Happy birthday, Tel Aviv (& Ilan Halimi trial verdict)

July 11, 2009

* “Tel Aviv is more than a city: Peter the Great founded St. Petersburg in 1703 as his window on the West; Brasília and Islamabad, the new capitals of Brazil and Pakistan, respectively, were built in the 1950s and 1960s as modern, inland replacements for coastal Rio de Janeiro and Karachi. But Tel Aviv had an even greater responsibility: It was the world’s first Hebrew city since the Jews’ Roman exile (the earlier Zionist settlements, such as Petach Tikva, were primarily agricultural).”



Late last night a Parisian court reached a verdict in the Ilan Halimi murder trial. Youssouf Fofana, leader of the gang that mastermind a kidnap, torture and murder described by a leading police officer as the most brutal and sadistic in modern French history, was sentenced to life (with a minimum of 22 years). Of the 26 other defendants in the case, two were acquitted and the rest received sentences of between six months and 18 years jail. Fofana admitted in court that the plan was to “kill a Jew”. Halimi, a 23 year-old shop clerk, was chosen at random.

At the end of 24 days of torture that left and cuts and burn marks all over his body, including his eyes and throat, Halimi, who was handcuffed throughout his ordeal, was doused in alcohol and set alight. One of the young torturers told police his accomplices took turns to stub out cigarettes on Ilan’s forehead and tongue while voicing hatred for Jews. They cut bits off his flesh, fingers and ears.

There was outrage in France when the authorities initially refused to state anti-Semitism was a prime motive despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Tens of thousands took to the streets of Paris to march against anti-Semitism after the crime.

Fofana, who screamed “Allah Akbar!” (God is greatest) during the trial, has called on others to now murder Halimi’s parents and other French Jews. Scores of police, some in full riot gear, took up posts around the Palais de Justice in central Paris as the verdict was read out last night.

The lawyer for Halimi family’s immediately announced he would lodge an appeal against some of the lenient sentences the other gang members received.

Halimi’s remains have been reburied at Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl Cemetery after repeated attempts by anti-Semites to attack his grave in France.


As I noted on this website at the time of the crime, while The Independent in London headlined its piece “This anti-Semitic attack is terrifying” and Le Monde called it “the anti-Semitic crime of an era,” other papers – notably The Guardian’s sister paper The Observer in London – reported the case while scrupulously avoiding any mention of the fact that the victim was a Jew, and The New York Times was initially silent about the story.

-- Tom Gross



1. Happy birthday, Tel Aviv
2. Rare film footage of Tel Aviv in 1913
3. A 1951 Air France flight to Tel Aviv and beyond
4. Viva Tel Aviv!” (By Adam LeBor, Condé Nast Traveler, June 2009)
5. Monte Carlo meets Whitechapel
6. UNESCO world heritage site
7. “Tel Aviv syndrome”
8. A parade of tanned, pierced beauties strolls by
9. Hassids and gays
10. Trendy Neve Tzedek
11. Jaffa regentrified


[Note by Tom Gross]

Since it is summer, and as a change from the often depressing or worrying news items I send out, today’s dispatch concerns the 100th anniversary of Tel Aviv. Israel’s business and pleasure capital was officially founded in 1909, although some neighborhoods were established earlier, such as the charming Neve Tzedek quarter which dates back to the 1880s.

I attach an article below from the U.S. edition of Conde Nast Traveler. The author, Budapest-based writer Adam LeBor, is a long time subscriber to this email list with whom I have enjoyed many Tel Aviv evenings out. Senior staff at Conde Nast are also subscribers to this list. (The subheadings I placed in the article below are mine, not Conde Nast’s.)

Besides being a business city, Tel Aviv is home to an incredible array of stylish cafés, top-class restaurants, and a vibrant nightlife. It is the most hedonistic, tolerant city in the Middle East. While much of its urban sprawl could certainly use some improvements if only the municipal authorities were more dedicated and efficient at their job, it is nonetheless an extraordinarily exhilarating place.

