Jewish city turns 100 and parties through crisis

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TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) _ Well past the Sabbath midnight, hours before the Mideast erupted once again into war, Tel Aviv was doing what it loves most – partying.

For a place founded a century ago to be the world’s first Jewish city, the atmosphere was decidedly un-kosher. Christmas decorations lined the bars and the delis were open, selling pork. In the clubs, the dancers dripped sweat. Outside, tipsy women in revealing fashion stumbled in the streets, and at 2 a.m. drivers were hunting in vain for parking spots.

Inside the “Zizitripo” lounge, Omer Gershon downed a shot of vodka.

“The nightlife here is crazier than anywhere in the world. I’ve got people drinking here all night long,” the 34-year-old owner yelled over the thumping electronic music. “There’s a lot of escapism involved. Carpe diem (seize the day) takes on a whole new meaning here.”

And there was plenty to escape from that night. An hour’s drive south, Palestinian militants were firing missiles at Israeli communities, and Israel would shortly invade the Gaza Strip with air and land strikes to stop the barrages – an operation that ultimately claimed well over 1,000 lives by both sides’ count.

It was hardly an auspicious prelude to a year in which Tel Aviv has begun celebrating its 100th birthday with art shows, outdoor concerts, a marathon and the inevitable all-night street party. But this is a city hardened to the shocks of Middle East conflict.

In the 1991 Gulf War it was hit by Saddam Hussein’s Scud missiles. A decade later it suffered an onslaught of Palestinian suicide bombings. In the 2006 war against Hezbollah the fear loomed that Tel Aviv might be hit from Lebanon by Iranian-supplied missiles, and during the Gaza war similar fears were felt.

But whatever threats may loom, the party goes on.

Tel Aviv was founded on April 11, 1909, on deserted Mediterranean sand dunes north of the Arab port of Jaffa. Its name, which it took later, means “Hill of Spring,” and is drawn from the writings of Theodor Herzl, modern Zionism’s visionary founding father.

Its first inhabitants were Jews from Russia, Germany and Poland. Successive waves of European anti-Semitism culminating in the rise of Nazi Germany swelled the immigrant population. In 1934 it was declared a city. After World War II came Holocaust survivors and Jews from the Middle East.

The founders built theaters, museums, promenades and universities. The political and military bodies of the state-to-be were born here and today, nearly 61 years after Israel became a state, Tel Aviv is a world-class, high-tech metropolis and financial capital of 400,000 people. With its suburban sprawl, the population swells to 3 million, more than half the Jews in Israel.

Baruch Kipnis, a geography professor who recently published a book celebrating Tel Aviv’s centennial, said the city “controls almost every aspect of life” in Israel and has become “an enormous head on a shriveled body.”

Some critics say Tel Aviv’s dominance has cut a wedge between it and the rest of the country. Some deride it as “the bubble,” detached from the “other” Israel of religious purists, kibbutzniks, the communities under missile attack from Gaza and the military occupation of 2.4 million Palestinians in the West Bank, just 20 miles away.

Forty miles southeast in the mountains is Jerusalem, the capital recognized as such by no government but Israel itself, and divided among secular Jews, Orthodox Jews and Arabs.

While Jerusalem suffers from bouts of religious and Arab-Israeli strife, Tel Aviv’s defenders counter that their city is leaping forward into the future.

“Tel Aviv is the model for what Israel needs to be,” said Yael Dayan, chairwoman of the city council and daughter of the late war hero, Moshe Dayan. “Jerusalem is not a city, it’s a symbol, it’s a place people are leaving. We are the exact opposite. We are a city of live-and-let-live.”

Tel Aviv has always prided itself on being both a bastion of secular Jewish life and a place where the religious live in peace alongside their bohemian neighbors. Trendy Sheinkin street has an unwritten agreement: On Fridays it’s open to gay parades, tattoo parlors and fresh fruit juice stands; on Saturdays it shuts down to respect the Sabbath.

It’s a city where young religious men on street corners beckon secular Jews to say a prayer to the beat of Techno music. It has separate beaches for religious women, religious men and gays.

Religion in Tel Aviv often comes with a touch of irony, like the elegant woman strolling on a small street wearing large sunglasses and a low-cut tank top that quotes from the Ten Commandments: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife.”

It is a city of refuge for Arab homosexuals rejected by the conservative societies in which they have grown up. But while there is nothing to bar Arabs from living in Tel Aviv, only a few hundred do, city officials say. The Arab population is concentrated in Jaffa – Yafo in Hebrew – and the two are merged under the formal Hebrew name Tel Aviv-Yafo.

In last year’s mayoral election, a third of the vote went to Dov Khenin, a Jewish member of a mixed Arab-Israeli party.

Seated on a motorcycle outside the cafe he runs, 31-year-old Oren Chen says “living in a bubble” is not necessarily a bad thing.

“People say ‘bubble’ in a negative context, but this is actually an island of sanity,” he said. “It’s a place of freedom, in the most Israeli way possible.”

For all of Tel Aviv’s desire for normalcy, it can never truly escape the troubles around it.

The Hassen Bek mosque, built by the last Turkish ruler in the Holy Land before World War I, is virtually unused today by Muslim worshippers. Wedged between Tel Aviv and Jaffa, lit up in green as part of the nighttime seaside skyline, it serves as a stark, mute reminder of the absence of Arabs in the neighborhood it stands in.

After Israel’s independence, Tel Aviv spread to encompass several Arab villages whose inhabitants had fled or been driven out in the 1948 war. Still, having been founded as an entirely Jewish city on empty land purchased from its Arab owners, “In that regard it is not a Zionist city, because in no way was it based on the oppression of the Arabs,” said Khenin, the mayoral runner-up.

Tel Aviv is where the young state of Israel nearly came to civil war in 1948, when its first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, ordered the army to fight the Jewish militant Irgun group unless it laid down its weapons. One of Ben-Gurion’s officers was Yitzhak Rabin, the future prime minister, assassinated in 1995 by a Jewish extremist in front of City Hall.

Unlike biblical cities such as Jerusalem, where Jews resettled after thousands of years of exile, Tel Aviv was the first attempt to build a Jewish city from scratch, and Dan Karmon, a 33-year-old marketing manager, is glad of it.

“It’s a place where you can live a secular life, without having to escape your Jewish past,” he said. “Tel Aviv best represents the struggle to live a normal life in Israel.”

But never completely normal. Paul McCartney recently gave a concert in Tel Aviv, joined by the audience in singing “Give Peace A Chance.” Three months later the Gaza war broke out.

Even music can be a sensitive subject. The Tel Aviv-based Israel Philharmonic Orchestra doesn’t perform music by Richard Wagner because of its associations with Nazi Germany.

However, the city has a powerful German heritage, on vivid display in the 1930s Bauhaus-style buildings designed by Jewish architects who fled Nazi Germany. The 4,000 boxy white structures have earned Tel Aviv a rare UNESCO designation as a World Heritage Site.