Commentary Magazine


Israel's Three Cities

The meeting point of Haifa is the observation platform in the middle of Panorama Road. It is always crowded. People come casually to stare at the most spectacular sweep of the Mediterranean in Israel, and go away surfeited. It is a purpose in itself. Almost every day, a very old man, accompanied by two students from a neighboring yeshiva, comes there to read on one of the benches. And every morning and evening an Arab woman rides past on her donkey, keeping her back to the view both on the way up and down.

A view needs to be related in order to be understood. In Haifa the reference points are the oil refineries, the docks, the immense Dagon storehouse, the stacks of the cement works, and beyond everything, the bland vista of the sea. The eye, accustomed to staring out, naturally moves beyond these industrial fixities and takes in the ships. Not the liners coming and going with African heads of state, but the immigrant ships working regular passage. The observation platform cannot break through its limitations: at that height the number of funnels is all that matters. But immigration is the unconscious rhythm of Haifa.

The mechanism is now so smooth that it passes almost unnoticed in the town. A ship docks at six in the morning and is cleared by ten. Everything is geared to make these routines as inconspicuous as possible. Bureaucratic efficiency is counteracted only by groups of high school children sent as welcoming parties, detailed to carry the hand luggage. For them it is a morning’s outing. The trucks drive the immigrants away, the ship is prepared for sea: the pulse goes on.

Haifa has abruptly changed its character in the last fourteen years: a different city has been superimposed on the old Arab town. At both stages, though, as far as the state was concerned, the natural function of the place has been to absorb immigrants. Haifa itself deliberately ignores this process. It is through this tacit indifference to the changing population that Israeli conservatism has evolved. Conservatism in Israel is a shield against the present and the future, and it seems to operate particularly in Haifa. It is a defense against the influences of successive waves of immigrants, all of which inevitably impede organic growth of the new community. In the absence of more embracing reference points, the small ethnic communities in turn remain heterogeneous, clinging to whatever can be maintained from previous ways of life.

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Some law of social accretion, of bottleneck, has hemmed in the Sephardic immigrants from North Africa, as if they were unable to disperse further than the quarters surrounding the docks where they landed. They have moved into the old abandoned Arab town, spreading behind the port and northward to the industrial zone. Much of this housing was badly damaged, and the whole district is still cased with rubble from half-cleared souks, with sections of houses trimmed away, or supported by a few arches which have not yet collapsed, and steps leading unevenly up to nothing. All this breeds among the inhabitants a sense of identity, more particularly as the new housing begins immediately to rise like an affront in back of the anachronism of a Casbah, while Technion City stands smugly on the hills behind.

The sense of identity is indeed formidable, greatly compounded of difficult conflicts that continue to fester in the enclosed streets. The principal tension is between nostalgia and resentment. This, for Moroccans, Tunisians, and Algerians, often goes with the claim of being French: the mood of frustration is much like that of the pieds-noirs in Marseilles. Conversations begin with stories of Arab injustices and petty tyrannies, the drainage of constant bribery and protection money to patriot-thugs. “I got some money out by jamming it into the soles of my shoes. What they could see, they took.” Yet the talk ends on a note of evocation, the memories of a now shattered continuity. The patent resentment of these Sephardic Jews is against the Arabs who compelled them to sign off a long and involved past, breaking familiar patterns: the richer emigrants went to France, the majority to Israel. Such attitudes nurture an aggressive nationalism—a desire to get revenge—based on fear and a broken way of life.

In the meantime there is the new life not of their making, and in the face of the readjustments it demands, there is every excuse for withdrawal. Hence the quickness to take offense, the occasional violence provoked by anything which appears to interfere. This volatility is another tension keeping the Sephardic community in uneasy ferment. It breaks out spasmodically, in such instances as the riot not long ago when a drunken Moroccan was involved in a brawl with a policeman. The word went quickly around the quarter that an Ashkenazi was ill-treating a Sephardi, and spontaneously a crowd gathered to march on Haifa, breaking windows, destroying other property. Such outbursts are rare, but a kind of promiscuous violence is latent in the area. Evidence of it may be seen in posters calling for: “. . . Complete equality for all the Jews in Israel! Smashing the conspiracy to set up two classes of citizens in Israel. . . . We do not want Sephardim-Ashkenazim. We want one constructive people.”

