The image of Tel Aviv



Israel Studies, 2009, Vol. 14, pp.21-37


Geography textbooks, like other cultural artifacts, are usually left as unexploited – raw. Ever since its founding, Tel-Aviv has been represented in geography textbooks in a very positive light – the “European oasis in the East”. The dominant line in presenting the city remains – a created artefact that testifies to the vitality and power of Zionism, the center of the State of Israel, the very heart of its economy, culture, and society. It is integrated into the processes of globalization, the contemporary symbols of “world cities” apply to it as well.


In his book, Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Frank L. Baum describes the adventures of Dorothy and her friends on their way to a place regarded as the center of the world – the Emerald City – where the most powerful ruler of the Land of Oz dwells.i The sight of the city, which appears before them after an exhaustive and dangerous journey in remote locations, left them in awe. The brightness of the light, the joy, and splendor of the city, the magnificent houses along the paved streets, the beautiful people strolling among the shops – all gave a feeling of respect towards the city and its great ruler. Baum uses a familiar motif taken from the biblical story of wandering in the desert on the way to the Promised Land. In his point of view, for those living in the Midwest of the United States, the Emerald City signifies New York and its skyline, its wealth, the aspirations and dreams it arouses among the people living in the periphery.

Ten years after this book was written the neighborhood Ahuzat Bayit was founded upon the dunes along the Mediterranean shore of the Land of Israel. Within approximately one decade, in 1918, the image of the new neighborhood (that had no more than 200 houses) was portrayed in stereotypes that recall the descriptions of the mythical Emerald City created by Frank Baum. Already, at that stage, the neighborhood was compared in a geography textbook that appeared in Kishinev to a “European Oasis in the Asian desert”. In its description, the author uses the elements of sunlight, beautiful houses, and wealth in order to emphasize its unusual European-like characteristics within its oriental location.ii

It seems that the implied connections between the legendary Emerald City and the real Tel-Aviv have not ended. On the contrary – a century after the Emerald City was described for the first time, and at the beginning of the 21st century, a geography textbook in Israel has appeared using the famous stereotypes of downtown New York to describe Tel-Aviv: skyscrapers that block the horizon, in low-angled photographs from the direction of the sea, during evening hours. City lights reflected in the water amplify the vertical lines of the city. The message is conveyed from the book covers: Tel-Aviv = New York; America is here and now!

In the first years of the city, other places in the country such as Jaffa, Jerusalem, or Petach Tikva, occupied an important place in Hebrew literature. Tel-Aviv was fortunate to have been founded in a period in which a life of vibrant cultural creativity began, mainly in one of the first neighborhoods, Neve Tzedek, which was founded in 1887. Neve Tzedek and Jaffa are described by authors of the time, such as Agnon and Brenner, as the antithesis of Jerusalem, mainly in regard to its secularism as opposed to tradition and religion. These portrayals of Tel-Aviv had already been ascribed to it when it was still a small neighborhood extending over sand hills before World War I.

Nurit Govrin notes that Tel-Aviv was referred to in literature as a large, open, and dynamic city even before this attribute became a reality. She states that literary works regarded Tel-Aviv differently in every period. From the founding of the city until after World War I there was a sense of amazement and pride. In the 1920s its image was that of a place in the process of growth, with a certain criticism of its urban-diaspora style of life. In the middle of the 1930s, its perception became that of city turning into a metropolis, with a sense of sadness at the loss of the initial intimacy.iii The amazement and pride in the city’s founding and its rapid growth are linked with the wider and deeper processes of consolidating a national Jewish identity in the country. The city served as a symbol for the new Zionist enterprise.

The article deals with the images of Tel-Aviv in Hebrew geography textbooks. Such textbooks do not have the splendor, prestige, and ostensible immortality of literary works. On one hand, they purport to present the pupils with “reality as it is” in an objective manner, but on the other hand, cultural and ideological constraints dictate the essential texts presented in these books. It seems that with time, a collection of textbooks provides a historical record of cultural perceptions and perspectives.


When nationalism flourished in Europe in the 19th century, states saw the need to introduce geography as a school subject. This helped to achieve the political aims of nationalism and it was accompanied by the publication of atlases and national maps.iv The bond between the pupils and their homeland was therefore one of the implicit geographical aims, as it is in schools’ study programs and textbooks aimed at achieving territorial socialization.

