Friday, May 09, 2008

Happy Independence Day from Florentine

I celebrated Israel’s 60th Anniversary with a wild street mob in the trendy Tel Aviv neighborhood of Florentine. Dubbed the “Soho of Tel Aviv” this area is named after David Florentine, a Greek Zionist who purchased this land from Arabs in the 1920s. Four scores later and part of the most modern city in the state of Israel, Mr. Florentine’s land is now known as a Bohemian stronghold, with moderate yuppie infiltration. Quintessentially, it is the place for Israeli combat soldiers who have travelled to India for a year on their post-army trip, found a friend in LSD, and are now back in Israel only because the luxury of a daily mango lassi became unaffordable.

Tonight Florentine was the place to be if you’re hip (or wannabe) , twenty-something, and refuse to pay an 80 shekel entrance fee to a nightclub. I fit into these three categories, so I found myself walking cautiously on Herzl Street to avoid stepping into giant puddles of urine. Trance music blared from invisible loudspeakers that distorted the sound of the bass. The air wreaked of stale beer. Gay men strolled the boulevard, casually inserting whole hands into underpants. I thought I had been transported back to my hometown of Miami Beach.

The Zionist experiment is now 60 years old. There is now a place that pink-shirted homosexual Jews can call home. A place that black-hatted ultra-orthodox Jews can call home. A place that homosexual, ultra-orthodox Jews can also call home. It is a place so unique on earth, so alluring, an object of the world’s attention for reasons great and small. Yet for Jews of all walks of life, Israel is today what it always was supposed to be: a place of refuge for a scattered, tormented, and talented tribe. The refuge has some kinks to work out, but all in good time.

I nursed my bottle of Heineken for a couple hours pondering why Israel can figure out how to single-handedly defeat five Arab armies, make nuclear weapons, put a video camera on an digestible pill, but in 60 years it still can’t brew a decent beer? I also wondered why I moved to a country to be in a celebration that felt so, well, un-Israeli. This party literally could have been anywhere on earth. “This isn’t Israel,” I thought. Where are the camels? The falafel balls? The bomb threats? All I see are gay people. I must be in South Beach.”

I began talking to a girl, a fellow documentary film producer who told me that she is not celebrating Yom Haatzmaut, as it’s known in Hebrew. To her, independence day is just a great excuse to party. She lives in Israel because, “that’s where I was born and that’s where my family is. I sat with her for some time and she could not fathom why I would leave America to live in Israel. She called me crazy and maybe I am. If it was up to her, she said, she would move to New York City “in a second.” I got the feeling that in Florentine, Zionism is totally passe.

As I scanned the street for alleys in order to relieve myself, I saw a group of Israel’s newest immigrants, Africans from the Darfur region of Sudan. They are part of the group of 500 Darfurians who were granted refugee status and made permanent residents by the Israeli government due to the genocide in Darfur. Their war-torn faces cracked smiles that seemed uncomfortable from lack of use. In broken Hebrew, they told me they were having a good time, both at the party and in Israel as a whole. I marveled at the twist of fate that would unite the world’s latest genocide victims from Africa with with the grandchildren of genocide victims from Europe, in an old Arab street in the Middle East. I wondered which group felt happier to be here.

As the night went on, the music got louder and more annoying. I also got drunker and more morbid. I wondered if the bench I was sitting on, or even if the state of Israel will exist for another 60 years? The answer is probably, yes, but how many people will have to die for it? My feeling is that Israel should adopt a new mantra, one that may be more appealing to the Florentine crowd than the old one. If the first 60 were about strength and bravery as the famous Israeli saying goes, then the next 60 should be about compassion. More Israelis should be aware that, while Florentine may have been bought for a tidy sum, much of modern day Israel was paid for in Palestinian blood and tears. More Palestinians need to know that, once in a time before Islam, Jews did inhabit this land and thus belong here as much as they do. I imagined my bold initiative being blurted out on loudspeakers all across Israel and the Palestinian territories: “Compassion is the key to a lasting peace in the Middle East!” But all I heard was trance music.