The State of Israel

Jerusalem -- YMCA tower (left)

Jerusalem or Tel Aviv as Capital? It’s still a defining issue


Kapiti Independent correspondent Tom Aitken has just returned to London after a visit to Israel. Here’s his second report:

Snow in the Holy City

By Tom Aitken

During past days 110kph winds have swept across Israel, uprooting trees, taking out power lines, halting buses and closing schools.

Two to three inches of snow have fallen in Jerusalem. Some pranksters have built a snowman on a rooftop and dressed it in Orthodox black hat, scarf and overcoat.

Mount Hermon had twenty inches. The locals in the Golan are rejoicing––such conditions usually attract tourists.

Since Jerusalem and Tel Aviv are the two largest cities to be affected, the weather provides a lead in for a discussion of the roles they each play. This is a matter which divides opinion within Israel and externally.

Tel Aviv — Capital after independence

Tel Aviv was the capital for a period following the Declaration of Independence. But since then, in the eyes of the Israeli government and people, Jerusalem has had that status under Israeli law. The president lives there, within a short distance of government offices, supreme court and parliament (Knesset).

But so far as the UN is concerned,

Tel Aviv from a park in Jaffa

Tel Aviv remains the capital, because much of eastern Jerusalem is Palestinian territory (as, also, is nearby Bethlehem). Jerusalem is not therefore a wholly Jewish city.

This issue is complicated, you will not be surprised to read, by the Palestinian expectation that when, finally, agreement is reached, East Jerusalem will become the capital of the Palestinian state.

It seems obvious, to an outsider, that most Westerners would prefer to conduct their business with Israel in Tel Aviv. It is essentially a western city, determinedly secular. It enjoys a strenuous nightlife. The group we were with was told that international men’s basketball players have voted it their favourite Mediterranean city. Say no more!

It also has an attractive waterfront––miles and miles of beach.

Jerusalem contrasts

Jerusalem, by contrast, is a hardly-at-all modified middle-eastern city. The walls around the old city still stand. It is short on skyscrapers. The tallest tower in the city, I understand (and I have been up it), belongs to––wait for it––the YMCA, which opened opposite the King David Hotel in 1933.

The taxi drivers apparently refuse to display rates per distance travelled, preferring to charge whatever they think the market will bear. (Have a savvy, flinty-hearted Jewish friend with you to do the bargaining).

Tel Aviv, I should mention, is not entirely modern. These days in incorporates the old Palestinian town of Jaffa (earlier known as Joppa). This retains a number of older buildings and, being on a hill, offers good views over its modernity.

Tel Aviv, indeed, was a breakaway town, founded in 1910 by Jews from Jaffa who felt they would be better off making a town out in the sand dunes than they were under Palestinian law. They turned out to be right.

An odd quirk of its history is that it has more Bauhaus buildings than any other city in the world. Bauhaus was a school of art and design in Weimar Republic Germany, which aimed to establish a working relationship between design & industrial techniques and to breakdown the distinction between ‘fine’ and ‘applied’ arts. It was communal rather than individualistic and many of its members were Jewish.

Bauhaus victims of Hitler

This was doubtless why one of Hitler’s first acts after achieving power in 1933 was to close it down. A number of its members fled to Tel Aviv. There they built numerous apartment blocks, many of them still in use. Israel’s National Theatre, in Habima Square, shows strong Bauhaus influence.

An expert local guide took us walking along Rothschild Avenue to see a number of these buildings. Originally, the apartment blocks all had flat roofs. Some have been modified lately, for very practical reasons.

The blocks are occupied by owners, not renters. The local authority does not provide financial assistance for renovation work. The owners, therefore, jointly sell the block’s flat roof to someone who wants to live there. He builds on top and the occupants use his payment to renovate their own dwellings.

North of Tel Aviv we visited Akko (Acre, as was), to see extensive remains of a crusader city below present ground level, and the very beautiful Al-Jazaar Mosque.

Herod the Great’s port

After that we looked at Caesarea Maritima, where we saw the extensive remains of a project magnificent and outrageous even by the standards of its originator, Herod the Great.

Jewish Palestine, he decided, needed a port large enough to receive the largest ships of his day. Its long, predominately straight coast did not provide one. Joppa and Acre, were nowhere near big enough. Very well: he would remedy the deficiency by building an artificial harbour, a palace, a theatre and a hippodrome.

It was from here that the Roman Prefect Pilate travelled up to Jerusalem to find himself dealing with the problem of Jesus, and, later, that Paul travelled to Rome to appear before Caesar.