For many, as LeBor says, Tel Aviv is simultaneously entrancing and infuriating. Arthur Koestler, the Hungarian author best known today for his piercing critique of communism in the novel Darkness at Noon, lived in Tel Aviv in the 1920s. He wrote of Tel Aviv, in his autobiography, Arrow in the Blue: “It was a frantic, maddening city which gripped the traveler by the buttonhole as soon as he entered it, tugged and dragged him around like a whirlpool and left him after a few days faint and limp, not knowing whether he should laugh or cry, love it or hate it.”



I included this short film in a dispatch earlier in the year, but it was buried rather far down the dispatch, so here it is it again: some vintage footage of what Tel Aviv looked like in 1913.



I also included this much longer film in a dispatch last year but feel it would be appropriate to draw attention to it again here. There is some amazing archival footage of an Air France flight to Tel Aviv followed by scenes at different locations in Israel in 1951.

-- Tom Gross



Viva Tel Aviv!
By Adam LeBor
June 2009
Condé Nast Traveler (Concierge.com’s Insider Guide)

Here’s the answer to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Not two but three states: Israel, Palestine, and Tel Aviv. Tel Aviv is already a world of its own. Nowhere else in Israel – in the entire Middle East – has such a hedonistic lifestyle, tolerant mentality, and spirited gay and lesbian community. No wonder its nickname, half self-ironic jest, half jealous sneer, is Ha-Buah, The Bubble. I have been visiting Tel Aviv for thirty years, since I was a teenager, and something always draws me back. Part of it is the sheer sense of wonder that this city founded on the sands in 1909, by meshuga (crazy) Zionist pioneers, not only still exists a hundred years later but crackles with energy twenty-four hours a day. In a century it’s grown from nothing to a sophisticated metropolis, home to about 390,000 people. It has an internationally renowned university, a stock exchange, a vibrant media and music scene, numerous museums and art galleries, electric nightlife, and world-class restaurants. Its inhabitants are engagingly friendly and often extremely beautiful, and love to party. Phones don’t start ringing for the night’s action until ten at the earliest, and it lasts until dawn.

That said, Israelis appreciate straight talk. The Hebrew conditional must be the world’s most underused tense. So they won’t be offended when I say that despite Tel Aviv’s many virtues, on first impression the city is hard to fall in love with. Israel’s cultural and business capital is the epicenter of an urban sprawl stretching up the coast, much of which is not beautiful. The tower-block hotels strung out along Tel Aviv’s seafront look like downtown Frankfurt. Drab parking lots punctuate the spaces between the buildings. A four-lane road, choked with traffic, runs parallel to the Tayelet, the seafront promenade. Even the city’s name is a misnomer. Tel Aviv means “Hill of Spring,” yet the city is almost completely flat, and there is no spring. Cold, wet winters jump directly to hot, humid summers.

But effort is rewarded. To turn off Allenby Street into Bialik Street, named for Israel’s national poet, is to enter a time capsule of elegant 1920s and 1930s apartment houses, merging Bauhaus and Art Deco with Mediterranean influences to make Tel Aviv’s own International Style, and ending in a tranquil circular park. The beach is a stretch of golden sand sloping gently into an azure sea. And even at midnight the Tayelet is packed. The cool sea breeze carries conversations in Hebrew and Russian, Amharic and English. The revelers run every shade of color from pink, sunburned Anglos to mahogany-hued Ethiopians. Teenagers zip by on skates and bicycles; a jeweler sells intricate silverwork; a couple canoodle on the sand, illuminated by the hotel lights.


Passionate ambivalence about Tel Aviv, I later discover, is a common reaction. Ever since it was founded, the city has been simultaneously entrancing and infuriating visitors. Arthur Koestler, the Hungarian author of Darkness at Noon, lived in Tel Aviv in the 1920s, when it was still surrounded by sand dunes and Arab villages. Every statement about Tel Aviv, he wrote in his autobiography, Arrow in the Blue, was true, and its opposite equally true. It looked like both Monte Carlo and Whitechapel*, a drab suburb of East London. “It was a frantic, maddening city which gripped the traveller by the buttonhole as soon as he entered it, tugged and dragged him around like a whirlpool and left him after a few days faint and limp, not knowing whether he should laugh or cry, love it or hate it.”

