The Mythography of Tel Aviv

Shared myths reveal something elemental about the people who sustain them. A scholar of cultural memory describes the layers of myth that illuminate Israel’s quintessentially modern city.

Tel Aviv in 1920. Alamy/Artokoloro.

Tel Aviv in 1920. Alamy/Artokoloro.

Observation
Nov. 17 2022
About the authors

Maoz Azaryahu is a professor of cultural geography and the director of the Herzl Institute for the Study of Zionism at the University of Haifa, Israel.

Jonathan Silver is the editor of Mosaic.

In his 2007 book Tel Aviv: Mythography of a City, Maoz Azaryahu explores the role that Israel’s largest city plays in the Israeli imagination. Tel Aviv has been seen, over time, as an urban expression of Hebrew nationalism and as a cosmopolitan beach destination no different than Saint Tropez or Barcelona, as a city of capitalism and private enterprise and as a showcase of the Bauhaus architectural style.

Last month, Mosaic‘s editor Jonathan Silver sat down for a conversation with Azaryahu, a professor of cultural geography at the University of Haifa and the director of its Herzl Institute for the Study of Zionism. The two discussed what Azaryahu calls “the myth of Tel Aviv,” and its different incarnations. Below is a transcript of the conversation, lightly edited for clarity.

Jonathan Silver:

To begin, we should try to understand what a myth is, how you use that term, and how it factors into your analysis of the city. When we speak about the mythology of Tel Aviv, or the mythography of Tel Aviv, what are we talking about?

Maoz Azaryahu:

We are talking about patterns of meaning. Myths come from our desire as human beings—I think it’s beyond culture and history—to construct meaning and to understand things beyond the experiences of everyday life. They can be the stories of heroes or theological tales. They can be about cities. Cities have mythologies and politics have mythologies. These are the big patterns. Myths give us a way to talk about the essentials, to talk about what we really think, what reality is about. Myths organize the experiences of everyday life. They can be metaphors. They can be one-liners. They can just be short descriptions. They are ways of explaining what reality is about, beyond the here and now.

Jonathan Silver:

What I find interesting about this is that one can look for mythical patterns that explain us to ourselves in poetry and in paintings, but the idea of looking for those patterns in a city would seem to be new. Who else does this?

Maoz Azaryahu:

It’s a tough question. Was I the first one? I don’t know. It was very clear to me that Tel Aviv, which is a very mundane city—it used to be a very pleasant city, a very simple city where you could easily walk from one place to another and go to the beach—was always, from the start, laden with mythic baggage. The city was much more than simply what it used to be. And that really fascinated me.

For me, the term myth was helpful in understanding what this bigger thing is that hangs over the city and determines how I think about the city, aside from the everyday reality of going to the market and buying something or going to the beach and swimming. I was sure that Tel Aviv, which is a very secular city, was laden with a myth. I think this is a paradox.

We tend to think about Jerusalem in mythology. That’s very clear. But Tel Aviv, actually, is the real mythic city. And not only that: it has many a myth. Although it’s only 113 years old, it has constantly reinvented itself on a mythic plane, and I don’t know of any other city like this.

Jonathan Silver:

You argue in your book that one can identify “sedimentary levels” of the myth, and we’ll come back to what those are. But as a way into that discussion, I want to offer a comparison and ask that you react to it, which may help Americans and other non-Israelis understand the kind of analysis that you undertake.

When one walks around the capital of the United States, you start to see that the urban planners of Washington, DC refer to the architectural vocabulary of Roman antiquity. Whether it’s the architecture of the Roman republic or of the empire—it’s a little bit unclear, but it doesn’t matter—they wanted the people walking around the capital of this great political project, the United States, to identify with Rome, that other great political project, through allusion. Thus there’s a mythological insertion of history into the architecture of the city.

Now, of course, Washington isn’t Rome, and the architecture of the two cities is in fact different. But the builders of Washington made a choice to try to conjure up a world of associations from somewhere else. Is that the kind of analysis that one should undertake?