The Zionist movement as a national movement carried the flag of territorial socialization until the establishment of the State of Israel, which then took upon itself the task of education. The two central subjects that corresponded with territorial socialization were “homeland” (Moledet) and “geography”. The first subject included an initial familiarity with the settlement in which the pupil lived, the basic skills in reading a map, the seasons of the year, nature. The basis for this was the first study program of the Hebrew Teachers Federation in Palestine that appeared in 1903. Since there were three separate trends in Zionist education – the liberal, religious, and socialist trends – each had its own variation of the study program. After the establishment of the State and the compulsory education law, state-sponsored study programs appeared. These programs continued to be based on those established at the beginning of the 20th century, with a division into two educational trends – State and State Religious. An important change in the content of the geography study programs took place in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when a reform in education was carried out. This program, with periodic adaptations, is still used today.v

How does the subject of Tel-Aviv fit into the study programs in geography? The basis for every geography study program in Israel was the regional paradigm, according to which the regions of the world were taught according to school grade. However, a basic review of the Land of Israel and its region was initially taught in Grades 56, a second comprehensive review was given in Grade 8, and after the reform in education, in Grade 9. The third time the material on the Land of Israel was taught was in the upper classes of high school as part of the matriculation examinations. After the reform, the study of the Land of Israel was divided into regions, and in each year the pupils had to study one particular region.

Until the 1960s, most textbook authors were intellectuals, teachers and educators without academic training in geography, who worked mainly in Jewish education in the Diaspora. From the 1960s onwards, the task of writing geography textbooks was taken over by university graduates in Israel. In recent decades the Center for Educational Technology (CET) in Tel-Aviv took over this task, and produced an important set of textbooks by teams of scientific writers and


During the period of the Second Aliya (1904–1914) and even before the Hebrew literary center emerged in Neve Zedek, a geography book on the Land of Israel appeared in Warsaw written by Yehuda Grazowski.vii Not a large book, it was mainly a short inventory of what existed in the country – mountains, places, settlements, and inhabitants. The largest city in those days, Jerusalem (with about 50,000 people according to him), received one page in which he noted the dependence of its Jews on the Haluka (charity distribution), the remains of holy places, and the shortage of water. This was followed by half a page to describe Jaffa. Besides the ancient sites, he mentioned that the city had developed greatly in recent decades: “The number of its inhabitants is about 26,000 … it is a city of commerce. … Most of its Jewish inhabitants are artisans, shopkeepers and laborers in the settlements.”

During World War I the new neighborhood of Tel-Aviv experienced traumatic events, including the expulsion of its inhabitants by the Turks. Following the war, in 1918 Ottoman rule was replaced by British rule. In 1918, the hardships of recent years notwithstanding, Moshe Tzusmer wrote, “Tel Aviv is the jewel in the crown of the new Jewish Yishuv, a European oasis in the Asian desert.”viii

Tzusmer’s book, published by the Omanut Press in Frankfurt, was a finely designed textbook, and well illustrated. Its technical quality is comparable to high quality publications in Europe and North America of those days. The book uses the perspective of the traveling tourist who arrives at the port of Jaffa and wanders across the country. His powerful impressions of Tel-Aviv are understandable after the experience that the tourist-narrator undergoes when he lands in Jaffa:

But come into the city, and you will know that you tread upon eastern soil. The streets are narrow and crooked, and the light of the sun hardly penetrates them … the markets are usually covered, full of noise and tumult, crowded and crammed.ix

Perhaps, for the first time, in a Hebrew geography book with a long and rich text, the author notes elements that reinforce the positive images of a “slice of Europe” built by cultivated, working, and diligent Jews as an alternative to the decadent, non-productive landscape of the native Arabs in the country. The central interest in Tzusmer’s book was to transmit the “vision” of Tel-Aviv. In describing the city, he did not focus on the classical subjects typical for geography books such as employment data. Although the book was not sponsored by any official body of the Zionist movement, it was suffused with the same characteristics of later Zionist publications such as those of the Jewish National Fund. The contrast between the local Orient and the “slice of Europe” created by the Zionist movement became a permanent feature in most geography textbooks in the Yishuv period.

