Tel Aviv is at war.
On one side of the new beachside Agincourt are those for whom life in Israel’s largest metropolis has never been sweeter: The new boardwalk glimmers, Habima theater’s new compound is a marvel of light and glass, bike lanes abound, and free wi-fi is everywhere on tap. In the 14 years since Ron Huldai, the city’s current mayor, took over, say his fans, Tel Aviv took one step closer to becoming what it has always imagined itself to be, a small and superb replica of Manhattan or Berlin seamlessly transported to the Mediterranean’s shore. Others see it differently: To them, Huldai’s reign has turned the city into a megalopolis for the rich, with plenty of perks for those who can afford apartments for millions of dollars and little but contempt for the poor and the tired.
As the city, like the rest of Israel, prepares for municipal elections next week, the battle for Tel Aviv is making headlines mainly because of the unlikely fact that it pits the left against the far left. More than just a quibble about zoning or property taxes, the election has come, in the course of the last three weeks, to be about what it means to be an Israeli progressive, a struggle that, in a nation as small as Israel, is likely to spill beyond Tel Aviv’s city limits.
The first shot was fired—could it have been otherwise?—in an essay in Ha’aretz. Taking a break from his habitual searing criticism of the occupation, the newspaper’s most polarizing columnist, Gideon Levy, published an uncharacteristically appeased piece. Titled “Huldai, My Mayor,” it was a valentine to the former air-force fighter pilot who ran his urban renewal projects with the precision and tenacity of an aerial strike. “My neighborhood is clean and sparkling, and the city’s boulevards are a delightful attraction,” Levy wrote. “What else could one ask of one’s mayor?” After delivering a few soft blows of mild criticism, dealing mainly with Huldai’s unfriendly treatment of the J14 social protest movement and its impromptu tent city, Levy concluded by stating that he’ll gladly support radical leftist candidates for city council but will also vote for Huldai’s reelection.
Within hours, in newspapers and on blogs, in Facebook status updates and enraged tweets, came the backlash: Levy was a phony, argued his angry detractors, a faux liberal who decried the plight of the Palestinians but was too lulled by his own affluence to notice the oppressed masses huddled just a few blocks away.
“Gideon Levy belongs to the mainstream of the Israeli left,” Sharon Luzon—a city council member affiliated with the radical left wing party Haddash—told me in an email. “Gideon Levy doesn’t see the Mizrachi Jews, the new immigrants, the Arabs in Jaffa, the workers who have no job security. He’s in love with the bubble Huldai has created for him in northern Tel Aviv. Once a week, he travels to the West Bank to look for injustice, and he doesn’t see the injustices in his own town. Levy is an example of the hypocritical left, sated and moralistic but unwilling to sacrifice his own comfort, not even a little bit, for the common good.”
Others said the same thing more playfully. On a popular Facebook page called “Tel Aviv, You’re Killing Me,” the young, creative, and disgruntled searched for metaphors to express their contempt for Levy and came up with Marie Antoinette. In one image that has been widely shared online, an activist calling himself John Brown Photoshopped the faces of Levy and other icons of the non-radical left—the playwright Edna Mazia, the screenwriter Gal Uchovsky—onto a portrait of royal ladies in the court of Louis XVI. “If they have no bread,” read the caption, paraphrasing the French queen’s notorious statement, “what the hell are they doing in our city?”
Moved, perhaps, by her own crinolined likeness, Mazia, a longtime peace activist and the author of numerous popular and topical plays, tried to calm the tides with reason, writing in Ha’aretz that every big city in the world—London, Paris, New York—was expensive, and that big cities frequently changed, and that change sometimes meant that those who couldn’t keep up with the pace were priced out of town. She ended on a reconciliatory note, saying that she supported Huldai in part because she was certain that, having already immensely invigorated the city, the mayor would now turn around and care for its neediest.
Mazia’s argument, and others like it from Huldai supporters among Tel Aviv artistic and intellectual elite, had a galvanizing effect. Again utilizing Ha’aretz as the struggle’s front line, a young journalist named Noa Osterreicher shared her litany of complaints: Affordable apartments were impossible to find; the few neighborhoods that are affordable to the non-wealthy are littered with trash and thick with the homeless; municipal tax money is used to renovate old buildings that are then turned into chain stores or office buildings rather than libraries or youth centers; and so on. The pro-Huldai left, Osterreicher wrote, was like a man with a severe gum disease walking into the dentist’s office, having his teeth whitened, and leaving happy with his shiny new smile, ignoring the rot eating away at his insides.
These furious exchanges and others like them, said Luzon, revealed a real divide between two clusters previously considered by most Israelis to belong to the same unified camp. Those who live in the nice neighborhoods in the city’s tony north, he said, and who define themselves as pro-peace liberals but also as supporters of the free market, aren’t really a part of the left. “Left means socialism,” he said. “It means workers’ rights.” Sounding like a local version of New York mayoral hopeful Bill de Blasio, Luzon argued that Tel Aviv today was a city divided, and that a real progressive mayor would have to reconnect the affluent north and the impoverished south, invest in infrastructure in the city’s poorest and most underserved neighborhood, and rescue southern Tel Aviv’s schools from their perpetual state of disarray.
Whether or not this progressive vision will make much of a dent come election day is doubtful. Luzon himself admitted that the strongest opposition to Huldai comes from young Tel Avivis, for whom the city is growing more and more prohibitively expensive by the year. Many of these young voters, however, are still registered to vote in their hometowns, and as many hop from one rental to another and lack a long-term residential address, re-registering to vote in Tel Aviv isn’t a priority. Echoing most pundits, Luzon predicted that Huldai’s main opponent—Meretz’s Nitzan Horowitz, an openly gay and strongly progressive member of Knesset—will come within striking distance of the mayor’s seat but will ultimately fall short of an upset.
While the anti-Huldai coalition is likely to fail locally, however, its ascent may have some significance nationwide. The Labor Party is slated to hold its own primaries next month, and its current head, Shelly Yachimovich, is struggling to retain her position at the top. A vocal supporter and personal friend of Huldai, she may find the mayor’s flustered detractors organizing to oppose her from within, a trend that has already begun last year with the influx of several young and outspoken leftists into the largely centrist party. Another potential outcome is for the anti-Huldai energy to further invigorate Meretz and the other leftist parties in the next national election. Either way, the city so celebrated for its healthy disregard for politics that one of its greatest recent cinematic hits—a portrayal of young and libidinous men and women at rest and play—was called The Bubble, is getting political. The bubble is bursting.
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Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.