Boycotting the White City: Good for Tel Avivians

rev·o·lu·tion noun \ˌre-və-ˈlü-shən\

a : a sudden, radical, or complete change
b : a fundamental change in political organization; especially : the overthrow or renunciation of one government or ruler and the substitution of another by the governed
c : activity or movement designed to effect fundamental changes in the socioeconomic situation
d : a fundamental change in the way of thinking about or visualizing something : a change of paradigm <the Copernican revolution>
e : a changeover in use or preference especially in technology <the computer revolution> <the foreign car revolution>

~ Merriam Webster Dictionary

Almost a year ago a wave of massive popular protests began within the state of Israel. Though my initial criticisms still stands, I’d like to add that over the past year, at least in the south of Tel Aviv, there’s a constant learning about egalitarian politics, co-ops and community projects. People are changing and that can’t be a bad thing. Still, on the Palestinian liberation front there’s little change. The protests have remained Jewish-centered and protesters are still hostile to the mere mention of Arabs (Palestinians are people from another country, of course).

Dr. White City and Mr. Tel Aviv

An article on the local Tel Aviv paper “Zman Tel Aviv” caught my eye. The title “Why International Media Can’t Stop Praising Tel Aviv” [Hebrew], is a clever ploy, to read like a municipality PR scam, but actually lures you into a short and concise exposé of the gap between the “White City”’s image abroad and its reality of poverty, violence and dissent.

The article begins by listing all of Tel Aviv’s acclaims [1,2,3,4,5,6,7] and then dives into the reality [translation by me]:

All this is happening when in Tel Aviv-reality the social protest and the street’s outrage are directed more and more towards the municipality, and [Mayor] Huldai has to escape city council meetings under the protection of bodyguards. Around the world he may be considered “smart” and “successful”, but here he’s considered by many to be “arrogant” and “callous”.

In order to find out how the gap between the White City’s image and the reality of Tel Aviv has been created, the journalist interviews Hila Oren, General Director of “Tel Aviv Global City”, the city’s international PR offices. I’ll get into her statements later, but I’d like to take a look at the Global City project first [bolds by me]:

“Tel Aviv Global City is an initiative started by the Mayor’s Office of Tel Aviv-Yafo dedicated to elevating the city’s global positioning. This municipal and national project aims to turn Tel Aviv-Yafo to a global center of business and culture, focusing on technology and innovation.

Tel Aviv Global City will impact the greater Tel Aviv-Yafo area, as well as residents of the entire State of Israel. It will have a financial, social and cultural sway beyond municipal borders. Launched in 2011, the program will result in a leap forward of the city’s centrality, attractiveness and relevance on the global scene.”

Tel Aviv is the perfect place to be used as an image booster on international levels, because that’s where all the embassies are (kind of surprising when the undisputed, undivided capital of Israel is Jerusalem), and “the prominent cultural centers, chambers of commerce, the Israel Export Institute, local and global media, and numerous academic and financial institutions.” In fact Tel Aviv is key to Israel’s international commerce and diplomatic ties around the world:

The Municipality maintains warm ties with dozens of cities and international organizations worldwide, leading to global exchanges of knowledge and information. In addition, Tel Aviv-Yafo is partners with 30 major cities across the globe such as: Paris, Barcelona, Frankfurt, Vienna, Moscow, New York, Philadelphia, and Beijing.

Tel Aviv is so popular that the “Global City” Facebook page just posted Mayor Ron Huldai boasting that he’s on a campaign to explain to the British that he’s not the mayor of Israel’s capital.

I suppose Jerusalem with it’s vibrant ethnic cleansing is just too much of a hard sell for Israel.

The White City vs. The Bride of Palestine

Speaking of politics of ethnic cleansing, it’s important to note that the Tel Aviv municipality practices are no different than Jerusalem’s. It’s only due to Jerusalem’s “disputed” international status, that it is asked to produce more justifications. Tel-Aviv is a de-facto monument to the successful ethnic cleansing of Jaffa in 1948 (which was not to be part of the Palestinian state, according to the 1947 Partition Plan), when approximately 70,000 of its Arab inhabitants fled the brutalities of the Zionist militias, it’s official annexation by Tel Aviv in 1950, and its subsequent ghettoizing of Arab residents into one neighborhood and settlement of Arab-Jews in the rest of Jaffa. Once “The Bride of Palestine”, Jaffa became the White City’s black back yard.

