Israelis Love to Hate Tel Aviv - but Does It Really Deserve It?

Israel’s largest city has been accused of being too left-wing, secular and expensive. But is it really that different than the rest of the country?

Hagai Amit
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A panoramic view of Tel Aviv, January 2016.
A panoramic view of Tel Aviv, January 2016. Is there such a thing as the "State of Tel Aviv"?Credit: AP
Hagai Amit

MK Miki Zohar (Likud) probably never imagined the commotion he’d cause when he remarked recently that “Tel Aviv acts like it’s an independent country it’s not part of the State of Israel.” After all, it’s not like nobody ever said that before – everyone says it. For decades, people have been sniping at the “first modern Hebrew city” for living in a bubble. In 1955, Natan Alterman wrote a column wondering how the learned media mavens of Tel Aviv would react if they were subjected to the same incessant attacks as Israelis living in outlying parts of the country.

Yet it seems Tel Aviv’s detachment has reached new heights in the past year. The recent wave of Palestinian terror has afflicted mainly the West Bank and Jerusalem, leaving Tel Aviv almost untouched, barring one attack on Dizengoff Street that ultimately killed three men on New Year’s Day. That undoubtedly rattled the city’s residents, but not for long.

Netanyahu at the site of a shooting that killed two and wounded seven in Tel Aviv, January 2, 2016.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the site of a shooting that killed two and wounded seven in Tel Aviv, January 2, 2016.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

After seven years of Likud rule, one could say that the people of Tel Aviv are politically more detached than ever from the positions of the government sitting in Jerusalem. This is a left-leaning city: Zionist Union (a coalition of the Labor and Hatnuah parties) won 34% of votes in last March’s election, while Yair Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid party won 13% and left-wingers Meretz got 12%. Likud, meanwhile, won 18%.

Nationwide, however, Likud won 25% of the votes, while Zionist Union claimed 20%, Yesh Atid won 9% and Meretz a mere 5% (only 1.75% above the electoral threshold).

Okay, Tel Aviv is demonstrably more left-wing than the nation as a whole. But the real difference is economic. Inequality is rampant throughout the country and poverty is bad – outside Tel Aviv, where people earn more and consume more.

In 2013, the gross average salary in Tel Aviv was 11,855 shekels ($2,985). Nationwide, the figure is 2,800 shekels lower.

Average Tel Aviv household spending, meanwhile, is 15,700 a month – 1,200 shekels more than nationwide. The average rental price of a 3-room apartment in Tel Aviv was 4,500 shekels in 2013, compared with 3,000 shekels nationwide. (Prices have risen since.)

Only 13% of Tel Avivians were in arrears on their bills in 2014, compared with a national average of 24%. And only 21% of Tel Avivians forewent dental or medical care in 2014, compared with 42% around the country.

Need more? Gross domestic product per capita in Tel Aviv is three times the national average. The city is home to 5.2% of the total population, but 15.2% work in it and 16.7% of Israel’s GDP originates there.

Eitan Bar Zeev, the CEO of BIG Shopping Centers, which builds malls, notes that Tel Aviv is open on Shabbat, period. If Zohar has his way and shops in Tel Aviv have to shut on Shabbat, all of greater Tel Aviv will probably simply head for Arab towns on the day of “rest,” he believes. “People will find a way to spend their money. In a democratic nation, you can’t stop it,” he says. Surprisingly, Tel Aviv’s mayor, Ron Huldai, says he supports Shabbat rest other than for the city’s 200-or-so kiosks and small groceries, which can stay open.

Two women sit at a Tel Aviv cafe with a window pane cracked by a bullet near the Simta Bar, the site of Friday's shooting attack.
Two women sit at a Tel Aviv cafe with a window pane cracked by a bullet near the Simta Bar, the site of Friday's shooting attack.Credit: Jillian Jones

But the argument over Tel Aviv and “its own rules” and condescension (the “Don’t whine because we succeeded” sort of thing) extends far beyond respecting Shabbat.

Much of Tel Aviv’s economic might derives from its demographics: it has significantly fewer ultra-orthodox Jews and Arabs – communities characterized by low proportions of working adults – than the rest of Israel. Also, Tel Aviv draws its strength from all of Israel.

Forgetful in Tel Aviv

“The phrase ‘State of Tel Aviv’ always infuriated me,” says Prof. Carmella Jacoby Volk of the College of Management Academic Studies in Rishon Letzion. For one thing, she says, it’s arrogant: Tel Aviv seems to think it can survive on its own. For another, Tel Avivians seem to think they’re not like the rest – the religious and right-wingers living at its expense. But they’re not factoring in that they need the periphery: people come to work and spend in Tel Aviv, strengthening its existence and culture, she adds.

Tel Aviv also gets a lot of money from the state, which maintains army bases, courts, academic and cultural institutions, and its own offices – why, Volk asks, should the courts and Interior Ministry sit in this expensive city when they could equally be in Lod?

Statistics back her words and griping by Tel Avivians that provincial folk clog up the bars on weekends. Out of 407,000 people employed in Tel Aviv-Jaffa, 63% are nonresidents. Add those who come to Tel Aviv to shop or consume other services and we get 700,000 visitors a day.

Tel Aviv is also characterized by a higher rate of non-native residents (nearly 80%, compared with 70% elsewhere). So, keep in mind that “Tel Avivian” doesn’t really mean anything – it’s effectively synonymous with “Israeli.”