In other towns where there are similar extensive Sephardic communities, Beersheba for instance, this smoldering tension has not blanketed daily existence in quite the same way, despite the same large families and the same overcrowding. These communities outside Haifa seem more ready to meet circumstances with an acceptance which, even if passive, holds hope for the future. The old Haifa slums, wedging their inhabitants into the rubbish-laden confines between the Wadi Salib and the Wadi Nisnis, convince them that the former Arab discrimination might not have proved so difficult to combat as the new indifference, the cold-shouldering, to which there is little comeback.

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Growing up in this milieu, the Haifa youth possess that mixture of aggression and boredom which is the hallmark of their European counterpart. Some of the characteristics are acquired from the port, though there is nothing here resembling the belt of underworld parasites of Naples or Marseilles. Haifa’s young men are, by comparison, well-mannered and socially responsible, clinging together and rarely trying to intimidate anyone but themselves. Most of the youth who gather in the streets seek no more than a personality of their own, or even a little privacy, away from their huge families. The small groups of real Teddy Boys among them take to mild delinquency; a favorite if not especially lucrative racket is to obtain blocks of cinema seats and resell them at black-market prices on crowded evenings outside the box office. Clothes, mannerisms, haircuts, are a few years out of date, imitations of old European fashions. Black leather jackets are now in among the Armon Commandos, named after the cinema where they cluster, rowdies not hooligans, and untypical of Israeli urban life.

Bourgeois children react differently to the lack of social integration. As Haifa hardens into set class or income patterns, it becomes more and more common to discover a well-off family reluctantly accepting a son’s decision not to follow an established line. There are not so many fils à papa prepared to absorb the Haifa conservatism. Reaction only becomes rebellion when there is an ethos against which the inexperienced cannot prevail. Haifa accentuates the ambiguous attitude toward urban life almost endemic in young Israelis: the city offers material advantages, prospects, domesticity, culture, and pleasure—in equal proportions to corruption. To their children, the elder generation appear to have imposed hierarchical and fossilized clamps on the life of the city to produce a system that outwardly resembles those they formerly understood. Only occasional chinks show in the well-protected outward appearances, as for instance in the recent Chicago-style episode in the Haifa slaughterhouse when one worker shot another and then committed suicide. “Who’d stay in a town like that?” one young kibbutznik whose family lived in Haifa said to me shortly after the murder.

Not long ago I went to a kibbutz wedding where the bridegroom was the son of Haifa industrialists who had done their best to prevent him from becoming a member of this kibbutz. In the face of the inevitable, however, the Haifa family and their friends arrived at the kibbutz for the wedding, only to fall immediately on the food, and practically devour it all, even before the ceremony was over. This behavior would have been more understandable, complained the kibbutz members, if the guests had not been so fat and obviously well fed. The last straw was the surprise expressed by the guests from Haifa that the kibbutz was able to provide such good food!

Haifa’s insulation from the rest of the country has become more marked, paradoxically, with the general improvement of communications. The port city was once the center for the kibbutzim and settlements of the hinterland, of the Emek. Now that Tel Aviv is so much more accessible, Haifa has less to offer, and consequently receives less. The visitors mill about on the observation platform and then go home. There is nothing else to do.

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It is not only the behavior of Haifa busimen and their families at a kibbutz wedding which heightens the impression that the city has stratified and hardened class lines. Haifa is dominated by its middle-class ethos, most evident in the materialism generated in this prosperous industrial city. The dissatisfaction of the young is the result of living amidst the embodiment of those aspects of the future which call for something other than the virtues inculcated by contemporary Israeli ideals. And there is no going back. The weakening of its ties with the surrounding countryside underscores the accusation of provincialism which is usually leveled against the town. What is intended by this, it seems, is a protest against the emergence of a European industrial city.

There can be few places where status corresponds so nicely to geographical elevation. The road up the Carmel rises like a Mediterranean corniche through a landscape of rock and pine, from shikunim to villas, from dense living to pretty gardens and watered lawns that overlook the roofs below. In between the clutter at the bottom of the mountain, and the view at the top, stand the former houses of rich Arabs, now mostly public buildings and institutions. In the close-built streets around the Hadar Carmel dwell the professionals and skilled workers, in all their gradations of status. The houses are linked by steep flights of stone steps up the mountain, in a kind of neighborhood, recalling Naples at times. But here the life is quiet, domestic, early to bed and early to rise, with due rewards. The streets are virtually deserted after nightfall: small groups sit on balconies, drink coffee, and talk in discreet undertones. Higher up the mountain it is not so very different, except that the balconies are more secluded: here is the fullest bourgeois existence, cherishing no standards and no aims beyond those of correctness and personal satisfaction, and happy within these controls. If parts of the Carmel are a subdued and ordered Naples, the very top is a Mediterranean Zurich or Geneva. Some of the villas, particularly along the summit toward Ahuza, are large and luxurious, all chromium and glass and air-conditioning. Their owners are the Haifa tycoons, living well, if still not displaying the conspicuous consumption of the rich elsewhere. They content themselves with the comparatively unostentatious comfort of the two cars, a maid and a gardener, the small collection of Hellenistic antiquities, and the broken statuary in the garden.