Plus ça change, but Tel Aviv is more than a city: It’s an idea made manifest in bricks and concrete. The city as statement is a perennial theme: Peter the Great founded St. Petersburg in 1703 as his window on the West; Brasília and Islamabad, the new capitals of Brazil and Pakistan, respectively, were built in the 1950s and 1960s as modern, inland replacements for coastal Rio de Janeiro and Karachi. But Tel Aviv had an even greater responsibility: It was the world’s first Hebrew city since the Jews’ Roman exile (the earlier Zionist settlements, such as Petach Tikva, were primarily agricultural). As Koestler wrote: “It grew in hectic jumps according to each new wave of immigration – an island of asphalt and concrete advancing over the dunes,” its inhabitants “carried by a wave of enthusiasm which had a crest and no trough.” Even now, the crests grow ever higher and there is no sign of trough, for the story of Tel Aviv is that of Israel itself.


We are sitting on the terrace at Cantina, a Mediterranean bar and restaurant on Rothschild Boulevard where Tel Aviv insiders like to meet and greet. It’s 10 p.m. and I’m dining with Amnon Rechter and Shlomzion Kenan, the son and the daughter of two of Tel Aviv’s most renowned families. This is the heart of old Tel Aviv, its wide green islands flanked by International Style apartment houses. It was on this street in April 1909 that the new Jewish neighborhood, then known as Ahuzat Bayit, was founded. Plot number 43 became 16 Rothschild Boulevard, home to the city’s first mayor, Meir Dizengoff. In 1932, Dizengoff donated the house to the city, and it became the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. And there, in May 1948, David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, proclaimed the establishment of the State of Israel.

Amnon is an architect, like his father and grandfather. Ze’ev Rechter came to Palestine, as it was then called, in 1919 from Russia on the S.S. Ruslan, often dubbed Israel’s Mayflower for the number of future eminent Israelis it brought. Among them was Rosa Cohen, mother of Yitzhak Rabin, the first native-born Israeli prime minister, who was killed by a Jewish extremist in 1995 for making peace with the Palestinians. Rechter designed the layout and route of Allenby Street, the spine of the city (named for the British general who captured Palestine from the Turks), which stretches north from the seashore. Inspired by Le Corbusier, Ze’ev Rechter and his fellow modernists fought a battle with the conservative city establishment to build Bauhaus-influenced “six-sided” buildings to house the Jewish immigrants pouring in from Russia and Europe. That is, four walls but on pilotis, or columns, to open up a communal area by the entrance, with balconies and flat roofs for laundry, sunbathing, and evening socializing. This became known as the International Style.

Rechter won, and it’s partly thanks to him that Tel Aviv enjoys the largest concentration of Bauhaus-style buildings – about four thousand – in the world. Modernism was a natural choice for the early Zionist settlers. Many were strongly influenced by communism and its asceticism. Tel Aviv’s open, democratic architecture was both a statement and a reaction to the traditional closed Jewish quarters, the ghettos of Eastern Europe and the mellahs of the Middle East. The White City, as its historic heart is known, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2003. But this was a battle about more than construction techniques: If environment shapes personalities, both of peoples and of cities, it’s also thanks to Rechter and the other modernist pioneers that Tel Aviv is Israel’s cultural capital as well as its most easygoing city. And safest: Violent crime is almost unheard of. The cityscape is now marred by brutal tower blocks, but for decades there were no buildings higher than five or six floors, giving Tel Aviv a uniquely human scale, says Amnon Rechter. “My grandfather looked around and said, We have wind and we have shade, so let’s elevate everything. We can use the space under the buildings, with a semi-public garden and a place for children to play. This makes Tel Aviv very egalitarian and very light. You are not intimidated by the buildings as you walk. The street, the gardens, even the roofs – everything is within reach.”