Adi Dichovsky, marketing manager for the Castro fashion chain, feels this whole “State of Tel Aviv” thing is a fantasy. “For a person in outlying areas, Petah Tikva is Tel Aviv, too,” he says. “The true difference comes out at night. Then you see the difference between Tel Aviv and the periphery.”

One city, several towns

Sometimes, the differences between Tel Aviv’s neighborhoods are greater than between the city as a whole and other areas of Israel. Neot Afeka or Tzahala in the city’s north have nothing in common with Kiryat Shalom in the south. Inequality exists within the city, too.

South Tel Aviv, where a woman was killed on the street on Monday morning. Credit: Moti Milrod

“You could divide Tel Aviv into municipalities. As a retailer, I would divide it into three,” says Cofix founder Avi Katz. “There’s the deep south, where even a five-shekel coffee at Cofix is considered expensive because you can make coffee at home for a shekel. There’s south Tel Aviv (from Florentin toward the center), where the residents aren’t actually Tel Avivians – they’re all wannabes from the periphery. And there are the real Tel Avivians in the deep north – Shikun Lamed, old Ramat Aviv, Gordon Street going north, Ibn Gabirol – that’s where Cofix’s strong customers are.”

It’s a matter of affluence, says Katz. People who live in the city’s south put the change in their pocket; people in the city’s north spend it.

Hagit Katz, Cofix’s procurement manager, gives an example of cultural differences: Tel Avivians know what dim sum is, and lap it up. People in the periphery didn’t know, so Cofix called them dumplings when it introduced them there, she says. “Healthy snack bars also speak far more to Tel Avivians,” she notes.

Outside Tel Aviv, one knows when the state pays its stipends to people, she adds. And employees in Cofix outlets (where every item of food or drink costs five shekels) are more stable: “When a person has a job outside Tel Aviv, he keeps it. In Tel Aviv, our employees view us a stopping point, then they move on.”

There’s also a difference in marketing to Tel Avivians, she says. Outside Tel Aviv, Cofix advertises in local weeklies like Kfar Sava’s Kol Hakfar. In Tel Aviv, there are no real local weeklies.

The international city

There are several Tel Avivs, agrees Bernard Raskin, CEO of realty chain Re/Max. He notes another distinction: Tel Aviv has a lot of older people, and young, pre-family people. Whoever moves to the city tends to go into shock at the high prices, he observes, where “it’s like in Europe.”

That’s an important point: Tel Aviv doesn’t compare itself to Haifa or Be’er Sheva. Its residents and leaders see it as a city of international standing, like Berlin or Amsterdam, which becomes the criteria for comparison regarding quality of life, infrastructure, culture and nightlife.

Advantages but also dangers lurk in that global viewpoint, warns Prof. Oren Yiftachel, who lectures in political geography, urban planning and public policy at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Be’er Sheva. Since Israel’s establishment, some have worried about the danger of the high population concentration in Tel Aviv, he says. “Zionism is basically anti-urban. A lot of countries created by immigrants, like Australia, are like that. So the phrase ‘State of Tel Aviv’ started off as a derogatory term,” he feels.

Which is sheer hypocrisy, Yiftachel adds. “Tel Aviv is the greatest achievement of Zionism. It realizes the vision of turning the Jews into a normal people. This is a city with similar characteristics to other cities around the Mediterranean, like Rome and Istanbul. It’s part of the global trend of urbanization and what started as an insult became a positive thing.”

Yiftachel notes, however, that Tel Aviv is the engine that’s driving the Israeli real estate market. “Investors from all over the world come to it, and the rest of the market rises in its wake,” he says. “It has an irresponsible concentration of real estate and economic activity, without the experience to handle it. The result is that Tel Aviv, as a symbol of capitalism that the state has avoided managing, creates problems.”

He clarifies what he means by “managing” Tel Aviv: the government should create another metropolitan center in Israel – the metropolitan state of Haifa, for example. This is an economic responsibility the state is completely failing to handle, Yiftachel says.

Part of the upshot is the artificial shortfall in land for housing development, while ignoring that the state is allowing inconceivable wealth to be created in greater Tel Aviv without creating balancing mechanisms, Yiftachel complains. Metropolises could be built around Be’er Sheva and Carmiel, he says, noting there are models for that sort of thing – Australia, Sweden, Denmark and Spain, for instance, are all home to several metropolitan areas. Israel shouldn’t copy the French or British model, he argues, where there is precisely one über-city that is among the strongest in the world, but also creates large social gaps elsewhere in the country.

Yiftachel believes that the concentration of the population in the “State of Tel Aviv” lifted housing prices; Volk, meanwhile, accuses Tel Aviv of failing to lift the cities around it (Holon, Givatayim, etc.). One of the characteristics of a metropolis is its ability to do that – and Tel Aviv doesn’t have it, she says. Bat Yam, where price increases have been moderate, has been begging to become part of Tel Aviv and has been snubbed, she points out.

That’s a good example, because Bat Yam is a city smack on the sea, right south of Tel Aviv, yet it cannot fund itself and the state never thought to put the Interior Ministry or a cultural institution there. “As far as Tel Avivians are aware, Bat Yam doesn’t exist,” says Volk. Tel Aviv is hogging the resources and the state isn’t saying boo.

Or maybe there’s a lot of grousing going on. As one Tel Avivian put it to TheMarker, “In the periphery, they’re simply jealous of us. Because everything is happening here.”