The Tel Aviv Vandal

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A memorial plaque to Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, on Rothschild Boulevard, in Tel Aviv.
A memorial plaque to Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, on Rothschild Boulevard, in Tel Aviv.Credit: Tel Aviv Municipality
Chaim Levinson
Chaim Levinson

An ugly act of vandalism took place recently on Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard. But this time the mayor’s army of inspectors didn’t arrive in order to remove the blight and fine its perpetrators – because the perpetrator is Mayor Ron Huldai himself. He commandeered the public space and defaced it for political reasons, and this act of defacement now stands in the heart of the city’s trendiest boulevard.

We are referring to a memorial plaque to Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, which was installed in the street two months ago. We can argue about whether the memorialization is justified – the rabbi lived in Tel Aviv for four of his 93 years, and served as its rabbi for a short period, as a springboard for the Chief Rabbinate. When in 1973 he was elected to serve as the Rishon Letzion – or chief Sephardic rabbi – he left the Tel Aviv.

But never mind, there are more esoteric figures memorialized in Tel Aviv. There are enough side streets in a variety of neighborhoods, where a sign could be installed. The issue is more a matter of the unprecedented manner of memorialization, and its problematic nature is even more blatant in light of the very tenuous connection between the subject of the memorialization and the city memorializing him.

A memorial plaque to Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, on Rothschild Boulevard, in Tel Aviv.Credit: Tel Aviv Municipality

In Tel Aviv there is a project for memorializing important people, called Bebayit Zeh (In This House). Many have encountered the small white marble plaques attached to houses throughout the city, which describe in a few words the person who lived there and his or her activity. But all these signs are small, elegant, and look like part of the building to which they were affixed.

Rabbi Ovadia, on the other hand, has received a metal column over a meter in height, with a text in Hebrew and English etched on it. And not on the building itself, God forbid; in order not to deface the beautiful building that now serves as a hotel, the column was installed on the invaluable public part of the boulevard, on which every meter is meant to demonstrate the glory of public municipal planning.

There is only one VIP who was memorialized on Rothschild Boulevard itself on a large scale – Meir Dizengoff. Is it possible that Huldai thinks that Rabbi Ovadia’s contribution to Tel Aviv is similar to that of Dizengoff? What is certain is that the beautiful statue of Dizengoff riding his horse was not installed on the boulevard in order to curry favor with the first mayor of Tel Aviv. On the other hand, the ugly column in memory of Rabbi Ovadia was installed on the boulevard for one reason only: to curry favor with the city’s ultra-Orthodox community.

In a press release by the man who once said that he had eaten dog meat, Huldai explained: “Rabbi Ovadia Yosef served as the chief rabbi of the city for four years … But in spirit he always remained in our city, a city of Jewish unity, of “Kol Yisrael haverim” (“All Jews are friends”) … And that’s precisely the policy … of Rabbi Ovadia – a policy of all-embracing religious rulings, which increase unity among the Jewish people. Rabbi Ovadia is not with us – but his legacy and his Torah is with us.” Yeah, right. Even his wife doesn’t believe that he believes in that.

There is no difference between Huldai’s act and that of a teenage fan of the Hapoel Tel Aviv soccer team, who sprays hate messages against Maccabi Tel Aviv on city walls. Both make the mistake of thinking that the public space belongs to them, that they have to make sure their private interests are present there, irrespective of the aesthetic value of their deeds.

The only difference is that the teen, if caught – will be punished. Huldai is allowed to do this, because it’s his city. The public space serves his narrow political interests – in this case, currying favor with the Sephardic Orthodox Shas faction in the government. Now residents are stuck with this steel mold in the middle of Rothschild Blvd. Who will dare replace it with a small marble plaque?

The Tel Aviv Municipality’s response: “The city of Tel Aviv-Yafo uses the public space to memorialize the artistic and spiritual giants who lived and worked in the city. Alongside hundreds of poets, writers, actors and musicians, the municipality saw fit to memorialize Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, whose centrality to contemporary Jewish thought is unquestioned.

“Rabbi Ovadia lived in the city and served in it as chief rabbi – and for that too he deserves to be memorialized. The preferred way to memorialize VIPs is on plaques on the wall of the building where they lived, but when the landlords don’t permit that or when that is technically impossible, the memorialization is done on a plaque installed in the public space − whether it’s people from the field of culture, such as [actress] Hanna Rovina and [poet] Alexander Penn, or public figures such as [Prime Minister] Menahem Begin and [Knesset Speaker] Yosef Sprinzak.”

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