After World War I, amply illustrated geography textbooks appeared in Warsaw. One by Eliezer Metropolitansky described the Land of Israel within the regional framework of Asia as a whole, and did not devote much space to the description of the country.x The Arab inhabitants of the country are described as engaged in farming. Generally speaking, the “level of work and industry” in the country is very low “because the needs of the fellahin are not many”. He described Jerusalem in seven lines, and Jaffa and Tel-Aviv in only four. Jaffa is portrayed as a port and commercial city engaged in the export of grain, oil, and fruits. But “… the most beautiful neighborhood [in Jaffa] is Tel-Aviv where the first Jewish Gymnasia, Herzlia, is to be found.” The other large cities in the country, Hebron, Haifa, Gaza, are given only one line.

A similarly concise and slightly dry description is presented in Dr. Abraham Kamenetzky’s textbook for Grade 6 in a Hebrew school.xi He summed up the subject in twenty lines. At first he described Jaffa and its orchards, its location, the number of inhabitants, and its historical importance, then noted that there was a new neighborhood in which all the inhabitants were Jews: Ashkenazim, Sephardim, Yemenites, who were engaged in commerce, and the “Jewish Gymnasia” was known to be there. The brevity of the text in these books does not allow for extensive descriptions of the country and its sites, as is to be found in Tzusmer’s book.

In the second half of the 1920s three geography books appeared that were devoted entirely to the “Land of Israel”. xii Intended for the educated public, they were composed with a regional approach, reviewing subject after subject, and covering all the different regions of the country. Their factual style was dry, informative, as in an encyclopedia. Avraham Brawer’s book was of major importance because of the author’s prestige and his academic and public position at that time. The three books were printed by Tel-Aviv publishing houses, which indicated the rising position of Tel-Aviv as a cultural center competing with other large Hebrew centers of geography textbook publication in the Diaspora such as Warsaw or Frankfurt.

Since the late 1920s the portrayal of Tel-Aviv increasingly overtook that of Jaffa. A case in point is the ambitious book by E. Blank (1930) published by the educational network of Tarbut in Kishinev, in which he tried to make a comprehensive survey of all the regions of the world in 150 pages. This was the first basic geography textbook in which pupils studied most of the continents in the world. Intended for pupils in the Tarbut network, a large part was devoted to the portrayal of the Land of Israel.xiii Unlike Tzusmer’s book that used a narrative form, Blank’s style was in a dry, informative “scientific” language. The first three pages in the chapter on the settlements discussed at length Jerusalem and its neighboring cities (Bethlehem and Hebron). Tel-Aviv he describes as a city

that is more beautiful than all the places in the new Jewish settlements. Its streets are straight and paved, its houses are built with good taste and pleasantly arranged, and are all surrounded by trees and flower gardens. At the street corners the signs are in Hebrew… On Ahad Ha’am Street stands the Herzlia Gymnasia – a tall, imposing building that overlooks all the other buildings around it… Jaffa is a port city situated on a hill near the Mediterranean shore. It has 50,000 inhabitants. There are many orchards around Jaffa where oranges are mostly grown.xiv

The descriptions of Jaffa and Tel-Aviv by Nahum Gabrieli (1934) are found in a joint chapter called “Twins”.xv He first described Jaffa, presented as the orchard center in the country, and as a large, vibrant commercial city through which passed most of the sea trade in the Land of Israel. He then praised Jaffa, acclaiming it as the place in which the first Hebrew school was founded, and the Jewish community that grew and flourished there before Tel-Aviv was built. Slightly exaggerated, the presentation of Jaffa gave credit to Jaffa’s economic role. The author mentioned the city’s mixed population and its visible beauty.xvi

