They made the desert bloom, tall sparkling towers and clean Bauhaus lines, and apple-ring acacias, and teal blue shuttle buses, and stock exchanges, and theme parks, and for some it was the best time ever and for others it was just fine. ‘Three decades ago, the site of Tel Aviv was a waste of sand dunes,’ the American scholar E. Ray Casto writes for the Journal of Geography in 1937. ‘It was born yesterday (1909), is now with 110,000 inhabitants in full tide of growth, and is destined to grow still more… [it] is the only city of the Holy Land which lacks visible or invisible ruins. It has no past’.
In Theodor Herzl’s 1902 novel Altneuland [Old-New Land] the Viennese protagonists observe the transformation of Palestine from its ‘backward’ and desolate Arab roots into a thriving utopian society.1 A new state is there in its place; it carries no arms, is democratic and supposedly multi-ethnic. It includes the lands of southern Lebanon and southwestern Syria, its industrial and political capital is Haifa, not Tel Aviv, whose founding the novel precedes. In practice, the Zionist entity2 of today was built on Palestinian genocide, and persists as a limping apartheid settler colony. Long before Herzl, Zionist works had adopted the narrative trappings of the frontier story – the stillness of the land, the menacing enemy, and thus, the pioneer hero. For the young city of Tel Aviv, this was Meir Dizengoff, its first leader. After purchasing 12.8 hectares north of Jaffa, the founding members of the Ahuzat Bayit ‘neighborhood association’ distributed the land across 60 lots that would become the outline of the planned city, whose name – which roughly translates to ‘hill of spring’ – brought them full circle, lifting the words from the Hebrew translation of Altneuland.
Here we have evidence of a Zionist literature and its productive qualities, saturated with romanticism and cold calculus. In an 1896 pamphlet, Der Judenstaat [The State of the Jews], Herzl argued for forming in Palestine ‘a rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilisation as opposed to barbarism’. In Altneuland, he added, ‘If you will it, this shall not be a legend’. Concomitantly, Herzl was drafting plans for the material process of dispossession that would help to consummate his vision, among them the agenda of the First Zionist Congress of 1897 and a little-known 1901–02 charter proposing a ‘Jewish-Ottoman Land Company for the settlement of Palestine and Syria’. In comparison, these documents are bloodless: schedules, agreements and minutes detailing holdings, plantations, subsidies and housing units. The Palestinian story lives between the text and its reader.
In the spring of 2019, I visited Palestine to see friends and family. I grew up in Canada and spent summers in Beirut, where my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins live. I decided I would travel to what we refer to as ‘1948 Palestine’, to finally see my grandparents’ old homes in Haifa, Jaffa and Akka. I knew the trip would include Tel Aviv. I landed in the city’s Ben Gurion airport, which is built on the remains of the Palestinian city of al-Lydd (occupied July 11, 1948; population of 19,440), the site of a brutal Zionist ethnic cleansing operation during the Palestinian Nakba of 1947–49. During an ill-fated summer 75 years ago, after two days of fighting the Arab resistance in order to occupy the area, Zionist forces massacred more than 100 men, women and children seeking refuge in the city’s Dahmash Mosque. Oral testimonies recall the corpses piled onto the streets, left to bake in the sun. That same day, it was decided that the people of al-Lydd and nearby al-Ramla (occupied July 12, 1948; population of 17,590) were to be expelled. Hours later, thousands were sent on a death march along the roads to Ramallah, on the orders of the then-prime minister David Ben Gurion, whose name the airport now takes.
I sit waiting in the arrival interrogation room for Arabs and the Arab-adjacent. The middle-aged security officer with a French accent demands I tell him where my family is from, and I do. They hassle me for a few hours before I am released into the city. How do you describe the experience of being a Palestinian in Tel Aviv? I knew that for most Palestinians this type of trip is not an option, nor is it desirable. For others – Palestinians who remain in the occupied interior – it might seem unusual. I was the worst sort of tourist: a college student, about to embark on a ‘formative experience’. I had done the homework, I thought; I had been organising for a few years, had been in conversations about Palestine for even longer. I felt prepared. I wasn’t. I was repeatedly confronted with the limits of my knowledge, the weakness of my instincts. I felt humiliated by Tel Aviv. The city’s fantasies of architectural innovation, cosmopolitanism, queer decadence and reconciliation are in some ways the universal myths of colonial urbanism. But Tel Aviv’s lie is also unique; the imaginary of the Hebrew city in a Jewish nation decoupled from Palestine – the willed and the legend.
Our hostel in the Florentin neighborhood of Tel Aviv is tacky and antiseptic. It flies the gay flag and covers its couches in protective sheets. Our fellow travellers survey the room with eyes blown out by the previous night’s drugs. I’m there with two friends, one Jamaican, the other American. We are eating breakfast, spooning eggs and tahini onto our plates. A woman in dregs yawns.
