Thursday, June 23, 2005

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Tel Aviv; or How The Triple-Seven Will Beat the Demographic Bomb

The following is a travelogue email I received from a friend of mine from Israel. He's a great writer and this is a great missive.

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June 21st, 2005. Summer solstice.

Tel Aviv is a spotlit, glassy marvel, at least from the 11th floor of the Isrotel Tower. At ground level it's something altogether different.

But I rush ahead of myself. My very journey to Israel deserves literary attention. After being stranded for four hours by the notorious mid-summer New Jersey weather, I embarked from Newark on a Continental Boeing 777 to Tel Aviv.

Eleven hours. Middle seat.

These two factors would have made for a less than epic trip, but little did I know that my flight would be made epic in quite the opposite way.

Much has been written about how Israel faces a demographic timebomb in the form of the swiftly growing Arab populations in the West Bank and Gaza. If those populations were absorbed into the current state of Israel, Israeli Jews would, in a few short generations, face the prospect of being a minority in the their own country, at which point the Arabs would (it is assumed) take advantage of Israeli democracy and finally drive the Jews into the sea (where, it must be said, they gamboled happily last Saturday). Thus the rationale for the current Israeli policy of "disengagement" from Gaza and the territories.

Never fear for the Israelis, my friends, for the Continental 777 is winging to the rescue. My flight was filled with so many mewling children that it felt like the set of Romper Room. They gurgled, they shrieked, they wandered Flight 90's rows in search of sleeping prey. They mostly shrieked, though, they shrieked with utter Zionist abandon. Mind you, these were not last gasp children of grasping Yuppie couples with wombs like dying coals in a campfire. No, these moms had plenty of miles left in them -- "fecundity," in the mellifluous words of one of my Arab comrades. I have no doubt that my flight alone will turn the demographic tide, which I suppose is small consolation for not being able to sleep a wink while on it.

On to Tel Aviv, where we arrived on the fall of Shabbat, the Jewish holiday. As a big-time gentile, this would have normally been, as they say, No Big Whoop to me, but it also meant that the hotel's espresso machine had gone dark. Hateful! I'm sure the good Lord didn't mean for us all to suffer quite that much, but I'm a guest here so I won't quibble.

Tel Aviv is billed as a thoroughly modern city -- Israel's commercial hub with nice beaches to boot. And it is. Any American would be pleased with my hotel room and the glossy nighttime cityscape seen from my balcony.

Ground level is a different story. Every glitzy hotel is matched with tumbledown buildings -- not squalor, but the victims of some serious neglect. This phenomenon runs right to the sea, where numerous homes and businesses seem inhabited only by Tel Aviv's population of rangy feral cats.

How did this happen in a country with so little space? Mind you, we're not talking about Florentine falling down here, where you might see a lawyer and his family wedged into a corner of a barely preserved Medici palazzo, this is all postwar cement buildings, so I doubt the not-really-sentimental-anyway Israelis are preserving them for posterity. Is this bad zoning, economic downturn, a remnant of the country's semi-socialist past?

Either way, it belies Tel Aviv's claim to be a truly First World city -- it's not Lagos, but we're not talking about Pacific Heights here either. (Of course, Israel seems to have done away with First World crime, so maybe a little cat feces is an acceptable trade off.) Granted, this is only a small part of the city and every beach has its own unique skeeviness.

But it also reminded me of a recent conversation over some excellent crispy Mongolian beef about the future of Europe -- that's Europe with a capital "E." A friend of mine remarked that his travel in Western European capitals -- Berlin, Paris, Amsterdam -- left him with the feeling that they were inert societies, living off their cultural pasts and the tourist dollars that brings but unable to address the discomfort that comes with addressing difficult changes (if any of you think that's unique to the this side of the Atlantic, please feel free to visit my hometown). Is Israel the same kind of society? Is it as dynamic as it appears from the outside -- as it's people certainly seem to be -- or is it groaning under its unique set of challenges and is starting to crumble? Or do outward appearances really matter? Can a society be judged at all on its general level of griminess?

Regardless, Israel's lasting contribution to World Culture has already been decided. Of course I speak of shwarma. Five greenbacks (in shekel form) buys you a blanket of soft bread filled with juicy ribbons of chicken, veal, lamb, or turkey, along with almost limitless fixins -- onion, hommos, felfael, french fries, zingy tahini sauce (mostly olive oil and ground sesame seeds) and fire-like Moroccan harissa sauce. I think I even saw a Keebler Elf in mine. Much to the chagrin of the embassy staff, however, the best shwarma seems to be near Tel Aviv's strip club district. It's a burden I'll have to bear for the rest of my trip, for shwarma is a dusky maiden who has captured my heart. What "more cowbell" is to Chris Walken, "more shwarma" is to The O.

Next stop: the security wall, Jerusalem, and is the Dead Sea really dead?

Out.

-Mike Olander

--
"The genius of you Americans is that you never make clear-cut stupid moves, only complicated stupid moves which make the rest of us wonder at the possibility that we might be missing something."
-Gamal Abdel Nasser

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