When Gabrieli wrote this, Tel-Aviv was already 25 years old, and unlike the brief description of Jaffa, he spent several pages on Tel-Aviv, giving it the title of the capital city of the Jewish Yishuv. He emphasized the new, urban character of Tel-Aviv: “Tel Aviv is no longer a garden suburb today, but a large city full of movement and activity.”xvii His description of the city praises its modernity and vitality as expressed in Jewish industry and work. He noted that Tel-Aviv was “a city of learning and wisdom”, with many schools and publishing houses, where a “Hebrew opera house” and a Hebrew theatre were also established. However, Gabrieli’s crowning description of the city is the single, clear message to every Jewish tourist who came to see this wonder: “The Jew will say in his heart, let us see this city in which all the people are Jews, where the streets are clean and beautiful, where the rulers, leaders, and policemen are Jewish…”xviii

In 1934, when Tel-Aviv celebrated its silver jubilee, the city was already larger than Jaffa. The authors of geography textbooks no longer had doubts that Tel-Aviv was the jewel in the Zionist crown. They competed among themselves for superlatives to garland her, as though through it the vitality of the Zionist enterprise could be asserted. This tendency was especially noticeable in textbooks that used the personal narrative form. A case in point was In the Hebrew Homeland by Baruch Avivi and Elhanan Indelman.xix Scores of pages are devoted to describing the experiences of Nahum, who immigrated to the country with his parents. When their ship anchored in the harbor of Tel-Aviv, they burst into tears of joy. One day Nahum tells his brother Naphtali about the history of the first Jewish city, the lottery of the plots that symbolized the founding of Ahuzat Bayit. The authors emphasize the role of Mayor Meir Dizengoff, “The first builders expended much effort in building the city of Tel Aviv, but it was Meir Dizengoff who worked hardest of all. He gave all his strength to develop the city.”xx

Geography textbooks generally present ‘hard’ facts about the landscape, the city, and the region – the development of the built-up areas, demographic growth, and the expanding economy. However, Avivi and Indelman took another path. In many pages adorned with numerous photographs they attempted to convince the pupils that “Tel Aviv is a wonder-city”. Through the eyes of the brothers Nahum and Naphtali, the reader encounters almost every aspect of the city: a stroll through the streets, factories, Rothschild Boulevard, the shores of the Yarkon River, the eastern bazaar, and various institutions. The authors merge the Tel-Aviv experience in their description of the city. This is perhaps the first and most detailed book that presented the Jewish urban, secular culture created in Tel-Aviv during the 1920s and 1930s. There are vivid, colorful, and impressionistic descriptions filled with a passionate love of landscape, health, and happiness.

As portrayed in this book, Tel-Aviv of 1930s was a “city that never sleeps”. The authors emphasize that the seashore was a central aspect of urban experience, where “bathing in the sea is a special delight” and “Suntanned children, impulsive and lively, dart through the gold-tinted blue waves, showering sprays of water” figure prominently. To make the point, they inserted a photograph of “Sabras, native-born children running through the sea waves, smiling and happy”.xxi

After the scores of pages on Tel-Aviv, the description of Jaffa is crammed into only three pages. Nahum and his friends “[P]ass through the narrow, muddy alleys, looking at the gray houses with their red roofs … cooks stand in the street roasting meat and frying fish. Sellers of lemonade make the glasses chime … camels with outstretched necks walk in a long line … and unpleasant smells reach Nahum’s nose”.


As presented by some of the textbooks of the 1930s, the symbiosis between Tel-Aviv and Jaffa does not only exist in their settlement interdependence, but also at a symbolical level. The Jewish and modern Tel-Aviv is the antithesis of Arab Jaffa, with its people and culture. The textbooks present the establishment and development of Tel-Aviv also as a function of the relations between Jews and Arab, and by doing so they sanction the heroic narrative of the city. Following the story about building the Ahuzat Bayit neighborhood, the construction of the Tel-Aviv port occupies an important position in these textbooks. The port symbolizes the Jewish spirit, the initiative, and the creative solutions to the Arab attempt to strangle the Yishuv by closing down Jaffa port. Therefore, between the late 1930s and 1960 the story of the Tel-Aviv port took a central place in the subject of Tel-Aviv in geography textbooks.