Back to the present: Because of Israel’s status as a recognized state and not as a successful colonizing project, not only can Tel Aviv enact Judaizing settlement projects in the remaining Palestinian Jaffa, and it isn’t considered a “war crime” within a legalistic frame work -only “gentrification”; Additionally the “unification” of “Yaffo” with the Tel Aviv municipality allows Israel to classify this economic displacement as “development”:

“From the ’70s to the ’80s the Israel Land Administration, with Amidar, demolished about 1,347 homes, constituting 41.4% of the total number of residential buildings in Ajami and Jabaliya. As part of this plan the whole Ajami area was ‘frozen,’ meaning all renovation work was forbidden,” Shehada explains. “For the next 30 years, people lived in old, run-down houses.”

Despite the continuing destruction of much of the infrastructure, many Palestinians stayed. Many of the Jewish residents opted to leave, offered financial compensation or public housing in Jaffa or nearby cities like Bat Yam. No viable alternative housing project was built for the Palestinian community, who were instead granted a small compensation fee, too little to allow them to resettle in Jaffa. Prevented from locating to Jewish neighborhoods of Jaffa, or nearby Jewish cities, “they were forced to leave the whole area for another Palestinian town, whether in the Galilee, Wadi Ara, Lod or Ramla,” Shehada says.

This planning model, criticized for its brutal tactic of forced displacement, was abandoned by the mid ’80s for policies of “rehabilitation” and “development.” The state began privatizing land in Jaffa, part of the effort, it claimed, of pulling the town out of its economic torpor.

“With the signing of the Oslo accords, the government wanted to pre-empt possible future attempts by Palestinians to recover property taken from them in 1948, of which the state controlled huge amounts,” Ilany explains. The government was able to get rid of refugee property while making money in the process. Furthermore, privatizing homes was in keeping with the neoliberal turn the state’s economic polices took in the ’90s. This development initiative was seized on by investors, who bought land and property through competitive tenders. While the plan has always been couched in neutral terms, in reality – with property prices skyrocketing – only wealthy Jews have been able to buy in Jaffa. The result is the de facto displacement of the original residents, which some refer to scathingly as “economic transfer.””

To top that off, while Tel Aviv can legally claim it isn’t guilty of the war crimes enacted within good old fashioned colonialism via it’s structural genocide of Arab Jaffa, it is actively supporting the government’s military occupation. From Israel’s army headquarters  located in its center (speaking of human shields…), to the mutual bonds of propaganda and continual settlement projects with the Jewish Agency.

Even a closer look into the aforementioned “Tel Aviv[-Jaffa] Global City” project reveals another interaction with the government-via-the-Jewish-Agency and the Israeli army:

Over the past fifteen years, there has been a surge in the number of talented young people wishing to make Israel their home. A great number of these brave young men and women begin their lives in Israel by serving in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) as immigrant soldiers. Unfortunately, many of these soldiers, coming from countries with little or no Jewish and Israeli education, feel cut off from Israeli mainstream culture. To address this need, the Jewish Agency for Israel, in collaboration with the IDF, developed the Nativ program in 2002 specifically to facilitate the social integration of these new immigrants into Israeli society. Through the Nativ program, participants learn about their Jewish roots and heritage and strengthen their Jewish identity.”

But the true strength of Global City lies in its well oiled public relations administration.

Apartheid PR in Service of Economic Apartheid

Part of this has to do with the fact that the Foreign Ministry and Tourism Ministry government offices are using Tel Aviv as a city that exhibits the different Israel, without wars, politics, Intifada- but culture, nightlife, young people and beaches. We are the means of public relations for the whole state.
~ Gidi Schmerling, Tel Aviv municipality spokesperson

On paper it may be Tel Aviv-Jaffa, but on the ground the modus operandi of separation and annexation is loud and clear. The facts on the ground are mirrored within the PR strategy of choice of the Tel Aviv[-Jaffa] municipality, which is in step with the governments strategy of Brand Israel. The above quote also renders Tel Aviv a willing accomplice in Israel’s PR strategy of “reposition[ing] Israel away from an image of a country in a state of war and conflict to a brand which represents positive values and ideals like ‘building the future’, ‘vibrant diversity’ and ‘entrepreneurial zeal’.”