Maoz Azaryahu:

The funny thing about this example—it’s ironic—is that the city that calls itself the “third Rome” is actually Moscow. This is another myth about Rome, which has nothing to do with architecture, only perceptions. In the Russian narrative, the second Rome was Constantinople, and Moscow was the third. This is a kind of mythic construction of the city. This sort of myth directs how we think about the place. Everything else is just a matter of how the myth becomes reality. Standing behind the reality is something metaphysical or transcendental—a deep structure of meaning. This is what I mean by myth.

Jonathan Silver:

Before we get into how the deep structure of reality was invested into the city, let’s just remind listeners about the actual history of Tel Aviv. When does it get started? Who starts it? How does it get going?

Maoz Azaryahu:

It’s a great story. I think it’s the only city, at least the only city I know of, that is named after a book. Which is a great thing! The name Tel Aviv actually was the title given to the Hebrew translation of Herzl’s Altneuland (which literally means “Old New Land”); both the original German and the Hebrew were published in 1902. Altneuland is a novel that imagines what life would be like in an actual Jewish state, located in the Land of Israel. As every kid in Tel Aviv probably knows, a tel is an archaeological mound, and aviv means spring. The phrase thus captures the Zionist idea of bringing the old (the remnants of an ancient city found in a tel) together with the new, symbolized by spring. The phrase itself is taken from the book of Ezekiel. So this is another myth, a very important Zionist myth.

Originally, Tel Aviv was founded by people who wanted to move to the suburbs of the Arab-Jewish city of Jaffa, and who built a new neighborhood. What they didn’t know—at least, not all of them knew—was that it was going to be something else. This small suburb of Jaffa became a township in 1921 and officially became a city in 1934. Actually, it was the largest city of British Mandate Palestine. In 1934, Tel Aviv had 100 residents. The British didn’t want to give it the status of a city because of Jaffa. But it was a city already in the early 1920s on the level of myth. The first Hebrew city. It wasn’t a city yet, but it was Hebrew and it was the first. And this was the big myth from the start.

That became its moniker. Everyone referred to Tel Aviv as the first Hebrew city. Really it was a town. Some people say that Tel Aviv was a city before it was a neighborhood. But the mythical history of the city created a vision of what the city should be, a vision that had real power. You can even say that the Zionist vision, Herzl’s vision, was actualized here in Tel Aviv—and not in the kibbutzim. The Jewish National Fund (JNF) made films and propaganda about the kibbutzim. But the real Zion was founded here in Tel Aviv. I always love to see how all the old Labor-socialist newspapers were fixated on the kibbutzim, but they were all situated in Tel Aviv. They were writing from Tel Aviv about the Jezreel Valley. And Tel Aviv was not socialist—that was another strange thing about the city.

Jonathan Silver:

I want to pause there for a second and draw out this comparison that you’ve already made. When we think about the Labor-Zionist ethos, we think about cultivating the Land of Israel. It means to mix the sweat of our brows and the blood of our hands into the soil, and thereby to grow a Hebrew civilization there. That is not an urban vision. It’s an agricultural vision. What you’re saying is that the founders of Tel Aviv believed that the establishment of a Hebrew city is a culmination of the Zionist vision. That’s a very different thing.

Maoz Azaryahu:

Probably the different visions worked together. One could not succeed without the other. But the big success story was Tel Aviv, not the kibbutzim. The kibbutzim were heroic. Tel Aviv was not heroic. On the level of myth, Tel Aviv doesn’t have the heroic component, even though some people refer to the builders of the city as heroes. But Tel Aviv was about free enterprise, which was not the Zionist ethos at the time. Tel Aviv was Americanized in the sense that there was building and free enterprise and private property and private ownership of land. And Tel Aviv was even sometimes about economic failures. In 1926-27, before the 1929 collapse in America, Tel Aviv almost collapsed. People were coming there, buying a piece of land, building on it, and speculating—and then the bubble burst. Some socialists didn’t like these new Tel Avivians.

But the city was growing. It was growing and expanding northward, crossing the mythical border into the far north—that’s the Yarkon River. It was the center, the capital of the Jewish yishuv before the state was founded. Theater was there; culture was there; newspapers were there. Everything was there.