Israel claims Jerusalem as its capital, but its de facto annexation of the eastern half of the city is disputed and so all embassies are located here. In some ways, Tel Aviv is defined by what it is not: its great rival, Jerusalem. The pressure cooker city that is holy to all three Abrahamic faiths – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – can even trigger a kind of clinical religious mania, known as the Jerusalem syndrome. Every summer a handful of tourists succumb, usually in the holiest of places, often believing themselves the new Messiah. Tel Aviv syndrome would be a much more relaxed affair: an addiction, perhaps, to brunch on the beach, lazy afternoons in stylish cafés, dinner in gourmet restaurants, and hopping nightlife. Just an hour’s drive down the coast, Qassam rockets fired by Hamas terrorists are smashing into the coastal cities of Sderot and Ashkelon. The sound of the detonations do not pierce the bubble.

Tel Aviv is a city of paradoxes, which makes for a productive creative tension. The first is that it is the center of modern Hebrew culture, where a new national identity was forged, but it’s also extremely internationally minded. Most young people speak English and travel as often and as far as they can. Perhaps it’s because Tel Aviv faces the ocean, and the west. And also because Israel’s Arab neighbors either don’t allow Israelis in or are considered too dangerous to visit. When the neighborhood is out of bounds, the wider world seems much more approachable. “Somehow the distance from here to New York or Berlin seems shorter than to Jerusalem or Haifa,” says my dinner companion Shlomzion Kenan. A novelist and former book critic for the daily newspapers Ha’aretz and Yediot Aharonot, Shlomzion is a veteran of the Tel Aviv literary scene. Her sister, Rona Kenan, is one of Israel’s best-known singers. “Tel Aviv is less nationalistic and more of a melting pot. It’s a really international city, a place where cultures meet and evolve.”

And do business. If Cairo, Amman, and Beirut aren’t interested in Tel Aviv, London, Moscow, and New York most definitely are, although the country has been affected by the global economic downturn. After soaring against the dollar by thirty percent, the shekel is now roughly back to 2007 exchange rates. That helps bring investors to Israel, especially to its renowned high-tech sector, known as Silicon Wadi. Direct foreign investment is expected to total about $10 billion for 2008, half of which went to the high-tech industries. It’s an impressive figure considering that neighboring Egypt, with a population of 80 million (more than ten times Israel’s) received $13.2 billion for 2007-08. Israeli GDP grew 4.1 percent in 2008 – still respectable, although slower than the 5.4 percent rate of 2007. But while the firsthalf growth was 4.9 percent in annual terms, the second half was just 1.8 percent. Financial authorities predict growth of between one and two percent for 2009. Tel Aviv property prices are also declining, although they’re still high in comparison with the country’s average wage of $23,000 a year. A three-room, 1,500-square-foot downtown apartment near the beach goes for about $700,000.


The second paradox is that Tel Aviv was founded by ascetic Zionist pioneers but is now one of the world’s most pleasure-seeking cities. In its early years, there were plenty of cafés serving coffee and cakes to German and Austrian immigrants, sweating in their suits, pining for Berlin and Vienna, but few luxury restaurants. For a long time after the establishment of the state in 1948, there was little food culture. Meat and even fresh eggs were an expensive treat. Israel was virtually a one-party quasi-Socialist state. Bourgeois pleasures were frowned upon. Meals were fuel, taken quickly. No longer, I discover the next day at Orna and Ella, a restaurant on Sheinkin Street, the hub of The Bubble and Tel Aviv’s hip, sexy heart. Outside the window, a parade of tanned, pierced beauties of both sexes stroll by. “Israel is a young country – we’re not like France or Italy, where food is part of the culture and they are very proud of it. Dealing with food, and the joy of food, was considered something bad,” says gastro journalist Keren Tsur, over Orna and Ella’s legendary sweet potato pancakes.