We decide to take public transport northwards towards Park HaYarkon, declared by Tourist Israel to be ‘the green lung of Tel Aviv’: 375 hectares of land featuring a rock garden, tropical garden, one of the state’s largest water parks (with water slides and a wave pool), a bird sanctuary and a petting zoo. The park is built over the lands of several depopulated Palestinian villages, including Jarisha (occupied April 1, 1948; population of 220), al-Jammasin al-Gharbi (occupied January 26, 1948; population of 1,250) and al-Mas’udiyya (occupied December 25, 1947; population of 990). This history is quotidian: at least two thirds of the Jewish National Fund’s forests conceal or are built atop the ruins of Palestinian villages that have been depopulated and demolished.
Park HaYarkon’s expanse is quiet. This is true, surprisingly, of much of Tel Aviv. I can’t help but think of what Georges Ibrahim Abdallah, the Lebanese Communist militant and one of Europe’s longest-held political prisoners, called a ‘criminal peace’ in his remarks during his trial by the French state in 1987. He has been imprisoned now for over three decades, accused of assisting in the assassinations of an American military attaché and an Israeli diplomat in 1982. In that moment, Abdallah seems present to me. I think about smiling Israeli children, splashing around the pools, and the windowless rooms beneath their little feet.
I already felt overwhelmed, and before me was a new type of challenge: suffocating open spaces and sounds. Continuing eastward, we enter the grounds of Tel Aviv University (TAU). Most Tel Aviv guidebooks recommend visiting the boutiques, ‘Habima Square’, or the museums. Less often do they recommend the university, but I had resolved to visit the centres of Tel Aviv’s operational realities: its police stations, its metro system, its power plants. Like many campuses, TAU is ugly, a Brutalist monolith circled by blanched grass, and like many campuses, it is a colonial outpost, in this case built on the Palestinian village of al-Shaykh Muwannis (occupied March 30, 1948; population of 2,240). In 1955–56, al-Shaykh Muwannis was chosen to serve as the permanent location for the consolidated TAU site, which was eventually inaugurated in the 1960s using the designs of the architects Werner Joseph Wittkower and Erich Baumann.
We pass an entrance to the 11-storey Sackler Faculty of Medicine. (Yes, of the Purdue Pharma opioid dynasty.) The faculty’s motto, ‘dedicated to mankind for the health of all people’, is a grimly ironic institutional mandate given the context. It trains the clinicians who maintain the remains of murdered Palestinians as part of a longstanding Israeli policy of necroviolence, where bodies of Palestinians are kept from their families, ostensibly as bargaining chips, but also as a sick form of collective punishment. After his extrajudicial killing by the occupation army in June 2020, Ahmad Erekat joined the other dead Palestinians detained and held for ransom at Tel Aviv’s L. Greenberg National Institute of Forensic Medicine, which is formally affiliated with the Sackler Faculty of Medicine, playing host to its trainees. Elsewhere in the Zionist entity, ‘cemeteries of numbers’ – plots with numbered headstones – mark the spaces used to keep more than 200 stolen Palestinians in stasis.
In Tel Aviv, the martyrs’ bodies remain. They are a record of colonial crimes, yes, but also an index of unforgotten histories, which itself is a site of pedagogical struggle. This extractive relation is everywhere in the Zionist entity. For instance, in the occupation army’s central archives, housed just outside Tel Aviv in Tel HaShomer, hundreds of thousands of films, maps, audio recordings and photographs are stored, many looted and confiscated in the successive Israeli violences of 1948, 1967 and 1982. Most archives are built on acts of theft and ‘preservation’ like this, but both TAU and the Tel HaShomer site suggest that the colonial archive, if there can be a simple theory of such a thing, goes a step further, enacting a project of killing and then trophy-ification. In this case, the evidence of Palestinian life suspended in formaldehyde.
After visiting the park and campus, we decide to head back to the centre of the city. We pass a coffee shop with a sign that reads ‘EAT ME BABY ONE MORE TIME’, and a cinema advertising ‘DOUBLE-BARELLED CLINT EASTWOOD ACTION’, screening The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) and Magnum Force (1973), two films where, respectively, Clint Eastwood joins a band of Confederate guerillas and Clint Eastwood plays a maverick cop. Coming soon to this very theatre: Eytan Fox’s film Sublet (2020), which tells the story of a gay New York Times travel writer who visits Tel Aviv and falls in love with a younger Israeli man. In it, all the darlings of Tel Aviv’s tourism industry – the beaches, the clubs, the museums, the hummus – are presented with a light dusting of gay desire. The film’s cynicism almost defies belief, but is also an instructive analytic for understanding Zionist ‘visual culture’, otherwise known as marketing.