With exceptions, the social life is marked by a slightly awkward formality, the result of lingering European inhibitions. Houses are visited in rotation, hospitality reciprocated accordingly: perhaps another aspect of the self-defense mechanism. Such thoughtless behavior as that of the wedding party at the kibbutz, for instance, derives in part from a nervous insecurity about how one ought to behave. A significant proportion of the middle-class element does not speak Hebrew. The women especially make little or no effort to learn even after many years, unless for the purpose of going shopping. And perhaps it is unnecessary for them, because as nearly as possible, a way of existence has been reconstructed which makes the minimum concessions to the new Israeli society. Just as there is an Arabic-speaking Sephardic community, so there is a cohesive Russian community far removed from the values of a pioneering Aliyah. Their conversation is of Pasternak and the portraits painted by the poet’s father. Or of Nabokov’s early untranslated novels, and the incomprehensibility of Lolita. And there is the German-speaking community—distinct from the Yiddish-speaking—quoting Goethe and wondering about the Bayreuth Festival.

Similar communities may also exist elsewhere, but in a town like Haifa, which has so rapidly switched its population and therefore its character, maintaining only an unbroken rhythm of immigration, they exercise a disproportionate influence. In a swirl of mixed and mixing values, the group will predominate that has a fairly firm self-assurance about the kind of life it wants to lead. Tragic disasters have shattered the past, but not eradicated its influences: and in the absence of indigenous tradition, of a specific quality—whatever form it might take—that could be defined as Israeli, an unmistakable part of Haifa looks backward for its points of reference.

Hence the tenacious Sephardim, the close-knit Russians, Poles, and Germans; hence their inability, even unwillingness, to co-mingle. On both sides it may be no more than some kind of reserve: but the defensiveness at the bottom of the mountain is countered by the tone of patronage at the top. “It’ll be all right in the next generation, after they’ve sent their children to school.” In the interval between the generations, however, are the Armon Commandos, the intransigence toward the Arabs, the parents trying to dissuade their children from the kibbutz, the keeping to oneself, the prim conservatism.

The attempt to rebuild life on a once serviceable model produces a weighted sense of social nostalgia in Haifa. And it is virtually the only place in all Israel where such a mood prevails, deriving from the reluctance to come to terms with something new. It would be silly to exaggerate so intangible and complicated a set of emotions. The immigration continues: the shikunim are filling with hard-headed, progressive, and vital workers attracted by the industrial jobs. They are impatient with extraneous considerations. And as a result of their uncompromising attitude, Haifa is unique in having public transport on the Sabbath. Since the Mandate, labor has dominated the municipal council. In the long run, these people may prove most important and turn Haifa’s misnomer, “The City of Workers,” into a reality.

But for the present the ladies in polka-dot dresses and elbow-length gloves sitting in the cafes do not share in this spirit; nor do the elderly men with white straw hats and malacca canes exercising their dogs in the evenings; nor the old-timers complaining that things aren’t what they were. Which is why Haifa seems so cut off and so dull to the casual observer, so stranded in the landscape, so disturbing; and why people coming to it are vaguely, somewhat inarticulately, critical. Impervious to all such criticism, thousands of inhabitants go about their lives trying not to analyze their reasons for being settled on this particular Mediterranean shore with which they still feel no organic connection. All this is what makes Haifa appear to be merely a place with an observation platform that takes advantage of its superb view across the bay.