Neighborhood places such as Orna and Ella – and Café Noir, with its trademark schnitzel – have a devoted clientele: The food is one attraction, the famously handsome waiters another. Israeli chefs are creating a mod-Med style utilizing the country’s dazzling produce and mosaic of cuisines. “Israeli cuisine is new and has developed quickly because it’s an immigrant cuisine. Israelis are adapters, they learn fast. They traveled and learned to appreciate good wines, fine cheese. They understand these things now,” says Keren.


The third paradox is that Israel can be a macho, sexist society, yet Tel Aviv is home to a substantial gay and lesbian community. That nurtures a sexually ambiguous, charged atmosphere, especially in the summer months. Each year, tens of thousands attend the Gay Pride Parade, which lasts all day and ends in a giant beach party. All of which is another reason not all of Israel loves Tel Aviv. The spirit of The Bubble was best captured in the film of the same name directed by Eytan Fox. Much of The Bubble takes place on Sheinkin Street. Three twentysomething friends decide to hold a “rave against the occupation,” neatly dovetailing Sheinkinites’ reflexive liberal politics and love of chemical pleasures. But when Noam, a reserve soldier, falls in love with a gay Palestinian, their comfort zone, and private bubble, are soon blown to pieces. Literally. In more conservative Israeli circles, Sheinkinite is a deadly insult. But those using the word as a slur probably don’t know that Sheinkin is also home to a Hasidic community that lives peacefully with its tattooed, spaced-out neighbors.

Later that day, I walk south on Rothschild Boulevard, toward the coast and the neighboring ancient port of Jaffa, from which Tel Aviv was born. It’s a gorgeous spring afternoon freshened by the breeze blowing in from the sea. Mothers are wheeling their babies down the green islands in the middle, and the crowds are three deep at the open-air coffee bars. If the story of Tel Aviv begins anywhere, it is at numbers nine and eleven Rothschild, which once belonged to the Chelouche family, who helped found Tel Aviv. These two villas were the center of political and intellectual life in the city’s early years, where the Chelouche brothers – Yaakov, Avraham Haim, and Yosef Eliyahu – entertained diplomats and mayors, writers and musicians. Number eleven is now a trendy microbrewery.

There I meet Or Aleksandrowicz, great-great-grandson of Yosef Eliyahu Chelouche, who worked all his life for coexistence between Jews and Arabs, and lamented the Ashkenazim’s (European Jews) lack of knowledge of Arabic language and culture. The Chelouches spoke fluent Arabic and shared similar conservative social mores. They hoped to be a bridge between the two peoples but were eventually marginalized by the Ashkenazi establishment. Or Aleksandrowicz, an architect in his thirties, tells me over a glass of the BrewHouse’s trademark dark ale, “Today we see the differences between Jews and Arabs as irreconcilable, but Yosef Eliyahu had a unique approach. The Chelouches were Palestinian-born Jews who wanted to modernize their homeland not as colonizers from outside but as people born there.”


Many of the Chelouches were born in Neve Tsedek, Tel Aviv’s oldest quarter, founded in the late nineteenth century and now one of the most sought-after areas in Tel Aviv. Its social center is the Suzanne Dellal Centre for Dance and Theatre, which opens onto a sunny plaza. Until the center was established in 1989, Neve Tsedek was run-down and neglected. Then Tel Aviv discovered its history, triggering a wave of gentrification. Property prices are far out of reach for many locals: An 800-square-foot apartment with an 86-square-foot terrace recently fetched $480,000. They complain that Jewish families from France and Russia are forcing up prices by purchasing apartments that they use only a few weeks a year, during the holidays. The thirty-three-floor Neve Tsedek Tower, which stands just outside the conservation area, has triggered particular anger. The building looms over the quarter, totally out of scale with its environs. But Tel Aviv’s urban density means that skyscrapers, which offer the most profitable return for developers, are probably the future.

But for now at least, Neve Tsedek retains its single-story nineteenth-century pastel-colored houses, home to designer boutiques, ice-cream parlors, and antiques shops. Its narrow streets are surprisingly tranquil and retain a romantic village atmosphere.