In 2010, the city announced its ‘Tel Aviv Gay Vibe’ campaign, a type of pink tourism branding aimed at Western Europe. The campaign depicted the city as the world’s gay capital. Gay people have a tendency to self-sort and congregate around urban centres for safety, community and romantic prospects. Tel Aviv has leaned into the theory that the gay attraction process depends on the ‘place-myth’, the formation of a nucleus of gay life that is reinforced by the circulation of images like those produced by the Gay Vibe campaign, among them, ‘love is love’ photoshoots and chiseled men grinding to Madonna. Yet what the campaign doesn’t admit to is that gay people, like all people, respond to material incentives: it pays to be gay in Israel because it pays to be Jewish in Israel.
In 2012, GayCities.com ranked Tel Aviv the best gay travel destination in the world. Tel Aviv’s first gay pride parade was hosted in 1993. The year I visited, more than 250,000 people would attend. The theme was ‘The Struggle Continues’. In these settings, the Zionist narrative goes something like this: the protections offered to LGBTQ people through healthcare, education and welfare make Israel one of the best places in the world to be gay, the safest in ‘the region’, and surely a place so welcoming to gays must be extending this tolerance to all.
The Israeli state nationalises and militarises its gay population. They receive qualified acceptance in return for their service in the army, where they can be openly gay, and kill Palestinians. In 2013, Israel’s transgender community won the right to serve the occupation, and a woman became its first transgender female soldier. In 2014, the Interior Minister Gidon Sa’ar declared that the Law of Return allowed for the extension of Israeli citizenship to same-sex couples married abroad, even if one of the individuals was not Jewish. Imperial projects often produce extraordinary measures to accept racial or sexual minorities, setting aside certain aspects of legal discrimination in order to enlist everyone into combatting a ‘greater enemy’. The idea is to naturalise oneself to Zionism.
We end our night at a bar in the city. The feel was relaxed but cruisey. There, I felt like an intruder. But he was beautiful: brown skin, hair buzzed short, a Palestinian with a white T-shirt sticking to his chest. Our kisses were long and he grabbed the back of my neck. After, he pulled away, called by his friends.
I try to imagine what may have happened to him since. It’s a way also for me to think about a particular contradiction in settler homosexuality: the experiences of queer Palestinians. This year, an old story reared its head. A Palestinian man in Nablus was entrapped by Zionists and filmed engaging in gay activity. The ‘world’s gay capital’ threatened him with exposure – a social death sentence in most parts of Palestinian society. Allegedly, he caved to their demands. He was executed this April. I watch footage of his final interview; it’s clear he has been beaten, his eyes are downcast and elsewhere. The Palestinian faction that captured him claims that he betrayed the cause and that the information he provided led to the martyrdoms of several resistance fighters. The resistance statements that follow are clear: there is no excuse for collaboration. Even the seemingly innocuous betrayals, even the ones intended to protect or save a life, can do incalculable damage; after all, Zionist strategies are an exercise in the aggregate – deeply personal tactics operated at mass scale, seeking out weaknesses. Every year, Palestinians are faced with brutal, impossible choices – medical care for a sick family member, the threat of released footage of marital infidelity, collection on crushing debt – in return for intelligence on resistance activities. That so many Palestinians do not break in the face of this is a testament to the strength of our people and the protective qualities of community.
The latter is a hard-fought terrain, the result of quiet work by a loose but steadfast collection of Palestinians labouring to change the social structures that assist the Zionist inhumanity. Their efforts to support queer Palestinians include underground networks for shelter, clandestine hotlines, friendly households offering beds and food. Care is distributed locally, ideology diffused gradually. That night in 2019, I go to bed feeling weird and sad.
The next morning, a classmate texts me. I tell him I am in Palestine, I am visiting Tel Aviv. ‘I found it interesting,’ he replies, ‘you won’t like it at first, but you’ll learn to.’ It was sunny that day and so we went to the beach. (In 2010, National Geographic named Tel Aviv one of the best beach cities in the world.) Our plans for swimming were scuttled by an infestation of jellyfish so we settled down on the sand. A beach is a frontier of sorts: a safe spot from which you can begin excursions into the waters, and a place to return to. In Tel Aviv, this frontier takes on menacing qualities. In 1948, it welcomed thousands of Palestinian families from Jaffa who were pushed out into the Mediterranean during the Nakba. In Tel Aviv’s Red House, the putative headquarters of the Haganah paramilitary forces, Zionist leaders met between 1920–1948 to draw up ‘Plan Dalet’ for the conquest of Palestine, which included operations to force Palestinians in the coastal regions out by sea. Facing the waves, some boats turned north to Lebanon, others south to Gaza. My immediate family went one way, other members another, I didn’t grow up knowing them.
The beaches of Israel are the beaches of Gaza. Once, while sitting next to my grandmother by the water in Beirut, I imagined getting her on a boat and rowing the 100 something miles to Jaffa port, dismounting, and walking her up to her home. What an image we would have been, her frail body clinging to the edge of our vessel, the revellers on Gordon Beach in Tel Aviv confronted with a vision as we pass them by. One day soon, masses of Arabs will intermingle with Jews on their pristine Tel Aviv strips, sullying the white sand with Arabs smells and Arab trash.
