Sitting in the Betty White Café (that’s right!) in Tel Aviv

By Joel S. Migdal, Professor.

Insight from Tel Aviv, Israel.

Sitting in the Betty White Café (that’s right!) in Tel Aviv, I have come to the conclusion that Israel is a highly schizophrenic society.  I am a couple of blocks from the beach, where the evening sunsets over the Mediterranean are breathtaking.  And all around me people seem to be enjoying life to the fullest.  They sit in cafés and bars until all hours of the night, sometimes spilling out onto the street in the warm summer nights long after midnight.  The restaurants are full—and they are expensive.  Cultural events are packed.  World recession?  I don’t see it on the streets of downtown Tel Aviv.  At the old Tel Aviv port, now converted into a happening place of shops, shows, and bikinis, traffic jams to get in last until 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning.  This is Barcelona on the shores of the eastern Mediterranean.

Much of the good life is fueled by the extraordinary high-tech boom here—every sort of silly software that you can imagine, along with serious bio-medical products that are changing the world health scene.  Young entrepreneurs drive fancy SUVs and have gorgeous apartments in the city.  Construction is ubiquitous, mostly of fancy office buildings and apartments.

And, yet, there is the other side of Israel that is obvious as I sit in Betty White and read the newspaper.  The government fell apart today over the issue of army service and national service.  Israel has universal conscription that is not so universal.   Most, but not all, Palestinian Israelis are exempt from the draft.  They make up about 20 percent of Israel’s population.  Haredi (Ultra-Orthodox) Jews are another fifth or so of Israeli society, and most of them do not serve either, gaining exemptions for learning Talmud or, in the case of women, for their desire to maintain their modesty.  So about 40 percent of the population avoids service, which does not sit well with many who send their sons and daughters off to risky army service.  A commission appointed by the Prime Minister recommended extending at least national service, if not army service, to Arab and Haredis.  That seemed to point the way to a solution until the Prime Minister realized he might lose his Haredi partners in his governmental coalition.  So he dissolved the commission.  Problem solved.

National service was not the only issue tugging at the seams of the government—and of society.  The protest movement of last summer—tents in the middle of Tel Aviv’s swankiest neighborhood—has returned with a vengeance.  Saturday night, I came to a dead stop two blocks from my apartment as protestors blocked Tel Aviv streets.  Israel vies with the United States for the top spot (or is it bottom spot?) on the list of most unequal industrialized countries.  Clearly, the packed cafés mask a worrisome poverty among those who live outside the high-tech bubble.  The protests do not seem to worry the country’s elite too much yet, but they could become serious.  This is a serious outcry, in a formerly socialist country, against the unfettered effects of neo-liberalism.

And this list of woes does not even include the occupation of the West Bank.  Here, in Tel Aviv, that occupation seems so far away.  But, in reality, it is less than an hour’s drive to the occupied territories.  The sons and daughters of the Tel Aviv elite, along with those of the poorer sectors of society, have to enforce that occupation.  And that enforcement eats away at the fabric of society.  Negotiations with the Palestinians that might bring the occupation to an end do not seem to be on the horizon, despite this week’s visit and exhortations by Hillary Clinton.  A solution, though, seemed to appear this week.  Yet another government commission reported that the occupation never really existed.  Everything that Israel is doing (and has done) in the West Bank are perfectly legal.  Alas, such dubious conclusions do not hide the fact that the sons and daughters have to man checkpoints and round up Palestinians.  No serious solution to that problem seems remotely near.

I guess that Israel lives with the schizophrenia like other societies do.  But here the starkness between the beautiful people of Tel Aviv and the ugliness of the occupation are particularly dramatic.  One can sip iced tea in Betty White while writing on a MacBook Air about state-society relations and momentarily forget about inequality and occupation.  But the truth is that, while the problems Israel faces may be hidden, they are having a corrosive effect on life here.


Professor Joel S. Migdal is the Robert F. Philip Professor of International Studies in the University of Washington ‘s Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies.


Comments are closed.