Jonathan Silver:

We should say that the establishment of the Hebrew University took place in Jerusalem. So some elements of national culture took root elsewhere. But you do write about a very important school that was founded here in Tel Aviv, the first gymnasium, established to honor Herzl. Maybe you could talk about the institutions and how they came together.

Maoz Azaryahu:

You have the Technion in Haifa which is the technical university; it’s still there and is still very successful. In Jaffa, in 1906, you had the Hebrew Gymnasium, which is named after Herzl. And the “Hebrew” of the title isn’t just an adjective. They spoke Hebrew there. That was the cradle of Hebrew.

Just to say something before we go to the gymnasium: usually, in Hebrew, people used to say in Hebrew ir ha’Ivrit, the Hebrew city; in English, they used to say the Jewish city. I insist upon saying the Hebrew city, because it was not just a Jewish city. The point was to speak Hebrew in the city—to have names of the streets in Hebrew, inscriptions in Hebrew, signs in Hebrew. Some people reacted violently when people didn’t speak Hebrew in public spaces, for instance if they spoke Yiddish or German in the 1930s.

Jonathan Silver:

For those who travel to Israel now, they see street signs in Hebrew everywhere. But of course that was not always the case in the 20s and the 30s. Tell us about the gymnasium and also about the signs.

Maoz Azaryahu:

I think it’s a nice story. The gymnasium was very important. It was the first public building in Tel Aviv. It was a small neighborhood with a huge building, the gymnasium, which was like a temple. They didn’t have a synagogue. They had this Hebrew Gymnasium, and everyone who was someone went there. Moshe Sharrett, the future foreign minister, was among the first students to enroll there. And what’s also quite amazing about that time was that many Jews, young Jews from the Russian empire—Ukraine mainly—came to study there, usually without their parents, which means that actually Tel Aviv, from the start, was a university town. But the gymnasium was not a university, and rent was always a problem because there was an overflow of young people who rented, as they might in a university town.

The spirit of the city, this Hebrew city, was one of the images of Tel Aviv from the start. Tel Aviv was also one of the first modern cities. When you read what people wrote about it at the beginning, you find out that many people who lived in the neighborhoods that became Tel Aviv were not really interested in the idea of having running water in their apartments, which was a novelty in Ottoman Palestine—and yet they often had it.

What’s also very interesting are the street names. It was the first city in Ottoman Palestine that introduced street names. And they were, of course, Zionist. The first street, the main street, was Herzl Street, which was to be expected in 1910. It was not even decided. It was just a given: no one knows how it came about, which means something about how people felt about Herzl there.

Meir Dizengoff, the city’s first mayor—I have to mention his name—was the real promoter of the city. He was the man behind the city, and behind the ideas of this capitalist city. He was its inventor. He told the British authorities that they wanted to put up street signs with Hebrew above and English below—that’s always the issue, which language is above. And the British officer asked him, “Why not Arabic?” Dizengoff answered in a 1925 letter, saying okay, but only if Arab-dominated Jaffa would put Hebrew below [Arabic on its own signs].

So the British Mandate in Tel Aviv had signs with Hebrew at the top, then English, which was the official language, and then Arabic below. I didn’t know for some time what happened in Jaffa, because the old signs disappeared after the War of Independence. Then I found one photo, which was really very well scanned. I could not read the sign, but I could see the language, and it showed that Jaffa was the other way around: Arabic at the top, Hebrew at the bottom, and English in the middle.

This is the story of these two cities. Tel Aviv was a Hebrew city. Before the state was founded, Tel Aviv was the Jewish national home. It was the Balfour Declaration in action. At a minimum, 99 percent of the population—probably more—were Jews. Mostly Ashkenazi Jews, but not only. There were Yemenite Jews, and Jews who came from Iraq in the southern part of the city. There was a Jewish police force there, the first of its kind in Palestine. British officers were not there. And then the city had a port, which was founded 1936. It was a very small port, but the idea behind the port was that it would help create independence. You had the Jaffa port, which was controlled by the Arabs, and the Haifa port, which was an imperial British port, and then the small, tiny Tel Aviv port, which was controlled by Jews.

