How many clichés is it possible to stuff into one soft feature about Tel Aviv?
That was my thought as I was watching Bob Simon’s 60 Minutes segment on the city, which included, in the first three minutes, these good, old chestnuts: “dancing on the Titanic,” “the last days of Pompeii,” and “later-day Sodom.”
Were there any new ways to express this extraordinarily tired idea? How about this stinker? “There are more synagogues than bars in this city of the Jews, and remember Tel Aviv isn’t far from where Moses came down with those commandments…”
There is so much to say about this segment, but my fingers hurt too much from pounding my fist against the wall while I was watching to catalog all the ways in which it ignored reality.
There are basic reporting errors here. The piece is framed as an exploration of the political apathy of the bronzed and beautiful citizens of Tel Aviv (all of them apparently working at start-ups by day and dancing on tables doing vodka shots at night). So how can you tell this story without letting any complicating factors seep in? For one thing, only interview people that give it to you. So the two main people Simon spoke with, who take up most of the face time are Ron Huldai, the mayor of Tel Aviv, and Gideon Levy, the Haaretz writer best known for his searing and unrelenting portraits of Palestinian suffering. Both in their own ways offer confirmation that the city is indeed Titanic/Pompeii/Sodom.
Huldai is selling something, so naturally why would he want to describe any underside to life in Tel Aviv. Don’t Tel Avivians think about the potential missiles aimed at them? Simon asks. “When you get out of your home in New York, you have the chance to get in a car accident, no? What’s the difference,” Huldai answers.
And then there’s Levy. When, oh when, well he stop being the go-to guy that all reporters call up when they want the dark warnings about how sick Israelis are? The guy is like a jukebox of direness. “There is no political debate in Israel. There is no debate almost about anything,” Levy says.
Really? Then please explain the rows of tents you are walking among just as this voiceover is taking place. What are those tents? Are you in the woods? In a camping store? The casual 60 Minutes viewer would not know. There is no mention of the massive tent protests from last summer or the ongoing activism around the question of income inequality. Nothing. “Everyone can afford the basics,” Simon intones.
And this is the problem with the piece. It’s a glossy magazine profile of the city that confirms an easy, outmoded perception of a fun loving place where, as Levy, puts “it’s all about the next vacation, the next jeep, the next restaurant.”
This simply isn’t true. There is no doubt that as a thriving cosmopolitan city, Tel Aviv does represent a bubble and that the conflict with the Palestinians seems — yes, another cliché — “on another planet.” It is not on people’s minds all the time (though it’s ridiculous to claim, as the piece does, that it once took up a lot more space, with masses out in the street protesting for peace). Tel Avivians are living their lives, wanting the things for themselves and their families that people anywhere do. They are not more or less materialistic or self-involved. They are not all playing paddle ball by day and going to fashion shows at night. Some of them, many of them, are struggling to afford to continue living in the city. And more than a few are contending with bigger questions of politics and morality — but, yes, it’s true, probably no more than the number of New Yorkers who would organize a protest against an American foreign policy they disagreed with.
As often in these judgments of Tel Aviv, what can easily be understood as unfortunate, but common human nature is painted as a sinister kind of apathy.
Sadly the piece also seems to betray a kind of death wish, that these citizens of Sodom will get their comeuppance. Who better than Levy to express this dark desire? “It can work for a while,” he says, about Tel Aviv. “Until it will blow in our faces. And it will blow in our faces.”
Gal Beckerman was a staff writer and then the Forward’s opinion editor until 2014. He was previously an assistant editor at the Columbia Journalism Review where he wrote essays and media criticism. His book reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review and Bookforum. His first book, “When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry,” won the 2010 National Jewish Book Award and the 2012 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, as well as being named a best book of the year by The New Yorker and The Washington Post. Follow Gal on Twitter at @galbeckerman