In 1937, urban planners debated turning Tel Aviv into a ‘Riviera city’ in a proposal called the Grunblatt scheme, which is reminiscent of Le Corbusier’s unrealised 1933 Plan Obus to demolish the Cape of Algiers and construct an elevated highway along its coastline. Today, many of the Palestinian beaches belong to private developers and hotels. This is part of a longstanding policy of effacement, whereby Palestinian scenes of dispossession become sites of Zionist leisure. After the massacre of residents in al-Tantura (occupied May 22–23, 1948; population of 1,500) in 1948, the Palestinian population was driven out. A mass grave of several dozen bodies remains, and today it lies under the parking lot of Dor beach, near Haifa. These processes are not unique to Palestine, architecture and redevelopment play essential roles in the construction of a revisionist urban coloniality. Both Tel Aviv and Algiers were given the moniker ‘White City’.
But Tel Aviv is not particularly white. Off-white maybe, mostly grey. Sharon Rotbard’s White City, Black City (2015) examines the Bauhaus style that is the city’s pride. The Ashkenazi elite of Tel Aviv sought refuge in the ‘values of order and rationality’, she explains, against ‘the amorphous black chaos’ of the present. ‘It enabled many Tel Avivians to conduct wealthy bourgeois lifestyles, and at the same time to expose a socialist and progressive façade, to take solace in the assurance that while their city was clearly grey and faded, it was actually white and clean; that although it was no more than a provincial Western outpost, it was as international as the International Style; and that although it was modern, it was historic.’
The early essays about the local International Style in Ha’Ir and Ha’aretz newspapers praised it as neither historic nor revolutionary, but as a sensible innovation, emphasising ‘usability, economy, modesty, cleanliness’. Tel Aviv’s Bauhaus represents the aestheticisation of sterility, which was the style’s original function, in a clear through line from the sanatorium that helped to popularise it. The export of this architecture to the colonies held the promise of ridding the cities of their distinct character, of curing the tropics of their diseases.
These architectures, then, reinforce a psychogeography of ‘cleanliness’. In light of the increasing visibility and political power of the messianic-Zionist bloc in the Israeli governing coalition (Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud alongside the Hasidic political parties United Torah Judaism and Shas), the re-emphasis of Tel Aviv’s White City’s heritage serves as a coping strategy of sorts for Tel Aviv’s settlers in particular. It allows them to self-narrate as ‘liberal’ and to separate themselves from an unwashed ‘Other Israel’, supporting the story that Tel Aviv’s relationship to the rest of the state is of a cosmopolitan vestigial organ. This is romantic, but untrue. While the fanatical settler foot soldiers that roam the frontier are perhaps the most visible parts of the Israeli project, a quieter enemy remains at work – the state’s bureaucratic violences, dressed as system planners and administrators. Tel Aviv’s ghouls in their windowless offices stare at population registries of Palestinians, a blinking red button in front of them, adding to their press releases a Biblical or archaeological citation to camouflage the ethnic cleansing.
In Florentin we pass a mural: in white, the words ‘Free Palestine!’ cut through the granite in blue paint, and then, sprayed over again, ‘Fuck Palestine!’
‘Do you know anyone from the Madbak family?’
I am standing in Jaffa the next morning, in front of two men. They sip their arjeeleh with a deliberate pause. The cafe is otherwise vacant, but still I feel that my words are being broadcast through the glass doors, past the veranda and onto the sunlit street outside.
One of them speaks – ‘Ya ibn-Khaled’ – and a young boy appears from the kitchen. ‘Ahwee,’ the man says, asking him for coffee. Turning back to me, ‘yes, I know a man from dar Madbak.’ I survey the table, the cigarette dishes and the frayed, plastic menus. ‘He comes to our cafe occasionally. He drinks and he smokes.’ I take a seat, reach for the carafe of water on the table, and help myself.
‘I am trying to find him.’ They ask me why, and the coffee arrives. ‘The old Greek Orthodox quarter of Jaffa is a half an hour from here, you can walk,’ is what I am told. ‘He rents a house around there, but we can’t tell you which one exactly.’
I walk out into the blinding light and continue on to al-Salahi Street (now renamed ‘Olei Zion Street’), the crash of waves carrying from the old Jaffa port nearby. I turn away from it, south. I reach Ajami Road (now ‘Yefet Street’) and walk into a corner store. Fruit lines the walls, a film of dust coats the floor’s white tiles. The woman at the register appears preoccupied with something under the table. She looks up, and, as if noticing me for the first time, stares at me intently without speaking. I apologise for the intrusion, and ask if she knows the Madbak family. Her eyebrows raise. ‘No,’ she says, ‘we wouldn’t know any Madbaks in this shop, but you might have some luck speaking to Samir, the car mechanic down the road.’ As I turned to leave, she adds, ‘he knows all those people.’