Jonathan Silver:

Let’s put all these things together. There is a Hebrew city whose street names, whose institutional names, whose ethos, honors a Zionist founding. Even today, when one walks around Tel Aviv, one walks by Trumpeldor Street. And all of the names refer to the intellectual and heroic architects of the Jewish state. There’s independence, which is represented by the establishment of a port. There’s a police force, which represents autonomous Jewish power, and the ability to enforce Hebrew rule in a Hebrew city. What we are seeing here is that the mythological significance of Tel Aviv is that it is the Zionist city. It’s an encapsulation of Zionism.

Maoz Azaryahu:

Exactly. This is the idea of the first Hebrew city. By the way, I once had a meeting with the current mayor, and I asked a very provocative question: what is the second Hebrew city? Everyone was a little puzzled. We went to Google to find out that the answer is . . . Petaḥ Tikvah, founded in 1937. It was the first moshava, the first agricultural settlement, but only the second Hebrew city. It was granted the status of a city by the British in 1937. But that’s beside the point, which is that Tel Aviv was the actualization of the Zionist ethos.

Jonathan Silver:

Now I want to introduce a dilemma into our conversation. If the original structure of reality that governed the way that people in Tel Aviv understood the place where they live was the Zionist ethos, today, the ethos of Tel Aviv, if one consults the New York Times or the Times of London, is that it is the cosmopolitan city, an international city. It is where women and men of any ethnic origin can also feel at home, because the city is an embodiment of multiculturalism. In other words, it has moved from a strong nationalistic identification to post-national identification. The same city gets invested with this new significance, and that is also part of the story of Tel Aviv.

Maoz Azaryahu:

This is also the story of Israel. It happened, I think, after the 1977 elections, when the right wing won the premiership for the first time, and then the 80s. In the 70s, Tel Aviv was in decline like every big city in the world. Like New York. The 70s were not good times for cities anywhere. In the 1980s, Tel Aviv somehow was reinvented as a non-stop city. Suddenly the decline was over and people went out and found that it was full of activity, and it became a very, very liberal city. I remember that as the time I enjoyed the city as a young man, as a young student. I didn’t understand it, but I was part of it. But on a mythical level, on an ideological level, what happened is that when the right took over government, suddenly Tel Aviv became the bastion of the good old Zionism, of Labor Zionism, the Zionism that founded the state.

There is one article, published in 1985, which I think encapsulates everything. It was not read by too many people, but it’s enough to organize our thoughts around, and thus to create a myth. It compared Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, when Jerusalem in the 80s—in the view of many Tel Avivians—was the city of hate and barbarians and Arabs and ultra-Orthodox and all the people who are not us, the enlightened. This is when the symbolic rivalry between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem really develops. Tel Aviv is a city of light. There’s the white city (Tel Aviv’s other famous nickname) and the black city, filled with Ḥaredim in black hats and coats. Jerusalem is supposedly a reactionary city, a city of conflict, even a primitive city—which is juxtaposed with Tel Aviv, which comes to be identified with the old, founding elite.

And that was the best of the city you just described. By the way, it was only quite recently that the New York Times and the Washington Post and all these secular, progressive, cosmopolitan newspapers began thinking about Tel Aviv in this way. I think it was 2009, when Tel Aviv celebrated its centennial, that suddenly people abroad, not only in England and in the U.S., suddenly paid attention to this phenomenon here on the Mediterranean. Since then—we’re talking about thirteen years—Tel Aviv is always referred to as a bit of good, progressive, cosmopolitan territory within Israel. Notice that the same images repeat themselves, replicate themselves, when people describe Tel Aviv. And no one questions them. This is the power of myth: we don’t think about it; we just repeat it, again and again.

Going back to the first question, what is the myth? A myth, in the end, is a cliché. That’s how we talk about reality. Tel Aviv is a product of what the mayor did and what others did to cultivate this image and to develop it. Tel Aviv has come to represent progress, and if you accept that, then you see Jerusalem as the city that it fights with.

