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Tel Aviv:
A Tale of Two Cities

Excerpted from Israel Yearbook & Almanac

Tel Aviv: Table of Contents | Historic Photos | Bauhaus Architecture

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Both images of Tel Aviv — its own and that held by the rest of Israel — ignore fully half of the city. By many indices, Tel Aviv really is two cities. The north and center correspond to the myth, while south Tel Aviv is more like a development town out in the hinterland.

The north is predominantly Ashkenazi, middle class, politically liberal, and secular. This Tel Aviv is epitomized by the Olympia restaurant, where so many power-lunchers in industry, politics, and the military have swung their deals, where VIPs from abroad are hosted. Owner Moshe Francis’s guest book bears the signatures of Jean-Paul Sartre, Pelé, Walter Cronkite, and even, in an entry dated May 4, 1968, Idi Amin.1 There’s Dizengoff Street, which tourists and Israeli squares still think is the hot spot of the city, not knowing that it was abandoned to tourists and squares decades ago, and the Agam fountain in long-since déclassé Dizengoff Circle. There’s Florentine — geographically south, sociologically north — the latest word in bohemia, hipper by far than Sheinkin, derided as a place for poseurs, while Florentine is the real thing: cheap, rundown flats in buildings where the laundry is still draped outside the windows, where the storefronts are those of metalworking and electrical-fixture shops, and, most of all, where there are real artists and writers and actors and directors, not little mama’s boys and girls who merely know how to dress correctly.

Tel Aviv at Sunset
View from Tel Aviv at Sunset © Lisa Snider 2013

The north is Ramat Aviv (Ramat Aviv Gimmel shares with Florentine the distinction of having had an Israeli sitcom named after it), where Rabin lived, where Shimon Peres and Yael Dayan still live, where, above all, stands Tel Aviv University, which sometime in the last couple of decades probably overtook Hebrew University as Israel’s premier institute of higher education. HU is where students go to master economic and legal theory; TAU is where they learn how to be winning lawyers and successful businesspeople. As a Jerusalem businessman once put it, “In Jerusalem people talk about ideas; in Tel Aviv they talk about money.”

The north is the new Azrieli Center — three glass-skinned towers, one cylindrical, one triangular, and one square, site of an upscale shopping mall where the boys hanging out on weekends after midnight in their L.A. street gang slob gear and the girls in their skintight outfits and bare midriffs are not as young as 14, but as young as 10.

South Tel Aviv is the demographic antithesis of the north. It is dominated by poor and working class Mizrahim (although many poor immigrants from the former Soviet Union have moved in during this decade), politically right-wing and traditionally religious—with a growing number of newly religious Jews. The neighborhoods of south Tel Aviv—the Hatiqva Quarter, Ezra, Shapira, Kefar Shalem, Argazim (which means “crates,” and takes its name from the large, heavy crates that served as the neighborhood’s first “homes” in the 1950s)—bear the telltale sign of a poor Mizrahi area: The bulletin boards and the walls of empty storefronts are covered with posters advertising Jewish spiritualists, faith healers, and upcoming revival meetings. On one block in Kefar Shalem stand three little synagogues; a shocking contrast to the situation on the north side. This is a Tel Aviv that few Israelis, and fewer tourists, know.

The main drag southside is Etzel Street in the Hatiqva Quarter, a hopping place with great Mizrahi food. One of its landmarks is Shipudei Hatiqva, which was the starting point of the funeral cortege for its slain owner, Yehezkel Aslan, one of the drug kings and local heroes of Hatiqva. Another is Beit Dani, the vast community and sports center, the pride of south Tel Aviv, with its statue marking the spot where the Scuds fell during the Gulf War.

The new Central Bus Station, said to be the largest such terminal in the world, is the crossroads of the country’s poor and lower-middle class (the crossroads of the middle and upper classes being Ben-Gurion Airport).

