In 2017 US President Donald Trump moved the American embassy from the de-facto capital of Tel Aviv to the official yet troubled capital of Jerusalem, and in doing socasually destabilizeddecades of tense status quo. While his action was mainly a political statement, it also uncovered a great deal of sentiments of a much more personal nature in picking a side in the rivalry between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

Setting aside the political implications for a moment, the question of Jerusalem vs. Tel Aviv, while on the surface pertaining mostly to lifestyle and geographical preferences, known from such bitter disputes as the New York vs. Los Angeles or Madrid vs. Barcelona, but it adds an additional, local, element, the age old Jewish dilemma: do you stay and support your demographic or do you leave to self-promote?When I made my own personal choice to move to the center area afterabout thirteen years in the Holy City, I experienced guilt tripping from friends and acquaintances, which only piled on my own feelingsof deserting a much beloved yet difficult city for a career opportunities in a soulless metropolis. I’d had multiple such conversations over Shabbat dinners with friends who were pondering leaving and later watched them leave, and in many ways this process seems to reflect the nature of Israeli identity crisis at its current junction. 

The two cities portray near polar opposite lifestyle: Jerusalem is sacred and historical, it boasts signature stone buildings (mandated by city laws), it has mountain air and snow in winter, sometimes, and it carries off that MiddleEastmeetsoldEurope charm. It also presents a microcosm of Israeli society in a dense city that has nowhere to expand (a meta-problem right there). All possible quarrelling factions are constantly fighting to be heard: orthodox Jews, Israeli Arabs, Israeli secular Jews, Reform Jews, political right, political left, Conservative Jews, Beitar Football fans, feminists, students, and whatever is current, resulting in explosive clashes in a tight space. In day to day matters, the city is poor, taxes and housing are among the highest in the country while jobs are scarce and salaries low, services to residents are lacking and it’s conspicuously divided: ultra-orthodox neighborhoods, Arab neighborhoods, east and west Jerusalem, student neighborhoods, and so on.

Tel Aviv, on the other hand, is young and liberal, it is Middle East meets Eurovision Song Contest and gay pride parades. As a woman you won’t get accosted for wearing shorts, it has a beach and a booming high tech industry, buzzing culinary and art scenes, night life and an airport, people strolling and cafés and yoga everywhere. It has landmark Bauhaus architecture and restaurants that are open on Shabbat. It is not problem free, of course. While Jerusalem struggles with core issues of coexistence, Tel Aviv is concerned with moreearthly problems of growth: it’s vastly expanding and developing with the planning and infrastructures lagging behind; public transport and roads are nowhere near keeping up; the housing market is uncontrolled; living costs are steep and on the rise while income rates are stagnating; peripheral neighborhoods are often neglected; and refugee issues and social disparity remain unresolved, to name a few. Last but not least, it is insufferably hot and humid in the summers.

The feeling of a massive desertion of Jerusalem in favor of Tel Aviv is only partially backed up by data. The Israeli Bureau of Statistics reported that in 2017 about 6,000 of Jerusalem’s 900,000 residents left, almost half of those leaving aged between 20 and 34, withTel Aviv receiving among the highest numbers of those leaving. And while it is not unusual for younger people to move to the bigger metropolises to jumpstart their careers and lives, leaving Jerusalem in particular adds a unique emotional baggage.

The subject of emigration from Israel is one of the most heated, sensitive debates, with negative immigration tellinglytermed“Yeridah”, meaning descent (as opposed to the more famous “Aliyah” meaning ascent). And while these numbers reflect a trend to some extent, the question remains how has the subject of Tel Aviv vs. Jerusalem gained such emotional traction in the cultural debate so as to suggest a possible much more dramatic occurrence?

It could be the combination of Israeli pathos of sacrifice, together with the very real and current struggle for defining the nation’s identity which colored this dilemma as a symbolical act of patriotism, surpassing the realistic importance of an individual’s choice of place of residence. For the average Israeli, the national narrative is one of self-sacrifice for the greater good, best captured by the last, oft quoted (though historically speculative) words of mythical Jewish hero Joseph Trumpeldor: “it is good to die for our country”. Today there’s a TrumpeldorSt. in almost every city in Israel.

It is also possible that this topic has such distressing potential since it brings to the fore an uncomfortable question with few certain answers: are the values of self-sacrifice we were raised with truly relevant and necessary today?  Or do they provide a way of avoiding facing pressing problems of national identity and coming up with real, systemic solutions? Has the narrative shifted?

For the current generation, tasked with preserving the dream of the Jewish State in the changing world of immigration, economic crisesand fluctuating national sentiments, answers are elusive and in the works for the time being.For now, there seems to be one unyielding argument in favor of Tel Aviv, as the most common Israeli problem solving tool is taking your problems to the beach.

Israeli funk band HaDagNahash summarized this dilemma already in 2006. Fun fact, front man Shaa’nanStreett still lives in Jerusalem.

Israel Central Bureau of Statistics Data for Jerusalem Day (Hebrew)

Written by Avia Shemesh