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II

Tel Aviv is a specifically Israeli growth. Unlike Haifa grafted on top of an Arab town, Tel Aviv has evolved alongside Jaffa—the chimney stack of the Reading Power Station culminating the northern sweep of the horizon and balancing the Arab minaret on the southern point. It might be expected to evince the characteristics of integration lacking in Haifa. It probably did once, when it was smaller, more manageable, its inhabitants more unified. There has been a population explosion since then which has diversified the city and whose “accumulation effect” is now manifest. Not only through the direct results of cinemas, newspapers, the four theaters, the business world, and big city life in general, but in the heterogeneous social levels. If the pristine image of Tel Aviv is the fading brown snapshot of early pioneers drawing lots for their sand-plots, a small compact group united in intention, the contemporary image is of an unsettled mass seeking to adapt a fairly uncompromising structure handed down from the past to the varied social needs of the present. Events have moved too quickly for blueprints, modifications, evolutions. Unfortunately nothing like modern Tel Aviv was ever envisaged, and the discrepancies have prevented the city from fusing into an organic whole: the theories and the assumptions of the Zionist group in the old snapshot with their blend of 19th-century fervor and asceticism, exclusiveness and moral earnestness, are too strong to be dismissed by the external aspects of material progress. The blend has been transmuted certainly, but it is still pervasive, so that even when the old values have been forcibly rejected, they are notable in their absence.

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The old structure is most obvious in the architecture and town planning of Tel Aviv. The first plans of Tel Aviv took virtually no account of the sea, though it is the major natural feature of the place. Swimming is the chief relaxation of the sabra generation, and the municipal swimming pool on the edge of the sea is to Tel Aviv what the observation platform is to Haifa. But this, plainly, was inconceivable to the older generation who planned the city so that the main streets, Hayarkon, Ben Yehuda, Dizengoff, run parallel to the sea and effectively blot it out. The Samuel Esplanade is a recent gathering together of loose ends. The principal east-west streets are not built to obtain a vista—some, Arlosoroff and Allenby for example, swing away as they near the coast as if positively to obstruct the view. People living and working in Tel Aviv have to remind themselves of its natural situation on the shore. Yet the sea and its breeze are the elements which make the climate of Tel Aviv most supportable. Air is the essential commodity in Tel Aviv, yet the narrow, crowded, and airless little streets crisscross the center of the town, only occasionally breaking into the open oblong of a neatly furnished Stadt-park. And the houses of three-story blocks, square and chunky, with balconies jutting out every which way like drawers that will not push shut, cling together in heavy concrete surfaces baking in the heat. Some modern building breaks the pattern, but the new luxury hotels that form a high chain along the coast epitomize the old manner of turning one’s back to the sea. The suburbs sweeping northward toward the Yarkon are architecturally more enterprising, although still designed on too small a scale and scattered in restricted grid patterns. The one town where one might hope and expect to find some indication or reflection of the new Israeli society turns out to be a characterless and featureless extension in concrete, a willful baby Los Angeles. The new rich—the millionaires—have come in on a land boom, and negated the attempt to create something organic, a town of people gathered together for communal purposes.

The old Neve Tsedek quarter, where the first settlers moved out of Jaffa, is now a quiet slum, its big, once prosperous houses sinking into accepted abandon. Nothing has been modernized or repainted for years. Only a few survivors remain, misfits, the poor and illiterate, unable to get out. The bare, abandoned site of the Jaffa-Petah Tikvah railway line cuts through the quarter, its embankment piled with debris. The area has been rejected and presumably is ready for development. Yet in itself the district is unique, full of tall-porticoed Middle East Edwardian houses with colonnades and caryatids. There is plenty of detail worth preserving, carved lintels, balconies whose roundels are adorned with the Star of David, covered courtyards. Historically this was the nucleus of the old town, in conception a hybrid mixture of Pressburg and Damascus. The process of spiraling away to the newest centers of the city is self-perpetuating, so the city spreads northward, leaving a slum wake in what should be its organic center. No sooner is the claim staked, as it were, than the gold rush is off in another direction. The old districts are no longer fashionable. The culmination of this is the removal of the genteeler elements to Herzlia or Ramat Gan, creating a commuter class that daily streams into the city along roads never conceived for such purposes. Los Angeles is nearer than ever.

The old structure is challenged fundamentally by the money which is to be made in the general expansion. Acquisition in Haifa is a tacit criterion or status: in Tel Aviv it is an awkward subject of conversation. The role of money in such a changing society may be beneficial, and there are plenty of apologists, some less uneasy than others about new-found affluence. But there are as many who have inherited the widespread belief—a legacy from their 19th-century socialist forebears—that the life of a city is incompatible with clean or decent existence. Yet this is the world they have grown up in and have to be reconciled with.

