The other night I got stranded in Tel Aviv. That is, I went to something that ended at nine, after which I was supposed to call my date, who hadn’t been feeling well. She was still under the weather, so I had nothing to do but go back home to Jerusalem.
But it wasn’t easy to leave Tel Aviv, known as “the city that never stops,” on a Thursday evening. It teems with a sense of promise, the “night is young” feeling, clubs and cafes beckoning. Leaving it meant being hit with a sense of exclusion, like getting canceled out of life.
As the bus neared Jerusalem, though, I realized that the unpleasant mood was lifting, and I started to understand why. Jerusalem, too, has a night life, but it’s smaller, restricted to certain areas; overall it’s a much quieter place. And the area I needed to traverse from the central bus station to my home consists mainly of neighborhoods where religious Jews live. As I passed the tall, silent buildings with lights in their windows, I thought of the people inside with their ordered lives centered on their families, and not much need of “night life”; and I felt peaceful myself.
So there was the difference: Tel Aviv, also known as “the secular city,” abuzz with blandishments of food, drink, dance, sex; Jerusalem, up on its hill, where the night was just a time to rest after the day. The one saying the things of this world are the good things, now’s the time, it’s now or never, it’s out there, come and get it; the other, solemn and unperturbed.
This is the difference, this is where Israel has split, and the growing signs are that the first way, the “Tel Aviv” way, is not working. People focused on the things of this world will want to get the maximum from the here and now; if life is clouded by war and the danger of war, then not much good remains, existence is spoiled. One solution is to go somewhere else that’s supposedly more peaceful, though it gets harder all the time to find places outside the terrorists’ reach; another is to stay here and demand peace now — from Arafat, Abbas, whoever seemingly holds the power to grant it.
And if that doesn’t work, if these dispensers of peace don’t come through, then the last recourse is to just leave the areas that seem most troubled, build a fence and keep the bad stuff out. And if missiles then land in our busy cities, maybe our air force can handle it, but it won’t be us anymore, running and fighting in the heat.
It would be oversimplified, of course, to say that it’s religious Jews in Israel who view things more realistically. Some are expecting the Messiah; some are ultra-Orthodox who reject the Zionist enterprise. Still, the trend is that political realism — an ability to see the Middle East for what it is, and cope with it — is more and more associated with Israelis who are observant or traditional, not looking solely to this world for fulfillment. That does not necessarily mean territorial maximalism, but it means seeing through shallow “solutions” of “making peace” with sworn enemies, or trying to block those enemies out with a fence.
The tragedy of Israel over the past dozen years is that the former, worldly outlook is still predominant among its elites, and they keep pursuing shortsighted policies. Once, the distinction wasn’t so sharp; secular Zionism was suffused with an otherworldly intensity. But as secular Zionism bore its true fruit — an individualist democracy — a demand grew for an end to the siege, for the good life as defined in North America and Western Europe. Hence arose the bland, sanguine face of Shimon Peres, his blather of the “new” and the “now,” his embrace of evil as the key to deliverance.
So again the Jewish dilemma turns out to be a concentrated form of the human one — between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, the “now” and the rooted, frivolity and depth, hugging enemies and fighting them. The former seeks perfection on earth, and turns it into hell; the latter asks less of earth, and meliorates it. The city that never stops is roulette, a chase after things that slip through your fingers; the city on the hill is wisdom and strength.
P. David Hornik is a writer and translator in Jerusalem.