Nearby is the old Central Bus Station, around which tens of thousands of foreign workers live in squalor, 12 to an apartment. On weekend nights one can see drunken Romanians (who tend to be here without families) sitting everywhere, in outdoor cafes and on sidewalks, surrounded by piles of empty beer bottles, before or after spending what’s probably the better part of a week’s pay at one of the aforementioned “health clubs.” One out of every seven people residing in Tel Aviv is a foreign worker, from Africa, China, the Philippines, Thailand, South America, and just about everyplace else. About half are in Israel legally; the rest live “underground” and try to avoid being picked up by the police. This area, despite being the crime hotbed of the city, is sparsely patrolled. Except for periodic raids to please those elements in the Government who consider the foreign workers a “ticking demographic bomb” and have nightmares of the Jewish state being overrun by aliens, the police tend to leave that side of town alone. Labor and Social Affairs Minister Eli Yishai (whose Shas party is one of those elements) once toured the parts of south Tel Aviv where the foreign workers are concentrated and said, “You walk around here and you think you’re in Africa, not Israel.” With Sunday a work day, African laborers (many of whom have managed to smuggle their families in) can be seen dressed in their best and going to church on Saturdays.

Until it closed down a few years ago and the neighborhood became an almost extraterritorial enclave of gastarbeiter, the old Central Bus Station was about the funkiest place in the country, certainly in Tel Aviv. The surrounding streets were famous for their concentration of ultrafast-food joints (serving mainly falafel [deep-fried chickpea fritters] and burekas [envelopes of flaky pastry filled with potatoes, spinach, cheese, or what have you]); cheap dives where old, slow-moving men sat silently in front of a beer and watched soccer on television; bargain basements; and, most of all, music stores blaring Mizrahi “cassette” music over loudspeakers.


Beyond the southside, but really in a class by itself within Tel Aviv, is Jaffa. Located along the coast immediately south of Tel Aviv proper, Jaffa has some 60,000 residents, about a third of them Arabs. It is the only place in Tel Aviv where Arabs live, except for a sprinkling here and there. In parts of the area, especially in the Ajami quarter, Arabs and Jews live next to each other, and for this reason Jaffa has gained the reputation as an example of coexistence. But again, reality is somewhat different from the image.

The owner of a new cafe, a refugee from Sheinkin, says coexistence in Jaffa is dubious. “People live next to each other, but they carry on their separate lives. You’ve got multimillionaire Jews and you’ve got the poorest Arabs you’ll see anywhere.”

To foreigners and out-of-towners, Jaffa is the picturesque, exotic, old Middle East with a heavy dash of artiness. Jaffa is the clock tower, fishermen and fish restaurants at the old pier, AbouElafia & Sons 24-hour bakery, the flea market, art galleries on winding lanes, ethnic nightclubs, stone houses from the end of the Ottoman era, stone alleyways and stone walls. Dank, gray, seedy, irresistible.

Away from the eyes of sightseers, the most beautiful homes in Israel have been and are still being built in Jaffa. The style can be called “Neo-Mediterranean”—in sandstone, marble, and glass, dominated by arches, these buildings combine ancient and modern, and are a brilliant update of the old Jaffa style. Condominiums start in the range of $1 million and go all the way above $3 million. Sea view included.

No more than a mile away from this luxury, where the southern tip of Jaffa abuts on neighboring Bat Yam, is the single ugliest, most horrific place to live in Israel. This is Pardes Daka, a five-acre former citrus grove owned by the Daka clan and still home to some 350 of its members. The menfolk deal drugs right out in the open. For police it’s a no-go zone. Sanitation is abysmal; the children suffer an unusually high rate of viral diseases. There are no paved roads. Pardes Daka dominated by a vast, fetid pool of water fed by municipal drainage systems. There are mounds of garbage covered with dirt. Trash is everywhere. Many of the homes are shanties made of wood planks and metal sheeting; the better ones are made of raw concrete. Boys ride by on donkeys. Scores of used, undoubtedly stolen, cars are up on blocks, being disassembled for spare parts. Half the children don’t go to school.

Such is the harsher side of coexistence in Jaffa. 

1“He behaved very nicely, but oh, how that man ate! Three legs of lamb,” recalls Francis.

Source: Israel Yearbook & Almanac 1999, IBRT Translation/Documentation Ltd., pp. 22–23, 26

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