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Against this grows the boss complex: only natural, in a society still open enough to allow overriding personal ambitions. Activity commands respect. Stratification follows, especially since the ambitious have by and large acquired their skills and values in Western society. Young men in dark suits proliferate, talking patronizingly and deprecatingly about the country and the crying need for a managerial class. They drive big cars and give cocktail parties for fellow executives, earnest, studious, well-informed, able to prove in a few sentences the waste and inefficiency of a kibbutz.

Their parents on the other hand are usually part of the large amorphous bourgeoisie of Tel Aviv, living at a more restrained tempo. The elder generation seems taken aback by this positive, material efflorescence and is quietly critical. It is as if so much has been achieved during their lifetime that they can afford to sit on the balcony playing cards with their friends and accept what has miraculously grown up around them. Indulgence was a liberty hitherto impermissible. If the young want to indulge themselves now, it doesn’t really matter how they do it. Careerism is as much a novelty as anything else. Against such attitudes, politicians and the young appear immensely conspicuous as they juggle with the old structure—and slightly ridiculous in their attitudes of self-importance.

Protest at the adulteration of socialist values is limited to very small groups. In an expanding society, carping is bound to take place on the sidelines. Here are not the selfconscious intellectual communities of European cities, but instead isolated individuals—journalists, scientists, civil servants, prepared to be highly critical in the seclusion of their apartments. The main debate is about the state of Israeli society which is bound up with Israel’s place in the Middle East. On the whole, opinions lie outside the framework of party politics, which is treated rather as a natural preserve where certain creatures like to sport and know they will be watched. With careers of every kind now open to talent, the number and status of those in the political preserves diminish. The elder generation in turn, hearing arguments about socialist values, tends to dismiss them as typical expressions of the Jewish conscience at work. A dead thing, they imply, is being artificially revived.

Kibbutzniks can be spotted a mile off in Tel Aviv, with their drab clothes and air of fascinated incredulity. “Isn’t it dreadful all these people running about and doing nothing?” We were walking down Dizengoff, and a kibbutznik friend began to spell out what a difference it would make if he could conscript the café loungers for two weeks, or four, and how much good it would do them, if their indolence and indecision were replaced by some useful farm work.

To be accused of loitering in Dizengoff cafés means to belong to the new undecided generation. There are those who free themselves by publicly denouncing café values and setting off on some daring new enterprise—like founding a cooperative town in the Negev. And there are a very few, also with great single-mindedness, who keep dancing the twist in one of the humid cellars that have appeared almost overnight. The young people have been caught between conflicting values and have nowhere to turn to resolve them. The cinema has become the social occasion par excellence for the regular viewing of the latest, but not the best, films from France and Italy. The sidewalks are the social parade. There are a few strip joints, and at the famous Mograbi one finds a hypnotist most of the time. Late at night couples crowd onto the beach, singing, eating, lovemaking. Sometimes a brawl starts up with the inhabitants of the maabaroth—the temporary huts which still huddle on the beach, an ugly fringe to the luxury hotels.

More exclusive is the Bohemian world of artists—largely in Jaffa—that takes its cosmopolitanism for granted. “We’re not wearing beards this year—they aren’t in Paris.” Jaffa has elements of a fake St. Tropez, where the artists have settled, set up galleries, and decorated chi-chi night clubs. In a converted Turkish bath, a revue spoofs the early Tel Aviv pioneers—patronizing but not unkindly. The few Bohemian layabouts have an influence disproportionate to their numbers. Clustered in one or two cafés, they are an attraction for passers-by unused to blasé idleness. However, behind the shore, with its pretty studios and garrets, stretch the one- and two-room slum houses, full of children and chickens. Here, work is chancy, living conditions hazardous. There is no integration with Israeli society. Some of the inhabitants are Arabs, casual laborers in the building trades, or restaurant workers; some are North Africans. There are a few craftsmen and artisans plying their trade in the market. Disappointment and discontent rumble underneath. Once I said to a workman there that I liked coming to Jaffa. He wrinkled up his nose and spread out his hands disdainfully. Then he spat on the floor.