Tel Aviv also has a hidden history. Neve Tsedek and Rothschild Boulevard were built on empty sands. But as the city spread inland and north, it swallowed up the remains of numerous Arab villages, whose inhabitants had fled or were driven out in 1948 (depending on which history books you read). Some villages were absorbed into Tel Aviv, others flattened. The Hilton Hotel is built on top of a Muslim cemetery. It is unimaginable that an Israeli hotel would be built over a Jewish cemetery. Salameh is now the Kfar Shalem neighborhood, home to poorer Jews from Arab countries, many of whom are threatened with eviction to make way for new developments. The Sumayil project, one of Tel Aviv’s largest residential developments, smack in the middle of the city, will be constructed on the site of the former Arab village of the same name. The Tayelet, the seafront promenade, is built on the remains of Manshiyyeh, Jaffa’s northernmost suburb.

The Tayelet is the best way to approach Jaffa and appreciate an ancient city of rare beauty. Old Jaffa, the heart of the city, has been turned into an artists’ quarter. The ancient sandstone buildings, piled one on top of another, have been carefully restored and glow with a subtle yellow light. Jaffa is one of the oldest ports in the world, mentioned in the Bible. Dig down and you find the layered remains of ancient empires from the Egyptians, Romans, Byzantines, and Ottomans.


The center of modern Jaffa is Clock Tower Square, the heart of a multimillion-dollar renovation program launched by the Tel Aviv municipality. The improvements are steadily rippling out: Just a few years ago, the shops flanking the square were empty or derelict. As property prices soar in Tel Aviv, young couples are moving to Jaffa. The shops in Clock Tower Square now house tony boutiques and antiques vendors. The flea market is packed with tourists browsing everything from 1930s furniture to Oriental carpets. Tel Aviv municipal bureaucrats may be overkeen on skyscrapers, but they have also realized that Jaffa is an asset. “I hear the buildings talking to me,” says Eyal Ziv, the architect in charge of renovation, with a laugh. “One after another, they ask me to restore them.” Eyal grew up in Old Jaffa and has a rare passion for his work. “Restoration is like a coral reef. We start with a centerpiece building, and it spreads out around it. This is not just about buildings – it’s about people. You have to go with the vibrations, work with them and not against them. I listen to what the people want and also what the area says to me.” What was once a Turkish prison is becoming a luxury hotel, and the old train station, long unused, is being renovated with space for artists. The run-down port is being transformed into a hip seafront district.

However, the renovations are getting mixed reviews. This is not gentrification but regentrification, say Jaffa’s older Arab residents – a return of sorts to the city’s glory days before 1948, when Jaffa was the cultural capital of Arab Palestine, home to numerous newspapers, cinemas, and a radio station. But at the Yafa Café, just off Yefet Street, the talk is of developers trying to push out local Arab families to make room for new luxury beachside apartment houses. The café, founded in 2003 by Dina Lee, a Jewish Israeli, and Michel el Rahab, an Arab businessman, is a much-loved institution. Selling books in Hebrew, Arabic, and English, it’s a tiny place with barely a dozen tables but a big mission: to bring Jewish and Arab Israelis together to talk, even if they don’t agree. And talk they do, fueled by endless cups of coffee, fresh pita bread, and spicy vegetable dips.

In a way, the relationship between Jaffa and Tel Aviv is analogous to that between Israel and Palestine: Tel Aviv was born as a suburb of Jaffa, but now Jaffa is a suburb of Tel Aviv. But Tel Aviv could also be an analogue for Israel. If the modern Hebrew city can enjoy a balanced relationship with the ancient Arab port, then perhaps Jews and Arabs can find a model for living in peace in this much-contested land.


(* Tom Gross adds: Whitechapel, which is in central London, is wrongly described as a suburb in the article – a bit like describing the Lower East Side as a suburb of New York.)

All notes and summaries copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.