Without a doubt, General Director of “Tel Aviv Global City”, Hila Oren has absorbed, rinsed and repeated the PR separation mantra, while claiming that “no one is denying the problems in the city”, which she doesn’t bother to enumerate in detail, she is fluent in the language of Brand Israel:

UNESCO’s declaration about the White City and the 100 Years celebrations leveraged us. Add to that the young and energetic atmosphere in the city, the pluralism and the gay community, and the start-ups, and even the social protests, which showed that this is a democratic place- and you get an international trend.

While I have to a lot to say about UNESCO’s inclusion of Israel’s conquests in its World Heritage List, I want to keep focus:

“Cool”? Check. Diversity? Check. Pinkwashing? Check. Capitalism? Check. Democracy? Check.

It’s a hell of a spin: Gentrification, which brings in a lot of young white folks, working all day and drinking all night, being brutally suppressed by their municipality for demonstrating all summer because they somehow still can’t make ends-meat, even though they are the higher middle class, colored pink by the local gay community- lavished with government money with one hand while extreme homophobia still doesn’t get you kicked out of Knesset. But hey, for Hila Oren that’s just “part of a city which is an economic center, for good or bad.”

Why Tel Avivians Should Adopt Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions

Needless to say, in the Tel Aviv social protest, BDS is a non-starter and a hostility igniter. BDS activists (and Palestinians and anarchists) are considered unwelcome “extremists” by the whopping majority of the protestors. However, the Zman Tel Aviv article paints a picture that may be surprising to the residents of Tel Aviv, as they have everything to gain from a decline in tourism and a more internally focused agenda from the municipality:

“In effect, it could be said that the strenuous work to market Tel Aviv abroad and the praising publicity there, are precisely the example of possible criticism towards the mayor. Investing so much energy in branding the city, and the many tourists that flood it, are necessarily affecting the rise in costs of housing, that is to say, harms the city’s residents, those that are here to stay… City Comptroller Committee Chairman and city council member, Yoav Goldring accuses…

“There’s no wonder Huldai founded an administration that’s job is to brand the municipality and her head as a household name in the world, while a similar administration for affordable housing was never founded The funds invested in the spokesperson’s unite and the administration could have been used for projects that benefit the residents of the city.”

Obviously, the complicity of the Tel Aviv[-Jaffa] municipality with the occupation and strengthening of apartheid through separation and ethnic cleansing policies should be enough of a reason to boycott, divest from and sanction any of its attempts to become a “Global City”. But Tel-Avivians, now opening up to communal politics and activism, can also think in practical terms; Realizing that the Tel Aviv national-capitalist project is what spiraled them into poverty and sparked them into action in the first place. So let the vegan food and services co-ops multiply, the community education projects flourish, let art, music and dancing fill the streets without the astronomic ticket fees. Let’s start this revolution.

5 thoughts on “Boycotting the White City: Good for Tel Avivians”

  1. Tel Aviv is also sister-city with Gaza city since 1998!!!!! And i am completely serious about it. But they prefer of course to deny this. there used to be a scroll in the municipality building on the 12th floor. I wonder if it is still there :)

  2. Excluding these marginal and poor neighborhoods at the edge of the city, Tel-Aviv is almost completely free of Arabs. As such, the city no doubt constitutes a demographic miracle. The below-margin-of-error percentage of Arabs in this “diverse,” bustling, Mediterranean metropolis is lower than in Paris, Geneva, London, or Brooklyn.

    That “diversity” makes Tel Aviv a rare example of successful ethnic cleansing. Until its destruction, Jaffa was an important hub city in the Arab Mediterranean. Today it is home to less than 1% of Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, a marginal and isolated community.

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