At present, Manchia, the ground between Jaffa and Tel Aviv, is still lying waste, devastated by the war. It is the last land left which could be developed as a city park, a center to give some cohesion to the different elements. But this project has been rejected, and instead the land has been handed over to private British capital for exploiting: soon there will rise up on it a complex of banks, offices, and a stock exchange. Out of the present chaotic jumble of Tel Aviv, anything, however self-destructive, can emerge: Koestler described it as “a frantic, touching, maddening city which gripped the traveler by the buttonhole.” The traveler must equally grip back: a free-for-all is on and somebody might get strangled by mistake. The usual judgments get polarized: positive means doing something; criticism is negative. On the positive side, there are the neat, planned, and successful workers’ houses on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, beyond the industrial quarters around Rehov Giborey Yisrael. Those who occupy this housing know what they have, and are satisfied: the refrigerator, the new furniture, the cheap paperbacks, provide an initial security for these little developed communities, which are much like urban kibbutzim. Here social integration is a reality, and perhaps here, too, is the foundation which will enable a new tradition to evolve. Somehow a synthesis has to be achieved, or the melting-pot will itself melt away—or turn into a Levantine hodgepodge. All things are possible: work seems like endeavor: this is the buoyant feeling sustaining Tel Aviv. It also creates the important new standards of personal success and failure. A sense of purpose becomes confused with a spirit of competition: communal identity and capitalist enterprise go uneasily hand in hand. Yet somehow the rigid figures of the pioneers in the snapshots need modernizing, but not by being ignored, or caricatured in a theatrical turn. The new images of material progress and bourgeois sophistication have got to enter in.

I spent some time once wandering around Tel Aviv with a friend who wanted to show me what it had been like to grow up there. “When we tried to find our way through some of the streets, he got lost, for they had been changed out of all recognition. He began complaining of the lack of tradition, that the whole character of the place had been expunged, so that there was nothing which might give pleasure or offense. He found his way by noticing some tile mosaics on the upper story of a house, depicting Zionist virtues stylized in agricultural postures. It would have given the designer some pleasure that anyone was still aware of the existence of these ugly pre-Raphaelitish tiles, for they were hard to spot from ground level, obscured behind trees and partially concealed by billboards backing advertising signs.

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III

The important question of organic growth comes to a head in Jerusalem. The quick industrial upheaval of Haifa has been a race which has left the runners gasping for breath and looking back over their shoulders. Tel Aviv is a 20th-century parable, falling back for its own consolidation onto its parents—and exacting a toll from its children. Jerusalem, in spite of the ups and downs of its history, has grown into its present condition by means of recognizable and deliberate actions for which there was clear justification in the nature of the city and its traditions. This is not simply to say that it is the oldest, or the most unspoilt, or the most historical of the three towns. Jerusalem has felt the same social pressures, the same tensions, the same necessities; and of the three, it suffered the worst fate in the War of Independence by being shorn away from the Old City, geographically separated from most of what was traditionally important. Also, the buildings in the New City only delude the visitor with a sense of antiquity; there is hardly anything here older than in Tel Aviv—except the name Jerusalem. The showplaces are either hindsight reconstructions, or, like the Tower of David and much else in the Old City, minor Turkish fortifications which have served to catch legends. Moreover, whatever Jerusalem may have meant imaginatively, spiritually, or intellectually, in practice it was always a disparate set of communities, hardly an entity. In many ways this still applies, for small but important differences of language and habits distinguish the German quarter, the Hungarian, the Bokharian, the Anglo-Saxon.

Everything should have combined, it might be supposed, to destroy the character of Jerusalem. First the influx of soldiers during World War II, then the siege and ensuing partition, the loss of Mt. Scopus, the establishment of government, and finally the overspilling population, resulting here as elsewhere in the necessary building of housing developments without regard to landscape, and, most particularly evident and painful in the Judean hills, without the use of stone. Yet in a way difficult to define, all the events have been accretions, adapting and transforming what was there before but adding in the process. The distance between the old and the new does not matter a great deal: there remains an identifiable thread somewhere which gives the inhabitants a sense of natural continuity and identity. Of course Jerusalem has the advantage of its complex associations, but in the housing developments which climb up the gaunt brown hills, life is not much different in quality from life in any other such developments. There is just an imponderable balance—metaphysical if you will—between living in a town like Haifa or Tel Aviv, devised on some fortuitously vacant location and approved by a bureaucracy with its planning needs, and living in a place which has a raison d’être, however varied and diffuse and changeable. It proves an overriding consideration. By far the most stable and self-confident element in Israeli society is in the rural settlements, kibbutz or moshav, which have a comparatively new tradition, but one sufficiently identifiable and vigorous to sustain them and provide a steady orientation in so fluid a realignment of population. There is no such reference in urban life. Only Jerusalem, of the three big towns, seems to provide something similar, some framework which obviates the question nobody wants to ask: “What am I doing here?”

