March 24, 2023
As the fledgling Zionist movement began to stir in the hearts and minds of Jewish people in the Diaspora, a cultural awakening was taking place. A portal opened in the Jewish community from which poured forth inspired secular expression in literature and the arts.
These men and women saw the return of the Jewish people to the land of Israel not only as the fulfillment of biblical prophecies but also as the dawning of a new age for Jewish people. The return to Zion was not just a change in geography, but a metamorphosis was about to occur bringing forth the “new Jewish man.”
Rise of Zionism
The Context for Zionism
Prior to the birth pangs of Zionism, most Jewish people in eastern Europe lived in traditional Jewish communities called shtetls, a Yiddish word meaning “towns.” The national governments restricted mobility, education, and other rights of Jewish people. Within the shtetls, Jewish involvement in trade, finance, travel, and education were carefully regulated. Education was under the vigilant scrutiny of the Jewish religious leaders. Shtetls were religious enclaves where Rabbinic Judaism ruled the day. As a result, the spiritual leaders limited the arts and avenues of cultural expressions to what was religiously acceptable.
While history generally acknowledges Theodor Herzl as the “father of Zionism,” he certainly was not the first or only one to express the ideals of a Jewish return to the historic homeland. Included in this list were the likes of A. D. Gordon, Ahad Ha’am, Leon Pinsker, Rachel Bluwstein, and Naftali Herz Imber. When these philosophers, visionaries, and artists looked to Palestine, they did not envision Jerusalem but rather a new land bursting out of Jaffa and expanding into the hills and valleys of Israel.
The Vision of Zionism
As early as 1882, Leon Pinsker, a physician by profession, wrote the pamphlet, Auto-Emancipation. It is a founding document of modern Jewish nationalism. In the book, Pinsker discussed how the Jewish people in the Diaspora were beaten down and without hope: “The Jews are not a nation, because they lack a certain distinctive national character, possessed by every other nation, a character which is determined by living together in one country, under one government.”
Pinsker’s writing made a deep impression on many other Jewish thinkers. His book appeared just as many other Jewish people were emerging from the confines of traditional Judaism. Pinsker issued a call to Jewish people to take their destiny into their own hands: “We are no more justified in leaving our national fortune entirely in the hands of the other peoples than we are in making them responsible for our national misfortunes.”
The call was for Jewish people to take responsibility for their own destiny. This calling was not religious. An uncontainable Jewish secularism was being birthed into the new call to nationalism. Slowly, these Jewish men and women, mostly from eastern Europe, began the long, arduous journey to Ottoman-ruled Palestine. However, these pioneers did not come to Israel empty handed; they brought their newly formed ideals and values.
The Dream of a Jewish State
The writings of Ahad Ha’am, another early settler to Israel, influenced a whole generation. He was born Asher Zvi Hirsch Ginsberg in Russia on August 18, 1856. In 1922, he finally moved to Tel Aviv, where he became a member of the Executive Committee of the city council until 1926. Unlike Herzl, he strived for “a Jewish State, and not merely a state of Jews.”
Ahad Ha’am’s article, “The Jewish State and the Jewish Problem,” expresses a harsh criticism of the emerging Zionist movement: “We must confess to ourselves that the ‘ingathering of the exiles’ is unattainable by natural means. . . . Only religion, with its belief in a miraculous redemption, can promise that consumption.”
An Atlantic magazine article in the early twentieth century captured the Zionist sentiment of the time as it was developing: “The determination of the Jewish people to recover a normal national life never limited itself to faith in a miraculous restoration independent of the effort of the Jews themselves, although the conviction that the restoration was certain to come one day was part of the faith of every Jew.”
Rise of Tel Aviv
Tel Aviv and “the New Jewish Man”
Before Tel Aviv was a major metropolitan center, it started as an idea and the birthplace for the new Jewish persona. From the orange orchards and sand dunes surrounding the ancient port city of Jaffa would emerge Tel Aviv, the springboard for a new Jewish awakening.