Passing a gate that reads ‘Orthodox Scouts’ Club of Jaffa (1966)’ I find a congested scene: dead and damaged cars spill onto the street and sidewalk. Men mill about. I ask for Samir. He rolls out from under a beat-up Mercedes coupe, wiping his hands on his undershirt. He says that the Madbaks live near the water, a short walk away.
I follow instructions to reach a wide cul-de-sac, where the houses are larger. I walk into a butcher shop and make my usual inquiry. The butcher smiles, ‘Sure, I can call Emil now.’ He washes his hands and pulls out an old cell phone, punching in numbers. ‘Emil, ahlan, I have someone here asking for you. He says you’re related.’
Now I must admit my memory from this part of the trip is limited. I remember Emil coming down to the street to welcome me. I remember his outstretched arms. A tight embrace, and I am ushered into his house. We did not know each other, but with family, pleasantries are often elevated to extreme familiarity. We sat and drank coffee, I surveyed the room, dense and kitschy with Orthodox iconography and old family photos. I spoke about my travels and what had brought me to Jaffa.
As if having anticipated the tenor of my questions, Emil pulled out two sizeable books, a double-volume set called Mawsu’at Yaffa al-Jamila [Encyclopedia of the Beautiful Jaffa], compiled by Ali Hasan al-Bawwab in 2003. The book contained maps of old homes and a detailed log of community history and gossip: where families had lived, what they had been known for, what they had owned, who they had married, what cars they had driven. Flipping through those pages, Emil recognised some of the names that appeared: al-Khayyat, Qabbani, Shehadeh.
The books are a useful reminder that before Tel Aviv (and after Tel Aviv), there was Jaffa, a centre for art and culture among the Arab states, one of the oldest port cities in the world. While Jews lived in several Jaffa neighbourhoods prior to 1909, Tel Aviv did not just emerge from the sand that year, it pulverised Jaffa, dispossessing Palestinians across the district through processes that spanned the periods before, during, and after the Palestinian Nakba. The casualties included al-Shaykh Muwannis, al-Jammasin al-Gharbi, al-Mas’udiyya, al-Manshiyya (occupied April 24, 1948; population of 13,000), Salama (occupied April 30, 1948; population of 7,810) and many other localities. In April of 1949, a year after David Ben Gurion’s declaration of Israeli independence, Tel Aviv and Jaffa were ‘joined’ to create a single municipality – more an ominous declaration of intent than an urban reality. The Nakba clarified that Tel Aviv was not a city, but a settlement: Palestinian residents of Jaffa remained unable to return to their towns, and an accelerated effort brought over European and Asian settlers to take over lands and homes.
In 1936 Palestinians led a general strike and armed resistance against burgeoning Jewish settlement and the discriminatory policies of the British mandate. After port workers in Jaffa began refusing Zionist cargo, the Tel Aviv municipality opened a new port to serve as an alternative. The occasion was commemorated by Dr Isaac Ha-Levi Herzog, the Chief Rabbi of Palestine, who addressed the crowds in 1938, inaugurating a new era for his people. The Rabbinate was the first Yishuv institution to be recognised by the British; it was enlisted in the settlement process facilitated by the Jewish Agency. By 1939, Tel Aviv’s population had grown to over 150,000. Of Jaffa’s approximately 70,000 Palestinian residents in 1947, only 4,000 remained three years later. Each decade brought additional opportunities for the reorganisation of urban space, strengthening and ethnically segregating Tel Aviv and diminishing Jaffa. Since then, the former only grows, with new suburbs like ‘Ramat Gan’ and ‘Giv’atayim’ to the east, and ‘Bat Yam’ and ‘Holon’ to the south, turning into the leisure dome of today.
Tel Aviv serves as a coordinating point in a globally-integrated imperial project with dizzying financial and demographic porousness. The money generated from the purchase of settlement feta cheese in a Marina Del Ray Costco helps to finance the dispossession machines of the Jordan Valley, where the Israeli dairy conglomerate Tnuva operates a food processing plant. Former Israeli soldiers recruited into New York private equity firms make tax-deductible contributions to the 501(c)(3)-designated charitable non-profit ‘Friends of the Israeli Defence Forces’ to support the army that protects their second homes. Laundered billions stream in from Zionist mining extraction in Guinea and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, while the mineral magnates flee to Israel to avoid international sanctions. This is the story of all colonialisms: settlers build their tall, shiny things on the embers of the societies they torch, enlist the dispossessed into production and maintenance, export the spoils and bury their guilt in their families, splaying out on the terraces, declaring themselves home at last.
On Emil’s wall, I notice a photograph of my great-grandmother. Emil informed me that our family had had an olive oil press. I asked him questions and he told me what he knew. Recognition would flicker with certain facts and details, but quickly dissipate into uncertainty. Sensing his usefulness was coming to an end, and perhaps a little annoyed by my questioning, Emil suggested we go see the old house, which my great grandfather had been renting at the time of the Nakba.