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In itself Jerusalem is quite dull. One long busy thoroughfare, small bazaar-like shops, a few cinemas, and no theater or real community center. Its attractions are staid: museums, memorials, scenery, some sparse antiquities, a permanent national exhibition. Official buildings multiply. (Most of the large central blocks now under construction are unimaginative government offices.) Then, there are the Christian monasteries or churches, drawing attention to themselves by their state of disrepair and neglect. The 17th-century monastery in the Valley of the Cross appears permanently closed; a ramshackle Russian Orthodox monastery is now a police station. Only the YMCA, big and yellow and flatulent, offers the attraction of its swimming pool and its extra-mural studies. The Church of the Dormition, uneasy in no-man’s land with its Germano-Byzantine solidity, fulfills the original glistening intentions of its founders, but otherwise there is little for the tourist or the pilgrim.

Whereas in Tel Aviv communal bustle tends to empty people into the streets, in Jerusalem its absence confines them to their homes. The official receptions and cocktail parties for visiting delegations furnish the exceptional occasions for gathering together. Otherwise Jerusalem seems a city of domestic virtues, epitomized by the peaceful districts of Katamon, Rehavia, Talpioth, or Beth Hakerem. There is less here of the steady card-playing spun out with balcony talk included in Tel Aviv’s desultory routine, more watering of gardens, walking to vantage points, concentration on work, on reading, on family circles. Just as a moshav is designed for a family unit, so is Jerusalem. It is not a place in which to be single. The tempo is andante.

The reflection, indeed the resumé of this, is to be seen in the university and its students. Principally occupying the area of Givat Ram and expanding fast, but also spread about the town in various subsidiary centers, the university exerts a considerable influence on the life of Jerusalem, perhaps more extensive than the government. Student accommodations are hard to find, and many students are scattered around the town in rooms. They lead an unregimented life, bound only by the exigencies of their university program. Since there are few distractions, and few student activities as such, the conditions for study are favorable. In the student’s hostel where I stayed, for example, it was generally accepted that at nine in the evening one sat down for three or four hours work, however heavy the day’s program had been.

Accompanying this intensity was an attitude toward the work itself. It was not seen as a training of the mind, as a suitable basis for some future unspecified task. Rather it was straightforward acquisition of knowledge, of facts and authoritative opinions for direct utilitarian purposes. For someone like myself from an English university, the absence of theorizing was novel. I tried to explain this to my roommate, a sabra doing graduate research in organic chemistry. It seemed incomprehensible to him that students might learn anything by discussion and trying to refute the tutors’ lectures. Questions of right and wrong were immaterial: that would come later when one had acquired as much knowledge as one’s elders. Until then one’s opinion was inadequate, and talking rubbish was the mark of the idle student. It was necessary, he said, to be a jackdaw before becoming an eagle. When I explained that an Oxford student might attend lectures contingent or irrelevant to his subject, just to acquire often hypothetical arguments, he became stern. “There is a job of work to be done,” he said, “and a student who dabbles in other mens’ work is either frivolous, obstructionist, or decadent.” Although serious, and dismayed by Oxford wastage, he was far from priggish; he merely ignored anything outside his field, on the basis of some private equation of matter to be absorbed and time available. Sometimes he allowed himself to read a Peter Cheney mystery or a war story for week-end relaxation.

Compared to an English university, where neurosis spreads like seaweed, this matter-of-fact, pragmatic attitude gives university life a secure foundation and betokens a change from the older tradition of acquiring knowledge for knowledge’s sake. There were, it is true, students less intensive about their work, who sat about in their lodgings playing gramophone records, or who went dancing, or rushed off to Tel Aviv on scooters. But they were exceptional, and usually came from the small group of students with money. In their economics and administration courses, moreover, they assiduously prepared for careers as bankers and business men.