In his The Land of Israel: Knowing the Land its Regions from 1956, David Benvenisti wrote about the building of the port of Tel-Aviv in 1936 in reaction to the Arab closing of the port of Jaffa.xxii The struggle with Arab Jaffa in the Tel-Aviv narrative reaches its height in the textbooks published during the 1950s that dwelt at length on the relations between the city of Tel-Aviv and Jaffa, the War of Independence, the Jewish victory, the flight of Jaffa’s Arab population and the transformation of Tel-Aviv–Jaffa into “one large metropolis”.xxiii

The geography textbook on the Land of Israel written for the ultra-orthodox population from the late 1950s, does not present the city of Tel-Aviv and its way of life in a negative way. On the contrary, Elhanan Samet, the author of The Good Land, inserted the Jewish city into the larger framework of Jewish heritage. He presented Tel-Aviv as the “largest of all the cities in the country … where there are thousands of shops and large trading houses in which one can get nearly everything that is possible to obtain in the country … the traffic in the streets is so heavy, that they can hardly hold all the cars filled with passengers passing through them.” From his perspective, of much importance is religious life in Tel-Aviv, “Because of the many residents, a large number of institutions have been erected in Tel Aviv, including the large synagogue on Allenby Street. On the ground floor there are some small synagogues, and prayers never cease to be heard in them throughout the day, from dawn to the late hours of the night”.xxiv

The author described the yeshivot, kollelim, and talmudei torah “scattered throughout the many streets of the city”. While Samet emphasized the richness of religious life in Tel-Aviv, a textbook from the 1980s written for the ultra-orthodox presented a different view:

The founders of Tel Aviv did not build the new settlement on the basis of Torah and mitzvot… But today, with God’s help, in spite of its general secular character, it has about seven hundred synagogues, both large and small! Splendid educational institutions are now installed in Tel Aviv-Jaffa: yeshivot, kollelim, talmudei torah, heders, and Bet Yaakov schools.xxv

From the 1960s onwards, Jaffa almost completely disappears from the new textbooks for elementary schools. Not only was the pre-1948 history of Jaffa erased, but also its present day: its Arab population, the new immigrants who settled there, urban decline, poverty, and the crime that for years characterized the area. Instead, Tel-Aviv’s urban development and expansion was emphasized. Even when Jaffa was mentioned in a new textbook, it was only in connection with the founding of Ahuzat Bayit or with the flea market, a tourist attraction within the metropolitan perimeters.xxvi

From the end of the 1950s and before the reform in education was carried out in 1968, a new group of textbooks were written by graduates of the Geography Department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Since academic training in this period emphasized positivistic geography, the authors favored generalizations and statistical data to convey information. The quantitative map, the graph, the table, and the diagram, side by side with aerial photographs of the city, were valuable evidence for the reliability of the narrative. The new generation of authors made extensive use of these methods in order to empower Tel-Aviv, often by comparing it to other places in the country.

This method was used by Dov Nir and Menashe Har-El, whose popular textbook intended for high schools and teacher training colleges was published in numerous editions over a period of forty years.xxvii The second part of the book deals with the regions of the country in the form of case studies. In the chapter “From the Land of Judah” the story of Jerusalem is followed separately by the story of Tel-Aviv. Although the first is located in the hills of Judea and the other on the coastal plain, they found it appropriate to place them together in one chapter. In their opinion, this combination indicated the “heart” of the country:

Jerusalem that dwells on the mountain tops, serves as the capital and the center of Torah … Tel Aviv-Jaffa is located in the very hub of the coastal plain where most of the people and buildings of the State are concentrated, and that serves as the largest employment center of our country xxviii

According to the authors, Jerusalem was only a “Torah center” while the flourishing Tel-Aviv contained “most of the people and buildings of the State”. After a review of the history of Jaffa and the beginnings of Tel-Aviv, they present data on the population, industry, and commerce in the city, the development of its built areas, etc. They conclude

it serves as the melting pot for the forces of construction and creativity in the country… Tel Aviv-Jaffa is like a magnet for workers, information, and funds for a varied working public … each finding its own place within this city, the matriarch of Israel.xxix

In the new pedagogical approach of “research method” established after the 1968, education reform pupils were required to reach theoretical conclusions through independent work. The presentation of the expansion of Tel-Aviv’s built-up area given in the new textbooks reflected this new pedagogy. The proposed exercises in the textbooks enhanced the power of the city in the pupil’s eyes. For example, Rina Havron (1975) suggested cutting and pasting pieces of paper in different colors on a map in order to give a concrete sense of the expanding built-up area of Tel-Aviv, “The diagrams that show the expansion of the city area gave us a concrete idea of the process of its development until it became the largest city in the State of Israel.”xxx

