Pascal Rossignol / Reuters

A tale of two beaches

Paris and Tel Aviv have much more in common than a beach festival venue

September 6, 2015 2:00AM ET

For the Zionist Jews who founded Tel Aviv, their city was always meant to symbolize a modern, exclusively Jewish space — one free of both the Arab and the Palestinian and, if not by law, then by cultural identity, the “traditional” Jewish cultures that seemingly dominated Jaffa.

Tel Aviv was established as a garden suburb of the type popular in England at the turn of the 20th century, one removed from yet accessible to Jaffa, which was the cultural and economic capital of pre-1948 Palestine. But over the coming decades, it turned into the gleaming “White City” we recognize today as a world center of modernist International Style, or Bauhaus.

As with so many foundational myths, Tel Aviv’s relies on the physical erasure of the past — in this case, the communities that had inhabited the region for generations before. Its founders never tried to hide it. “It was from the overthrow of geography that Tel Aviv was born,” the official town gazette declared in 1933. Writer Shai Agnon, artist Nahum Gutman and many of their contemporaries would depict Tel Aviv as a “city on the sands,” an outpost of modern civilization in a physical and cultural desert.

There are analogous gentrification scenarios playing out all over the world, from Mumbai to New Orleans. But Paris in particular stands out as a city whose origin story hides ugly, and forgotten, histories.

And so it is as historically fitting as it is ethically and politically troubling that Paris hosted a “plage Tel Aviv” along the River Seine as part of its yearly summer “Paris plage” festival. Since 2002 the festival, which draws millions of visitors every year to its “sands,” water misters, music and beach ambience. The Paris municipality decided to name one of the days “Tel Aviv on the Seine” in honor of the Israeli city’s famed reputation as a liberal beach city par excellence. For Paris’ political elite, Tel Aviv represented the “good” Israel — culturally and politically free and progressive, and in fact a symbol of the possibility of peace — even if they were critical of the brutal policies of the Benjamin Netanyahu government.

Sadly, the history and present-day realities of Tel Aviv, especially its relationship with its “mother city” turned marginalized neighborhood of Jaffa, reflect conquest and conflict far more than peace and harmony. From the moment of its creation until today, Zionist and Israeli leaders have been in constant conflict with the local Palestinian Arab population as the Jewish city’s growth encroached on the territory of the Arab city and its surrounding villages. If Tel Aviv has always defined itself as the quintessentially modern and European city, for Arabs its birth and development epitomized the negative impact of Zionism on their homeland.

Parisians with a sense of history can — and should — sympathize with the inhabitants of Jaffa who were swept away to make room for the beloved and mythical city that is presently hosting a small sliver of Tel Aviv. In 1853, Napoleon III appointed Baron Georges Eugene Haussmann to “modernize” Paris, and the resulting transformation of the city’s urban core was anything but peaceful. 

If Jaffa went to hell, I would not count myself among the mourners.

David Ben Gurion

Around the time of the 1848 revolutions, Paris was a hotbed of social and political turmoil and economic unrest, and shared many similarities with early 20th century Jaffa. Wealthier Parisians stood to profit from the “modernization” of the city along more commerce and bourgeois-friendly lines, while poor and working class residents stood to lose the security their admittedly dirty, cramped neighborhoods provided against outsiders and the state. These neighborhoods also housed dense networks of solidarity and economic activity that was not yet exploited — nor valued — by the emerging bourgeoisie and its state institutions.

It was the very impenetrability of these areas that enabled resistance movements whenever the political and economic situation became too oppressive. And that, in turn, was what led Napoleon to ask Haussmann to “revolution proof” the reconstructed areas.

The development and expansion of Jaffa and its environs was both more organic and less painful than that of Paris 50 years before. But Jaffa’s “Old Town” received its own Haussmannization in 1936, when in response to the growing Palestinian revolt against British rule and Zionist expansion, the British military blew up large swaths of the Old City and built broad avenues to make it easier to move troops and avoid snipers. Local officials publicly defended the destruction as a “renewal” and “improvement” scheme that would modernize the area and open it up to better air and traffic flow. But the conflation of town planning and population control was impossible to ignore. Indeed, David Ben Gurion, then the political leader of Palestine’s Jewish community, declared,  “I would welcome the destruction of Jaffa ... Let it come ... If Jaffa went to hell, I would not count myself among the mourners.”

