Tel Aviv, youre no Jerusalem

This column, like most I write, is being written in my neighborhood cafe. In many ways it’s an unremarkable coffee shop — raucous yet intimate, so-so food and good coffee; the waiters are friendly yet let me write in peace. It could be anywhere in the civilized world.

Except that the manager is an atheist Palestinian; the proprietor a secular Jew who only bothered to get a kashrut certificate a couple of years ago; the customers are a mix of Israelis of all hues and religious persuasion and foreigners who live in the area. At any hour, you can hear at least three languages being spoken among the dozen tables. It’s the kind of place you can’t imagine being anywhere else but Jerusalem.

For me, it’s one of the things that make life in the capital worth living.

I decided to begin on an optimistic, local, patriotic note because I’m feeling a bit guilty. The state of Jerusalem has never been so desperate in every way. And aside from paying lip service, no one in power is doing anything about it. In addition, the media share a significant portion of the blame.

In the first place, none of the major national Hebrew papers are based in Jerusalem. Three newspapers are edited and managed daily in the capital. One is the anti-Zionist, Arabic-language Al-Quds. The second is the non-Zionist Hamodia, official mouthpiece of the haredi Agudat Yisrael party, which is written in an archaic and outmoded Hebrew. The third is the paper you are now holding, proudly Zionist, but in English.

Nothing is new about that. The last Hebrew dailies in Jerusalem closed more than four decades ago, and all three major Hebrew dailies have significantly downsized their Jerusalem offices. Furthermore, their Jerusalem staffs consist almost entirely of junior reporters, and most of the photography is done by agencies or freelancers.

The same goes for the electronic media. Though the government-owned IBA television and radio are still required to work mainly in the capital, the industry leaders are all based in Tel Aviv (save for Channel 2 news, which operates in Neveh Ilan). Trendy IDF Radio is based in Jaffa, and a recently published plan to move it to Jerusalem has employees up in arms.

New media are no exception. None of the major Web sites and Internet companies are based in Jerusalem. The only serious Web site operating from the capital is Scoop, a news site that uses local content sent in by independent amateur writers around the country, making it the quintessential outsiders’ news organization.

The Tel Aviv centrism of the media has had a profound and ongoing effect on the way the public views Jerusalem, and the contrast to its “competitor.” It starts with the jargon that reflects the feeling that Tel Aviv is where things are happening. Street names in Tel Aviv — Dizengoff, Shenkin and the like — are used without reference to the city, as if readers and viewers from Kiryat Shmona to Eilat immediately relate to the faraway place and concept. There are dozens of Herzl streets around the country, including one in Jerusalem that actually leads to Mount Herzl, but “a stabbing on Rehov Herzl” can only mean the one in Tel Aviv.

It’s the same with institutions. Everyone knows where

Habima, the Cameri and Beit Lessin theaters are, but the Khan Theater is referred to as “the Jerusalem Khan,” as if culture in the capital is an anomaly rather than the norm. The Ha’uman 19 dance club was one of the country’s leading clubs for a decade. Even so, the media always called it “the Jerusalem club” since nightlife in Jerusalem is by definition quaint and unexpected.

The city’s stereotype as a backwater “hard” town is maintained at all costs. The Jerusalem scene lacks nothing in sophistication or variety, but it will always have a second-class status in the media. Local artists know they will be seen as having “made it” only after succeeding in Tel Aviv. Any social trend or cultural phenomenon, even if it encompasses fewer than 50 people, will almost immediately be reported and commented on if it occurs in Tel Aviv. Major authentic trends in Jerusalem can go unnoticed for years.

The reason for this derisive attitude is not just geographical. The vast majority of journalists weren’t born in Tel Aviv. And the drive between the cities on most days takes less time than the journey between downtown Tel Aviv and its outlying suburbs. Neither is it a result of leftist post-Zionism. Indeed, some of the veteran radical leftists have stubbornly remained in Jerusalem.

They are remnants of what was in the 1970s and early 1980s a proud group of journalists who were the Jerusalem media mafia. They arrived in the city as Hebrew University students in the heady days after the Six Day War — iconoclastic, mainly secular, with yet unclearly defined left-wing views. They revolutionized state-run Israel Radio and were the founding generation of Israeli television. They formed bohemian circles in a handful of cafes and restaurants, wrote in radical student papers and then in the first real city newspaper in the country, Kol Ha’ir, a local version of the Village Voice.

But they grew up and became yuppies, first courted by the Tel Aviv papers and then commercial television with fat paychecks. Most left the city, and the new generation of writers and broadcasters, cosmopolitan and spoiled, eager to imitate the American ideal, bought into the illusion of Tel Aviv as an international city. That the city was no more advanced and had less culture and tradition than other similar-sized locations on the Mediterranean — such as Naples or Marseilles, and definitely was no Manhattan — only made them more determined to denigrate the capital they had rejected.

Even in its poor and forsaken state, Jerusalem still had immeasurably more authentic cosmopolitanism and originality than Tel Aviv, and a real claim to be an international city. That only spurred the Tel Aviv media to describe it as a failed and backward town in the grip of Jewish and Arab fundamentalists — which may yet turn out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Thousands of Jews have left Jerusalem over the last couple of decades, mainly because of lack of affordable housing and employment. But the constant image of the city as little more than a site for violent haredi and Palestinian rioting also played a large part in generating the waves of emigration.

Tel Aviv always had better copywriters (from its historically inaccurate title as the “first Hebrew city” to the more updated 1980s slogan of “the city that never stops”).

Jerusalem’s publicists always fall back on the old Western Wall, mosques and churches theme — not exactly cutting edge. Young people — and those who aspire to youth — will always prefer to be identified with the new brand.

The Israeli media’s ongoing campaign to ignore Jerusalem’s world centrality is simply the height of parochialism.

Every time a semi-fashionable magazine places Tel Aviv on a list of cities with fantastic nightlife, the ranking is breathlessly quoted in the Tel Aviv tabloids. The more mundane detail — that only a negligible number of foreigners actually come here with the specific aim of sampling Tel Aviv’s wonders — is never reported. The fact remains that most of those arriving at Ben-Gurion Airport for the first time, Jews and non-Jews alike, have their sights set on Jerusalem.

Anshel Pfeffer is a journalist who writes for the Jerusalem Post, where this article previously appeared.