But I don’t see a contrast between the two cities. I think that Israel is both, which is a nice thing. It’s like a battery, which has positive and negative terminals that together produce energy. The two cities are only 40 miles apart. Together, they are Israel. If you don’t like Jerusalem, go to Tel Aviv, which many people do. Some other people become religious and go to Jerusalem.

Jonathan Silver:

In between it being the city that never stops and the progressive city that hosts the Gay Pride parade, and the city of the 1920s and the 1930s that you’ve described as an embodiment of Hebrew nationalism, or Zionism, there is another sedimentary layer of myth. It is the White City, a term referring to its Bauhaus architecture. It’s a very modern city, not yet postmodern. Tell us about that. What did Tel Aviv mean in those years, and what did the myth about it disclose?

Maoz Azaryahu:

Tel Aviv was a modern city. It was about water and about electricity. It was the first neighborhood with electricity in British Mandate Palestine.

Now we can talk about architecture. You talked before about Washington, DC and its Roman imperial architecture and what it means. There was not much ideology behind Tel Aviv’s architecture. Tel Aviv was built in the 20s, like every other Levantine town or city around the Mediterranean from Beirut to Alexandria to Haifa. And suddenly, in the 1930s, something happened; a new style was introduced into the city.

How that happened and where it came from is a great question. I have my suspicions about it, because architectural historians talk about the new ideas coming from Europe, about modernism and about the influence of Bauhaus architecture, which is actually an international style. The term Bauhaus can be very misleading. But let’s not get into that here.

There were some compounds in the city that were, like in Vienna, socialist compounds. Tel Aviv had huge assemblage of new architecture from Europe. And this is not only true of Tel Aviv. Jews were building everywhere in the 1930s, and they were building a lot. Jews from Europe were coming to Palestine and building Jewish towns like Ada, just outside of Haifa, which is a beautiful, beautiful white city. And in Jerusalem they built the Rehavia neighborhood, which is beautiful, too.

How then did Tel Aviv come to be identified as the White City? This moniker says something about Tel Aviv. It’s about image-making and it’s about branding—about telling a story. In the 1930s, as far as I could determine, no one really liked this new architecture. It was not as nice as the older style. And I have my suspicions that it actually became so popular because it was much cheaper to build. Nothing more than that. Ideology came later, and was confined to historians. Tel Aviv and Haifa became examples of the new architecture. I was really thrilled to discover a book published in Britain in 1944—a very conservative book about British architecture during the war. And the author said, “if you want to see this modern architecture, go to Haifa and Tel Aviv.” That’s amazing.

And yet, no one liked the city. Tel Aviv was the ugly duckling. Tel Aviv was never considered to be a beautiful city. It was near the sea and so the colors faded way. It was never considered to be an architectural treasure. But suddenly, in the 1980s, the architectural historian Michael Levin promoted the idea of the White City. In 2003, it was recognized by UNESCO as a world heritage site—the second city to get such a designation for its modernist architecture. (The first was Brasilia.) And then the city that had never been considered to be beautiful came to be considered an architectural treasure.

When people take architectural tours of Tel Aviv, focused on the Bauhaus style, the guides end with the building where I live. I see them every Friday, standing in front of my house talking about the architecture. I am proud in a sense, but at the same time, I am keenly aware of image-making and the branding behind it. Tel Aviv is unique in that way. The White City was built with bricks and mortar in the 30s and 40s, but the image and the myth that we now know developed in the 90s and thereafter.

Jonathan Silver:

For anyone who’s spent any time in the city of Tel Aviv or who even looks at the map, the most obvious fact about the place, inescapably so, is the beach. Tel Aviv is a beach city. Tell us about how the image of the beach, the understanding of the water, and how it changed as the city was invested with these different myths.