The house was silent. The walls were yellow plaster, the roof covered in metal sheets. From the outside, I saw the shape of the building, its nooks, and imagined my teta playing in the rooms. I wondered if she had been happy. I was experiencing something I had thought about for so long; I had expected it to be momentous, but it very much was not. The moment just… passed. It was the home I never had, I thought to myself, but even as I said that, it felt stupid. What would my life have been like growing up in Jaffa? Would I have been thankful for it? Would it hurt less, all of us here together, rather than scattered all across the world?
Emil told me that the home was now owned by European Jews, it was their summer house. Slowly we walked back. I told Emil what I had seen in Palestine earlier that week, but it barely registered. For some of the Palestinians who live as ‘citizens’ of the occupied interior (the dakhil), their relationships to the Palestinians in the occupied western lands (the ḍafa) and Gaza is multi-valent, mediated by class and guilt. Emil was confident that the diaspora Palestinians in exile like me were naive or brainwashed, while the dakhil Palestinians were dealing with the brutal realities of life.
It dawned on me how sad Emil was. On the surface, nothing about the man said ‘victim’, he was rough, assured. But time had clearly affected his hopes for the Palestinian cause. I refrained from asking too much about Emil’s family, about his children or spouse. I wondered where the extended community was, whether his empty house in that empty neighbourhood was ever full.
I had so far processed everything with a sardonic distance, critical and with a practiced detachment. I mostly felt anger and disgust, some pity, though I don’t want to give Tel Aviv those satisfactions. Perhaps this is what made the occasional moments of catharsis particularly upsetting; the urban environment’s weaponised nostalgias breaching my defences. As such, it had become interesting to me how the various populations who visit, live in or are otherwise governed by Tel Aviv understand their relationship to the city, and how these interactions are mediated by the material environment.
Silly or not, my preliminary thesis was to think of Tel Aviv as a sort of Los Angeles of the eastern Mediterranean. Both cities are trashy, though one is in denial about it. Both have a sort of melancholic hedonism baked into their equations: in Los Angeles the party ends when the cash runs out. In Tel Aviv, too, but the currency here is Zionism. On offer are a language myth, a folk history, a cuisine, a pat and comforting story for the Jewish visitor to sit down and remember as if it were just yesterday. (It was. My grandmother is older than the State of Israel.)
In a sense, both cities sell the promise of forgetting. Los Angeles coordinates the global circulation of a provincial cinema, a phantasmagoric blanket over the city’s racial crises and the depredations of U.S. imperialism. In Tel Aviv, you forget the Palestinian. The city is built on several depopulated Palestinian towns and villages. Los Angeles developed on the lands of the Gabrieliño-Tongva and Chumash nations, growing over several Indigenous bands who lived among the mountains, basins, and islands.
While many cities have uneasy relationships with their tourists, Los Angeles and Tel Aviv’s tourists adopt a vaunted status. While along the Hollywood Walk of Fame, you can plausibly forget the margins of the desert that encircles; drive a few miles out and the land is happy to remind that you are an aberration. In Tel Aviv, tourists are empowered as if citizens, walking the streets to declare with their presence that these homes are for the Jews and their friends. The new and the slightly less new reject the old, creating a linear value system of history. Rather than a ‘fresh chapter’ that begins in the 1930s, Zionism proposes a continuous story from the ninth century BCE to the present day, minus the one long blink.
For Jews globally, this is part of Zionism’s foundational affective promise: coherence. It is the guiding ethos behind the ‘Birthright Israel’ program – funded in large part by Sheldon Adelson, the late billionaire casino executive and founder of the Las Vegas Sands Corporation. For the Birthright tourists, Tel Aviv often becomes a stand-in for Israel. Aside from brief trips to the occupied Syrian Golan Heights, occupied Jerusalem, and the illegal settlements along the Dead Sea, much of their time is spent in Tel Aviv. The city has become a playground for teenage hormonal energy and ‘hallucinatory ethnicisation’, to use scholar Michael Zalta’s term. This is perhaps one of Tel Aviv’s more spiritual offers to the Jewish diaspora, the right to self-racialise as Native.
I walk down lanes covered in green felt and metal sheeting, and bluish-grey high-rises peek out between the gaps. Eventually, I arrive at Kikar Rabin (Rabin Square), Tel Aviv’s famous ‘Peace Pavilion’, which is, oddly, the name for the place where Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated. Conceived in 1947 as a municipal meeting ground named ‘Kikar Malchei Yisrael’ (‘Kings of Israel Square’), the square has undergone a variety of intersecting mythic postures since. It has been a memorial for Tel Aviv’s fallen announced in the 1950s, a site of mass action, a ground for the occupation army’s demonstrations and a place of ‘national mourning’ for Rabin’s death in 1995, after which it was renamed in honour of Oslo’s spiritual shaman. The pavilion is meant to invite reflection. I stop and sit down, take in the scene.