People covered in mock blood near a Palestinian flag and a placard which reads, "Gaza - My Love on Seine" stage their death on a artificial sand beach at "Paris Plages" to protest the "Tel Aviv on Seine" event, in Paris, France, August 13, 2015.
Pascal Rossignol / Reuters

The beach was central to the coexistence between Jews and Palestinians in Tel Aviv and Jaffa during the early Zionist era — and indeed, long after. In 1915 the local military governor of Jaffa, Hassan Bey, built a mosque by the sea specifically to block the southward expansion of Zionist Tel Aviv. The mixed working class neighborhood of Manshiyyeh quickly became a site of constant conflict. Indeed, the first Palestinian revolt erupted there in 1921 when a group of Bolshevik Jews marching and chanting pro-worker slogans through its streets were mistaken by Palestinians as attackers on the warpath.

Tel Aviv’s beach was also a favorite destination for Jaffa’s Palestinian Arab population, who frequented Tel Aviv’s cinemas and markets near the border of Jaffa. Feeling threatened by this intermingling, Jewish leaders sent regular letters to the British to complain about the “invasion” of Arabs, and one senior Jewish official even threatened to “blow up with bombs” a local market that served both populations.

After its incorporation into Tel Aviv in 1949, Jaffa was flooded with Jewish immigrants (often darker-skinned) from the Muslim world. The Jewish population of the new combined “Tel Aviv-Yafo” municipality would dominate the few thousand Palestinians who remained in the neighborhoods bordering the sea. The once vibrant town again became known as a dirty and crime-ridden place in the Israeli imagination. And the beach fell into disrepair until the beginnings of gentrification in the 1980s, which naturally included attempts to remove the remaining Palestinian Arab fishermen from the port as part of its renewal.

While this brought about significant gentrification, Jaffa’s Palestinian population has remained economically and politically marginalized. Even as Jaffa’s beaches have slowly been developed, the incessant government and market pressures on the population to leave has transformed the act of merely remaining in Jaffa to be as much an act of “summud” — or steadfastness, a defining word of Palestinian resistance — as that of their compatriots across the Green Line or the Israeli bedouins whose lands continue to be confiscated despite generations of loyal service to the Israeli state.

Given the two cities’ histories, the cheap propaganda epitomized by Plage Tel Aviv no longer holds water in most politically conscious cities on Earth.

This is the context that must inform our understanding of the over-determined symbolism of the “plage Tel Aviv” along the Seine. Tel Aviv might retain its reputation as “a town open to all minorities ... a progressive town,” in the words of Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo. Its gay-friendly and bohemian atmosphere continue to mirror Israel’s image of itself as a supposedly modern and progressive country. It was thus no coincidence that it was Paris’ mayor that thought of Tel Aviv to improve the atmosphere of their temporary beach and not the other way around. Tel Aviv’s image radiates globally — as its founders intended — pulling people far and wide to bask in its identity as an island of fun and peace in a sea of conflict.  But these images only resonate because the far less salubrious realities of the city and its history refuse to be acknowledged.

Paris has its own problem with unwanted minorities. Arab and African Parisians (whose presence in France far predates the Zionist presence in Palestine) have periodically resisted their ongoing exclusion from even minimal benefits of French citizenship, as epitomized by the periodic uprisings of the last 10 years. The situation recalls the plight of Jaffan Palestinians, those living in the Occupied Territories and those in exile.

This isn’t to discount the crucial differences between the struggles for equality and justice in France and Israel/Palestine, in the 19th or 21st centuries. However much Haussmann’s reforms hurt large segments of the population, the roots of the policies were economic and political, while exclusion and marginalization in Israel and Palestine are by contrast based on nation and religion.

What’s more, France at least holds out the promise of full equality for all citizens; Haussmann’s vision of “progress and modernity” for Paris, and all of France, could be, was, and continues to be used against the systemic racism that frustrates these goals.

Zionism, on the other hand, is by definition an exclusivist ethno-national and religiously grounded identity. It is thus incapable of offering Palestinian citizens full equality, never mind coming to term with millions of Palestinians living under a half century of occupation and in exile.

The kind of society that Mayor Hidalgo imagines exists in Tel Aviv, as epitomized by its famous beach culture, is intimately and inextricably tied to those it beats down. There is no Tel Aviv without Ariel, Gush Etzion and Har Homa. And like Paris, Tel Aviv benefits from the labor of untold thousands of African migrant workers.

Given the two cities’ histories, the cheap propaganda epitomized by Plage Tel Aviv no longer holds water in most politically conscious cities on Earth. Solidarity with Palestinians largely overrides “standing with Israel” as the natural view of most self-respecting Parisians, and by large numbers of Europeans and Americans, too. It will take a lot more than a badly organized beach party to change the tune. 

Mark LeVine is a professor of history at the University of California at Irvine and a distinguished visiting professor at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies. He is a co-editor, with Mathias Mossberg, of “One Land, Two States: Israel and Palestine as Parallel States.”

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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