girl is the daughter of a famous physician, he’s the son of a news broadcaster, she’s the daughter of an acclaimed artist, she’s the daughter of an architect, here’s the son of a revered professor, there’s the son of a senior newspaper editor, she’s the daughter of a high-tech entrepreneur, he’s the son of a chef, she’s the daughter of a general, that girl is the daughter of a columnist, the guy is the son of a poet, that girl is the daughter of an heiress, she is the daughter of Mandate-period old-timers, he’s the son of Palmachniks, she’s the daughter of General Zionists, he’s the son of a deputy prime minister.

No one is just the plain son or daughter of ordinary people. Everyone is part of the stock market of names. They know each other. They recognize each other. They share the same symbolic and concrete capital. They slide into the sources of power like butter. Their parents are friends, or served together in the army, or were at university together, or know each other from the neighborhood, from the tennis court or from the VIP lounge at the airport.

The scepter passes from hand to hand. If Israel is a divided community of crumbling and fragmented Jews, Tel Aviv is a community of connected Jews. The city belongs to them. And the scepter is passed on. From the Bauhaus buildings to towers on Rothschild Boulevard. It’s a big city that’s a members’ club, with names engraved on a plaque at the entrance to the dressing room. It’s a WASP cocktail party, only instead of the Hamptons, it’s happening under your nose, next to the pizzeria on Bograshov.

Tel Aviv is a family business in every respect, including job arrangements, convenient terms and a guaranteed future income. A city of protektsia, nepotism, bigamy. Call it what you like. My mother was apparently right. But who is my mother? No one important.

I have one ambition in life: For my baby son, when he grows up, to say he’s the son of someone. In Tel Aviv.