Sites of memorialisation are particularly important in Tel Aviv; they are a means of psychic alignment. One objective is to suggest a consolidated set of events worthy of remembering, implicitly situating those with experiences of a different story – say, those who remember Rabin as the occupation army official who pioneered the ‘broken bones policy’, which encouraged Zionist soldiers to deliberately maim and disable thousands of Palestinians during the First Intifada – as outside society.
Zionists can’t help but treat public sites as battlegrounds, and with Tel Aviv, this takes on a breathless quality: the custodians of the city come to see every citizen as part of the toolkit, a weapon in a narrative battle being waged inside and outside the country. It is a dark bargain – a watchful state keeping track of its people, developing a mental scorecard. But the pretence is sort of sheepish. Israelis must sense somewhere that their project is fake, doomed, and so they combat their insecurities with over-compensation.
The resultant Israeli attempts to whitewash the legacies of their war criminals are so brazen, they take on a luridly fascinating quality. The Haganah Museum on Rothschild Boulevard is in the apartment of the militia’s old leader, Eliyahu Golomb. Shimon Peres’s name adorns both a ‘Centre for Peace and Innovation’ and a nuclear research facility. Ariel Sharon Park is described by Tourist Israel as a project ‘larger than Central Park’, built over a ‘60-metre-high mound of waste next to Ben Gurion Airport’. That ‘mound of waste’ lay on the lands of al-Khayriyya (occupied April 28, 1948; population of 1,650). Years after the village’s depopulation, the area was marked to serve as a landfill, which closed in 1988, in part because the dump posed a leakage threat to the nearby Wadi Musrara riverbed.
I head down the street from Rabin Square. I see a promotional flyer for Tuesdays at the ‘Garage-esque underground Pasaz’. The advert proclaims a variety of ‘electro-pop-disco’ and ‘trance’ from Tel Aviv’s ‘finest’ DJs, allowing for the ‘freedom to explore the many sides of being, not fearing’, and ‘a FREE CHASER with every drink’ if you have the ‘Secret Tel Aviv VIP Card’. Psychedelic Zion (2000) details the enduring Israeli infatuation with trance music. It’s a documentary by Isri Halpern about Israeli youth in the 1990s who decide to start a trance dance company called ‘Peace and Love Productions’. (The film’s description: ‘Just as the authorities decide to close down these counter-cultural activities, Yoni, Revital and Berto fight back, even attempting to book a dance at the Golan Heights and with Palestinians in Jericho, but all of their efforts are stopped by the police.’)
There is nothing inherently counter-cultural about trance music, though this hasn’t prevented Zionists and Palestinians alike from pinning meaning to it. In The White Elephant (2018), a short film by Palestinian artist Shuruq Harb, we are told the story of a Palestinian woman growing up in the Oslo years, who steals away to dance at Tel Aviv trance parties, supposedly ‘to forget’. The film compares these experiences to those of Zionist youth, suggesting that trance music allows Tel Aviv kids to process their service in the occupation army: ‘We all wanted to escape from something, him as a soldier, us to disappear,’ says the narrator. But the comparison is too neat. The idea that anyone can shake off the evil of the occupation through jumping and sweating – that it’s carried in the muscle – is sinister.
In the end, Tel Aviv’s monuments, trinkets and parties are attempts at seduction – a cinema of avarice. Tel Aviv’s beneficiaries embrace the moving image, away from the florid displays of Zionist reality that are the price of their prosperity. A system of economic coercion builds and maintains the silver screen, thousands of surplus Palestinian laborers employed in the construction of the spaces that celebrate their absence. And as with any denial of history atop its plunder, one can either capitulate or resist.
‘Have you been to Tel Aviv,’ someone whispers to me, months later. She’s conspiratorial, hyped from the coke. I’m at a party with ‘film people’ in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. She continues, ‘My dad told me if I agreed to move there, he’d buy me an apartment.’ A pause. ‘He’s South African… really committed to Israel.’ The statement hangs in the air, said so breezily. I tell her I wish my grandmother could have a house there too. An hour later, she comes back to me, ‘I didn’t know… about those things you told me about.’
I live in New York now, interactions like these are common. This particular encounter occurs around the same time the Zionist authorities announce that they are going to build over the remains of Lifta (occupied January 1, 1948; population of 2,960), a depopulated town outside of Jerusalem that I’d visited on my trip. It’s a hard place to forget, the ruins of the old Palestinian homes eerie amongst the verdant gardens and baptismal pools that remain. Bearded settlers walk around in a blank stupor. Chabad-Lubavitch flags fly from the ramparts of the neighbourhoods above its valley, the sickly yellow crowns of the Zionist Hasidic movement jarring next to the blinding green. Now, Lifta is home to a boutique hotel and spa.