Maoz Azaryahu:

The beach was never part of the official myth of the city. Actually, Tel Aviv was not founded on the beach. It was quite far from the beach, like Los Angeles. Tel Aviv eventually grew to the beach. But I think the beach was essential for building the current image of Tel Aviv as a joyous city. The beach is not Jerusalem. Jerusalem does not have a beach.

Reading newspapers from the 1930s, I was touched by how people wrote about the beach. The Tel Avivians could be divided in two groups. Those who went to synagogue on Saturday, and those who went to the beach. The soccer games came later. This was Tel Aviv, and the beach was very much part of the secular image of the city. The beach was the place where Jews could enjoy life without even thinking that they lived in a Jewish environment. I was very touched reading a report by the great Yiddish author Sholem Asch, in a Yiddish newspaper, talking about the beach of Tel Aviv. He said that persecuted Jews in Poland should go to Tel Aviv and go to the beach there; it’s like a sanitorium. Spend some time there and then you can go back and feel better at home. This was part of being normal.

The great Hebrew poet Shaul Tchernichovsky once wrote about Tel Aviv too. He was a physician by trade, and once he wrote that he was very envious of the children. For them, living in a Jewish environment was a very normal thing, and like everyone else in the world, they didn’t have to think about being a Jew—because the environment, the surrounding, was Jewish. That was the whole idea. The beach, more than anything, underscored the feeling that this was a normal place. France and Italy have the Riviera; Israel has the beach at Tel Aviv.

The existence of the beach is nevertheless attributed to the vision of the first mayor, Dizengoff. In 1932, there is a story that the city engineer—there was one already—was standing with Dizengoff on the sand dunes in what’s now the northern part of the city, where the Hilton hotel now stands. And the mayor says, “Here, we are going to build the industrial part of the city.” And the city just said, “Why? Why should we destroy the beach? It’s so beautiful here.” And Dizengoff told them—he came from Moldova, but later lived in Odessa, a coastal city—he said, “Jews don’t go to the beach.” What a misunderstanding.

Jonathan Silver:

To me, the most interesting thing here is that Tel Aviv can understand itself, in part, by contrast to Jerusalem. And I think that what you just said is pregnant with much meaning, that Jerusalem is understood in this mindset as the place of restrictions and limits and forms and halakhah, of dos and don’ts and cans and can’ts.

Maoz Azaryahu:

And conflicts.

Jonathan Silver:

Tel Aviv is the place, and the beach maybe represents this more than anything else, of opening out onto the world and the the vital human energies that echo the waves. All of that, somehow, is conjured up in the presence of the beach here, and the walls, and the city, and the latent burden of history over there.

Maoz Azaryahu:

I agree entirely. Tel Aviv and Jerusalem replicate the messy relationship between Moscow and St. Petersburg. One is the old inland capital and the other is the new city founded on the seashore, open to Europe. This is the openness that Tel Aviv represents. I think people here were very much aware of this, when they came from the Russian empire, of this kind of mythic contrast between these two cities, two capitals. On the other hand, I also found in the 30s very sad descriptions of people who just came, immigrants who came to Palestine and were alone, standing there on the beach, looking at the sea and thinking about Europe and the families they left behind. So it was many, many things.

Also many Jews drowned there because they didn’t know how to swim. No one knew who they were. In the old cemetery of Tel Aviv, there are many, many grave sites of people without names, because no one knew who they were. This was the beach, but the beach was the motto of fun for this city, for this fun-loving city. Everyone praises the beach of Tel Aviv. The beach of Tel Aviv often appears on lists of the world’s best beaches. It’s considered to be a jewel in this city.

Speaking of rankings, less than a year ago Tel Aviv, for the first time, was ranked the most expensive city in the world.

Jonathan Silver:

That was in the Economist.

Maoz Azaryahu:

Yes. But it only made first place because the shekel at that time was so high relative to the dollar.

Jonathan Silver:

I’d like to turn from the Economist to the book of Jeremiah, which has this pregnant phrase, “to build and to be built.” That phrase was adopted very early on as a Zionist slogan, and then as part of the city’s identity.