Expansion means the increase of the built-up area. Therefore the geographical narrative of the city is the collective story of its construction. In particular, monumental buildings in a city prove its power. After having presented a photograph of the large-sized municipality building, “brand-new, twelve-storied, in front of which extends a large plaza”, Havron takes the pupils to another wonder of Tel-Aviv – the Shalom Tower (opened in 1965). A photo of the tower standing in Herzl Street fills half a page, rising above the Tel-Aviv streets giving a sense of power to the city. In the following exercises, the city sights are shown from the top of the tower, and the pupil is faced with “the large city extending endlessly at its foot”.

Eliezer Patkin was especially prolific in the use of photographs and published a large series of textbooks. In the book on the coastal plain, the power of Tel-Aviv is evidenced by juxtaposing photographs of “before and after”. One photo shows Herzl Street with its one-storey buildings and the Herzlia Gymnasia standing like a temple at its end. In the center of the street is a group of children, on the side the first plantings, and a diligence stands waiting at the door of one of the houses – a scene that seems to have been taken from one of Nahum Gutman’s paintings. Presented in contrast is a panoramic view of the city (apparently from the Shalom Tower), and multi-storey buildings dispersed as though hinting at what the future would bring.xxxi

Patkin’s textbook for the first time introduced the concept of the Metropolitan Area; a geographical concept that refers to a cohesive continuity of cities and settlements around large cities in the world. The old city center constitutes the metropolitan heart that is empowered by the cities adjoining and linked to it by the ties of economy and transport. Patkin notes that in the city of Tel-Aviv there are 335,000 inhabitants, but that in the metropolitan area of Tel-Aviv there are about a million and a quarter inhabitants.xxxii While the subject is presented only briefly in his textbook, the team of writers at the Center for Educational Technology (CET), with their state of the art textbooks, made this subject prominent.xxxiii In Israel, Man, and Space, the four metropolitan cities in Israel are presented, and by comparison of data, photographs, and maps, the continual process of Tel-Aviv’s empowerment is perpetuated. The primacy of Tel-Aviv would have been marred had they used only the criterion of Tel-Aviv’s own population. When the textbook was written in 2000, Jerusalem’s population was already twice that of Tel-Aviv proper, but when the metropolitan areas are included, the ratio is reversed – metropolitan Tel-Aviv is twice as large as Jerusalem. Thus the CET team led pupils to conclude that Tel-Aviv=Metropolitan Center=National Center. The accompanying text “The city that is filled with activity all day and night has earned the title of the ‘city that never sleeps’” also made that clear, in addition to being country’s economic and cultural center.xxxiv

In the era of globalization, referring to Tel-Aviv as a metropolis also implies its belonging to an exclusive international club – the club of world cities; the most distinguished member being New York. However, the metropolis also had its darker aspects that included

The city suffers from several problems: high population density, heavily polluted air, insufficient public transport, the emptying out of the old city center, the flight of young families, the aging population, and the creation of disadvantaged neighborhoods inhabited by the poor, the aged, and foreign workers.xxxv

Nevertheless, these negative aspects of Tel-Aviv will not diminish its power, and the authors of textbooks draw attention to a familiar landscape detail – the high buildings at the center of the metropolis. This representation is especially noticeable on the cover of the CET textbook – a photo of skyscrapers along the waterfront, with sparkling lights reflected in the water, emphasizing the vertical lines. Tel-Aviv’s skyline resembles that of New York.xxxvi

In an era of globalization most prominently associated with McDonald’s, the urban landscape is imbued with global characteristics linked to American cities. The authors make use of the cultural feature pupils are familiar with: the image of American cities. This implies that the geography textbooks have associated themselves with other aspects of popular culture such as music, literature, cinema, television, various magazines, that strengthen and perpetuate the Americanization of Israel.xxxvii