This March, a Palestinian man shot and wounded three settlers on Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv. That street has seen several such resistance operations: in 2022, a 28-year-old Palestinian from Jenin named Raed Khazem killed three settlers. Before him, 22 were killed by Saleh Abdel Rahim al-Souwi in the 1994 Dizengoff Street bus bombing. Like the old, a new generation of Israelis is learning to fear, and to turn that fear inwards. It is common now for settlers to attack occupation soldiers, the latter attempting to mediate settlement. This year, thousands have taken to the streets of Tel Aviv in a histrionic display of contradiction, channelling their frustrated energy into the city’s wide avenues, as if to say, ‘things are okay here, the Jews are safe’. Safe from what? These are all self-inflicted wounds. Every story of dispossession, erasure, and reconstruction has its contrapuntal: the seemingly-abandoned villages and fields remain heaving sites of confrontation, the colonial cities are shaken by the very people they deprive. That these efforts often take the form of revolutionary violence is unsurprising: no caged and brutalised people sit idly by as their lands are stolen, labour extracted, families destroyed.
A concerted display of Palestinian armed resistance has re-emerged, its strategies intimately linked to the events of the unity intifada of summer of 2021. That intifada led to strikes across all of historic Palestine and roused some of the Palestinian citizens of the dakhil from their learned docility. Stores in Tel Aviv closed without notice. Trucks were left idling in the streets. Construction sites languished. In retaliation, one grocery store fired every single Arab worker. The prisons boiled, and the Palestinians of Gaza led the way. Here, in the far diaspora, the changes the intifada wrought are hard to undo: Palestinians supporting Palestinians, talking to one another with white people and Zionists watching from the outside in. As pathetic as it sounds, it’s as if we’d been granted a new language, or, as a friend put it: ‘that we found strength within ourselves, no longer needing permission or approval from the outside.’
Part of this new language has been a Palestinian re-insistence on understanding our historical conditions. I sat down with my teta again to ask her about her memories of Jaffa. I do this habitually, sometimes informally, other times formally, my family dressing her up for the occasion, combing her hair, all of us crowding around her in the living room while she talks and I take notes. My grandmother has chronic depression. My family call it ‘tiredness’ in Arabic, a heart-breaking euphemism for the truth of the Nakba. My dad doesn’t like listening to the stories. He remains angry at his grandparents for their decision to leave Palestine for Beirut and Cairo. He doesn’t understand why they didn’t stay and fight. We all suffer because of it, he says, not feeling at home in Lebanon, in Canada, in America.
Palestinians don’t want to forget, and yet they do. Memories are not indexed and neatly retrieved, but recreated. People are often uncomfortable admitting that they can forget, that it is occasionally a protective psychological response to trauma. There are stories of Palestinians returning to Palestine and being unable to recognise their old homes. My jedo can’t remember anything from his life in Akka. My teta remembers names but few specifics. She remembers her aunt was a midwife who studied at Al Quds University for instance, she remembers learning about abortions from her. She remembers visiting Tel Aviv as a child. She remembers the Madresit al-Rahbat (School of the Sisters of St. Joseph) where she studied. She remembers a big field with swing sets that they played on as kids. They did not have a car. They raised chickens. One time, they placed the bookshelf in front of the door when the Irgun entered the town. She and her father would help distribute al-Ittihad, a Communist paper published in Haifa. She would hand out pamphlets for the Communists. She says she remembers the al-Hamra Cinema, though she never got the chance to go.
Clearly a lot has changed, it’s enough to induce despair. But I don’t let myself feel it for too long. I think instead of the summer of the unity intifada: grainy, tinny videos of boys pummelled by soldiers, later of homes desecrated by settlers, and the undeniable calls for unity. I recall the ways we played our part in New York, the actions, the flashes of anger converging alongside us. I remember the rockets we sent back at them. I don’t remember thinking of Tel Aviv at all. During that maelstrom and after, the Arabs in my life were a shelter. As it all unfolded, I felt hopeful, a ridiculous feeling perhaps, but one that persists today. I was brought back to a passage from the late Iraqi writer Nuha al-Radi’s 1998 book Baghdad Diaries, as she reflects on the US-led bombing campaign of Iraq during the First Gulf War:
Pat heard me on the BBC yesterday. I was called an angry woman – just as well they didn’t mention my name. They didn’t edit out the silly things I said, like America must be jealous of us because we have culture and they don’t […] Who in their right mind would be jealous of us? Charlie used to tell Kiko when he was small, ‘Bad luck kid, not only were you born an Arab, but an Iraqi to boot.’ What would he say now?
Who in their right mind would be jealous of us? Decades of compounded miseries, of every indignity imaginable, and yet, there is still beauty. It is hard to describe with any sense of fullness, it keeps slipping out of my fingers, but my overwhelming experience of Palestine was of something greater than me, something galvanising. Perhaps it is of this that they are jealous – all their little stories a scrambling response to the Arab who stalks their streets. It is there that one can see plainly the limits of Herzl’s dream, the tenuousness a condition of all who choose to live atop someone else’s hills.