The pioneers of Zionism dreamed of a “new Jewish man.” This ideal would find expression in literature and the arts. From its inception, Tel Aviv was the canvas for this new expression leading to the development of literature, music, art, and even architectural designs. Drawing from the deep well of Jewish connection to Jerusalem and the centrality of the city to the life of the newly established State of Israel, the Knesset—Israel’s parliament—declared Jerusalem the capital of Israel on January 23, 1950. In 1967, Jerusalem was unified. To this day, however, most of world does not recognize Jerusalem as the political capital of Israel. The United States was the first country to do so in March 2019.
However, Tel Aviv refused to surrender its prominence as the cultural center of a modern democratic state. Known as the “White City” because of the unique white buildings marking the Bauhaus architectural style, Tel Aviv strives to rival Jerusalem as Israel’s trendsetter. Whether in the field of literature, arts, music, or technology, the city thrives on modernity and diversity.
Tel Aviv and Israeli Culture
Tel Aviv is home to hundreds of art galleries and private boutiques showcasing a unique array of paintings, sculptures, crafts, and other works by Israeli artists. The city’s art scene encompasses everything from tiny, one-room galleries hidden in narrow, backstreet alleys to large outdoor festivals such as Nachlat Binyamin’s Friday Market, to the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. The Eretz Israel Museum remains one of the largest museums in Israel.
Tel Aviv is also the home of the Suzanne Dellal Art Center, which is among the oldest and largest institutions in Israel to put on dance performances, promote local dance culture, and showcase artists from across the world. The center gets more than half a million visitors a year and is one of Tel Aviv’s most popular tourist attractions.
When it comes to trends and rock-and-roll concerts, great artists have performed in Tel Aviv, including Bob Dylan, Madonna, Paul McCartney, and, more recently, Guns N’ Roses. Today, the city boasts the largest gay pride celebrations in the Middle East, which is another way Tel Aviv expresses its spirit of freedom and non-traditional independence. There is also a vast expanse of religious centers, including a center for Scientology, Buddhism, and Kabbalah.
Israel’s largest political rallies and demonstrations occur in Tel Aviv. The massive “Four Mothers” demonstrations calling for Israel to withdraw from Lebanon were in Tel Aviv in the 1980s. Activism in Tel Aviv was at the forefront of support for the Olso Accords and the 2010 “Social Equality movement.” More recently, demonstrations against Benjamin Netanyahu’s 2022 coalition were based in Tel Aviv.
Dynamic cultural, artistic, and political movements all find an expression in Tel Aviv. Coupled with the hi-tech innovations, they keep Tel Aviv a world-class city. Tel Aviv boasts one of the highest costs of living among cities in the twenty-first century. Even this distinction draws from the inspiration surrounding the founding of the city on April 1, 1909. As the founders hoped, the “first Hebrew City” is renowned and has its place among the other great cities of the world.
Today, when we look out over the horizon of the great metropolitan landscape of Tel Aviv, we can keep our finger on the pulse of Israel and know what is happening. While the capital and the Knesset are in Jerusalem, the dynamic expression of Israel still emanates from Tel Aviv.
 One must understand Jewish nationalism in the context of the European nationalism movements during this period. In the late 1800s, several ethnic groups within Europe became more conscious of having a common culture and needing to unify as a nation on their land. For instance, Italian nationalism led previously disjointed states to unify and form Italy. Likewise, Jewish nationalism focused on promoting Jewish culture free from religious constraints and secular oppression. Forming a Jewish nation on Jewish ancestral land became a priority.
 Leon Pinsker, Auto-Emancipation, trans. D. S. Blondheim (New York: The Maccabean Publishing Company, 1906), 2.
 Pinsker, Auto-Emancipation, 9.
 Ahad Ha’am, “The Jewish State and Jewish Problem,” trans. Leon Simon, Jewish Virtual Library: Texts Concerning Zionism, accessed March 22, 2023, https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/quot-the-jewish-state-and-jewish-problem-quot-ahad-ha-am.
 Ha’am, “The Jewish State and Jewish Problem.”
 H. Sacher, “A Jewish Palestine,” The Atlantic, July 1919, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1919/07/a-jewish-palestine/303393/.
 “Arts and Culture in Tel Aviv,” Tel Aviv University, accessed March 3, 2023, https://english.m.tau.ac.il/arts_and_culture_in_tlv.