What has happened to the Zionist Tel-Aviv landscape and its representation in the textbooks? Descriptions of camel caravans, white buildings, construction workers, have all disappeared from the description of Tel-Aviv in the 1960s and 1970s. Yet some of these images are reintroduced into the textbooks of the 21st century by nostalgic reference to heritage. They provide the historical dimension to the discussion of how the contemporary city emerged, with its office and residential towers, the Ayalon Highway, its hundreds of pubs and restaurants, that combine to create Tel-Aviv as an “American(ized) oasis” in the heart of the Asian desert.xxxviii


Ever since the founding of Tel-Aviv, it has been represented in geography textbooks in a very positive light as the crowning jewel of Zionist enterprise in the country. This evaluation of the city stood in contrast to the socialist tendencies that predominated in Zionist ideology.xxxix We might have expected that at least some of the textbooks would have expressed an attitude of reservation towards Tel-Aviv. Such a lukewarm and reserved attitude towards the city in general was found by Ruth Firer who surveyed Israeli history textbooks. Such a reserved attitude towards Tel-Aviv and to urbanization in general was not found in the geography textbooks we surveyed. In the 1950s an educator in the kibbutz movement claimed that the subject of the city was neglected in studies of the homeland because of the kibbutz movement’s ambivalent attitude towards the city as a form of a Zionist settlement. In contrast to this ambivalence, kibbutz children were fascinated by Tel-Aviv. As the author observed,

Many of the children long for the lights of the city and its delights. For the kibbutz children, Tel-Aviv was a special place indeed since [f]rom that place toys and good things [candy] come and it is the place of affluence…[where] shop windows are filled with all good things that blind the eyes of the little villager.xl

How can we explain the gap between the socialist values propagated by Zionist ideology before the Labor Party lost its hegemonic position in Israeli politics in 1977 and the enthusiastic representation of Tel-Aviv in the textbooks surveyed in this article? Maybe the answer lies in the fact that the authors of the textbooks and those who determined the study programs in geography were themselves residents of the city. Some supported and even admired communal rural settlement, but they were not willing to decry the city and its way of life. Textbook authors subscribed to the prevailing views of their time about Tel-Aviv as described by Maoz Azaryahu.xli For them Tel-Aviv was the center of the Land of Israel, an original creation of great social and economic power that should not be described negatively.

Academic geography in Israel was traditionally conservative, and did not tend to subscribe to socialist ideas. Therefore, those who decided on study programs in geography and textbook authors who had been educated in Israel did not succumb to radical approaches, and issues pertaining to the dark side of a large city with its social and economic problems were excluded from school textbooks. Only recently, when “critical” approaches had become acceptable in geographical curricula, such as environmental preservation issues, is the (now defunct) garbage dump Hiriya mentioned in connection with the Tel-Aviv metropolis.xlii

Except for this particular exception, the dominant line in presenting Tel-Aviv remains as it always has been – a testimony to the vitality and power of Zionism, the center of the State of Israel, the very heart of its economy, culture, and society. Moreover, Tel-Aviv is also integrated into the global flows and aspires to be a “world city”. It is not surprising that currently the city is represented by its skyline resembling that of downtown New York.

In a detailed analysis of Tel-Aviv’s images since its founding, Azaryahu shows that over the years, a number of clichés have been created in public discourse about the image of Tel-Aviv – “the first Jewish city”, “Europe in the East”, “Non-Stop City”, ‘The White City,’ etc.xliii In the mythographical periodization suggested by Azaryahu, the images that appeared in the textbooks from the 1920s until the mid-1980s fit in very nicely. Textbooks used in the educational system tend to preserve these local images long after they have lost their social and cultural relevance, while the introduction of new images lags behind the public discourse of the city.

A new CET textbook for the fifth grade published on the occasion of the city’s centennial offers an updated version of imagery.xliv Structured as a lexicon of the city, it mentions popular images of “Tel-Aviv: the City of Wonders”, which was popular in the 1920s and the 1930s, and the “Non-Stop City”, which became the city’s official slogan in 1989. Significantly, the textbook mentions the latest addition to the list of images: the “White City”, which refers to the Bauhaus architecture in Tel-Aviv.