Maoz Azaryahu:

I would say this is the official motto of the city. Most people are not even aware that there is a motto, or that it’s from Jeremiah. I have found it amazing, because Jeremiah—we cannot really ask him, but we can read his text and try to understand what he meant—talked about Jerusalem, and about Zion, but obviously not about Tel Aviv. But then Tel Aviv took over, almost as the new Jerusalem. This is, I think, the real statement behind the slogan.

Practically, Tel Aviv is very noisy. I have to confess, I don’t like contemporary Tel Aviv very much. I think there are many problems now. You can see the cracks. Someone, I don’t want to give names, is building a new Tel Aviv now in the site of the old Tel Aviv. The pleasant city of two years ago, of three years ago, is disappearing. New construction is everywhere. According to statistics, there are about 1,300 construction sites in the city now. They’re building light rails and trains. And then they’re building new buildings. . . . Someone wrote in the 1990s that in Tel Aviv, when you wake up in the morning and you hear someone drilling, it means you have a new neighbor. This is Tel Aviv today. It can be very, very unpleasant sometimes.

Jonathan Silver:

This act of building is part of it. But I think there’s an idea captured in the contrast between building and being built, which means that the person who lives in such a place is shaped by it somehow. And I wonder how Tel Aviv shapes the people who live here.

Maoz Azaryahu:

Tel Aviv attracts. This isn’t my slogan, someone else wrote it: Jerusalem repels; Tel Aviv attracts. But that’s of course the perspective of Tel Aviv. People, young people mainly, want to come to Tel Aviv. That’s why rents are so high. People come here because Tel Aviv is still living on the fumes of its image as a great city. They come here because of the myth. But it isn’t that city anymore. Maybe in 30 years it will be great again.

There is this idea of a modern city. I think this is related to these towers, residential towers and office towers, everywhere in the city. I have a postcard for Tel Aviv from the 60s—there is only one high rise in Tel Aviv, the Shalom Tower. It was the tallest building in the Middle East, then. Now there are high rises everywhere.

Actually living in Tel Aviv is not easy. It can be unbearable. It’s really hard. You can’t walk on the sidewalks. There is no place for you. But the image of Tel Aviv—that’s why people come here. I wonder how long it will take for people to realize the chasm between the image and the reality, and for that chasm to grow so great that the myth breaks. This, for me, is one of the most interesting questions.

Jonathan Silver:

Maybe that new iteration will summon up a new myth. The last question I have for you has to do with the future. In America, the younger you are, the more progressive you tend to be. In terms of culture, in terms of social sensibilities, sometimes also in terms of politics, children are usually to the left of their parents. In Israel, we see something different. In Israel, by and large, and for the most part, the young are open to conservative ideas. Tel Aviv is probably one of the youngest cities in the country. But it’s also a city whose inhabitants lean left.

Maoz Azaryahu:

I think it’s a matter of tradition. Tel Aviv is a new city. It’s a very new city, a very young city. But it’s full of traditions. Tel Aviv can never get rid of its Zionist ethos and past. It doesn’t matter how progressive the people who decide things for the city or write about it in newspapers are.

I’ll give you an example which I find interesting in this regard. The idea that Tel Aviv is the leftist Israel—or the liberal Israel, or the liberal face of Israel—is itself a kind of myth. These characterizations apply to about 500 people. And the idea that comes out of this myth is “the state of Tel Aviv.” That is, the idea that Israel is retrograde, primitive, and Tel Aviv is something else—an island, an almost-independent state, or something that should consider itself independent.

I was asked about this idea a year ago and I said, “Well, a state without an airport and without a port, cannot be a state.” But the current mayor, who is also quite progressive, has a different vision, one that I find interesting. This is the idea of Tel Aviv as a lighthouse—an example for all of Israel. But this is exactly what Dizengoff said in the 1930s. Then, he was talking about capitalism. He said that Tel Aviv will expand until all of Israel is capitalist. He was right. I don’t know if our mayor is a capitalist, but ultimately, myths and images shape the way people speak about the city. I wonder how long the current myths will last. But I think as long as Jerusalem exists, Tel Aviv will symbolize its opposite. They sustain each other.

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