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Practical considerations hold also so far as the Arab students are concerned. Arabs in Haifa are by and large a rump group left over from the exodus: in Tel Aviv they are a rarity except in various menial occupations. Admittedly the number of Arab students at the university in Jerusalem is small—less than one hundred. But they are serious and industrious and treated accordingly. I was taken aside by one, a graduate medical student, and asked to be lenient in judging what he called the childishness of his friends. It came from a lack of savoir-faire, he explained. (We had been discussing the film Exodus, of which he and his friends disapproved. They objected to the presentation of historical episodes in travestied though recognizable form, under the guise of fiction. Nothing, they said, could be gained by superimposing distortions on a situation already prone to exaggeration and fantasy.) But the question that chiefly occupied them was the Arab students’ perennial bugbear: what job to get afterward? The harder it becomes for them to obtain the work their training has equipped them for, the more a discontented Arab intelligentsia is likely to develop. As in other contexts in Jerusalem, enthusiasm to work overshadowed all other considerations for the Arab students.

There are other minorities in Jerusalem seeking pragmatic approaches. It is impossible to live here, for however short a time, without facing the religious conflicts. Sabbath in Jerusalem has the distinctive, bleak, and humanly forsaken qualities of a Welsh or Scottish Sunday. If the weather is hot, long queues stand at the head of the main roads, importuning passing cars, sometimes waiting in vain half a day for a lift to the seaside. Yet the newly formed League for the Prevention of Religious Coercion finds little support. When the League ran buses out to the Hadassah Hospital over a trial period, there was little popular approval, nor much advantage taken of the service. The very kibbutzim which had provided the transport felt uneasy about their connivance. Even so, the religious extremists make their influence felt at all levels of daily life, not only politically through the complicated coalition that allows them to barter votes for concessions, but in their everyday contacts and continuous encroachments on other citizens’ liberties. Everybody knows the opinions of the handful of the Neturei Karta, and differentiates between them and the lesser fanaticisms. For the highly opinionated dogmas of the extremists are treated half as exoticisms and half as a spiritual heritage worthy of understanding and, sometimes, of admiration. The central attitude lies somewhere within this ambivalence, for what potentially could be an irreconcilable clash has become café talk. Mea Shearim, accordingly, is half a tourist attraction and half an asset, a thing which is quite pleasant to have around because it adds another dimension to life. There are a few inconveniences, but these are quite easy to shrug off; and meanwhile there is work to be done which cannot be hampered or delayed by intractable religious considerations. Mea Shearim slowly shrinks into itself, recorded by the tourists’ cameras.

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Everything in Jerusalem, Mea Shearim included, is drawn closer by the wall, with its single aperture at the Mandelbaum Gate opening into the Arab countries. Unexpectedly, the wall rises round the street corners, a thin, high, ugly strip of discolored concrete. Most of the views in Jerusalem, from whatever vantage points, are toward the Old City and its encompassing hills, across no-man’s land, with the wall some-where below one’s feet. As in West Berlin, fortressed even more obstructively, the wall and the patrolling troops provide a sense of identity, an almost medieval feeling of living within manned battlements, shuttered against hostile forces. But unlike West Berlin, the identity produced is not high-strung but self-reliant. One afternoon I happened to be looking toward the Old City when a fatal shooting occurred in the streets of Musrara not far below. It was all over and done with in two minutes. The only repercussion came from a party of French tourists who felt themselves directly threatened, and cowered, as if still in danger, for a long time afterward. By chance I ran into them again the following day at the university, and they were still complaining of the ordeal. But to their Jerusalem audience, it was a matter of past history.

Behind the wall, inside the university, around its traditions, somehow Jerusalem has fused into an integrated city—perhaps by virtue of the associations of its name, or the tolerance of its elder generation—the Bubers and the Agnons—or because, simply, it is the seat of government. Rooted in the past, it is prepared for Israel’s future in some purposeful way not reciprocated in Tel Aviv or Haifa which are far more modern cities in many, perhaps more essential, ways. It does not mean that life in Jerusalem is pleasanter or more interesting, more cultivated or more self-conscious than elsewhere. On the whole it is probably none of these things, and many details of daily life are naturally common to all the three large cities of Israel. It is the attitudes and aspirations of their inhabitants that differ. Characteristics which can be defined as specifically Israeli are being evolved at a different pace in different parts of the country. Many of these attitudes of mind and ways of behaving have grown out of what preceded them, yet nevertheless exist essentially in their own right, created by the circumstances in which they were generated. This welding process is too large to have any uniformity, the finished product depends upon the handicraft of many welders working in isolation from one another. The deep contrast between the three towns, then, is one of pace. The tortoise and the hare are at it again: the hare has a more interesting style, but the tortoise has all the surprises.

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About the Author

David Pryce-Jones, the British novelist and political analyst, is the author of, among other books, Betrayal: France, the Arabs, and the Jews (Encounter).




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