Perhaps these enthusiastic images and representations of the “Jewish city” that also proliferated in the geography textbooks did not reflect reality, but rather expressed a shared fantasy. The creators of Tel-Aviv and those who wrote about the city wanted to see it as an extension of Europe or as the local version of New York. Or, as Frank Baum had already suggested when he described the Emerald City, the dream city of riches and power in the Land of Oz – was it all but an illusion, a mirage?


i. Frank L. Baum, Wonderful Wizard of Oz (Oxford, 1997) 110–111.

ii. See later detailed descriptions of Tel-Aviv referred to in the Preface.

iii. Nurit Govrin, Literary geography, Lands and Landmarks on the Map of Hebrew Literature (Jerusalem, 1988) 65–81 [Hebrew].

iv. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities (London, 1983).

v. Although the Israeli educational system is divided into two sectors – State and State Religious, geography textbooks are generally the same version, including the Arab sector, which uses translations of the books originally written in Hebrew and approved by the Ministry of Education. See Yoram Bar-Gal, “Geography teaching in Israel: a retrospective view,” Journal of Geography, 92 (1993) 64–68.

vi. The number of geography textbooks and the variety of authors has gradually been reduced during the past hundred years. One reason is the uniform study program in Israel that dictates very detailed chapter headings.

vii. Yehuda Grazowski, The Land of Israel (Warsaw, 1903) [Hebrew]. Some Hebrew textbooks on the homeland and geography appeared in Eastern Europe and were used in the Zionist educational network ‘Tarbut’, but were apparently also used in other places in the country before World War II. Other books were written in the country for use in schools here.

viii. Moshe Tzusmer, Geography: A First Course (Frankfurt, 1918) [Hebrew]. According to the notes on the book cover, it was not written originally in Hebrew but was translated by Nahum Tal and S. Weinstein and edited by Bialik.

ix. Ibid., 191.

x. Eliezer Metropolitansky, Asia and the Land of Israel (Warsaw, 1921?) [Hebrew].

xi. Abraham S. Kamenetzky, An Illustrated Geography of the Land of Israel (Warsaw, 1922?) [Hebrew].

xii. Yeshayahu Peres, Geography of the Land of Israel (Tel-Aviv, 1926); Avraham Yaakov Brawer, The Land: A Book about the Land of Israel (Tel-Aviv, 1927); Israel Belkind, The Land of Israel in Our Times (Tel-Aviv, 1928) [all in Hebrew].

xiii. Eliyahu Blank, Know the World (Kishinev, Moldova, 1930) [Hebrew]. The cultural hierarchy in the textbook reflects the Zionist-Central European perspective. Half the book was devoted to Europe, about a third to the rest of the world (Africa, Asia, and America) and one-sixth to the Land of Israel.

xiv. Description of Tel-Aviv, 115–117. The author explains in the preface that he compiled it from various sources; he apparently summarized what was written in Tzusmer’s book.

xv. Nahum Gabrieli, Knowing the Homeland, Part I (Tel-Aviv, 1934) [Hebrew].

xvi. Ibid., 47–48.

xvii. Ibid., 49.

xviii. Ibid., 50–54.

xix. Baruch Avivi and Elchanan Indelman, In the Hebrew Homeland (Warsaw and Tel-Aviv, 1938) [Hebrew].

xx. Ibid., 25.

xxi. Ibid., 41–42.

xxii. David Benvenisti, The Land of Israel: Knowing the Land and its Regions, Book I (Jerusalem, 1956) 67–70 [Hebrew]. He was a prolific writer of textbooks that were very popular from the 1940s to the 1970s, most of which appeared in the 1940s, and reflected the pre-State period and the following decade.

xxiii. David Fishman, My Homeland, Israel, I (Tel-Aviv, 1954) 168 [Hebrew].

xxiv. Elhanan Samet, The Good Land (Jerusalem, 1961) 13–14 [Hebrew], which was still taught in the 1990s in the Bet Yaakov ultra-orthodox girls school network. While the description of Tel-Aviv covered over 16 pages, the description of Bnei Brak, the large ultra-orthodox city in Israel, covered only 6 pages.

xxv. B. Ordentlich, Pleasant Land: Coastal, Central and Southern Plain (Jerusalem, 1984) 150–151 [Hebrew].

xxvi. Center for Educational Technology (hereafter: CET), The Coastal, Central and Southern Plain, and the North of the Country (Tel-Aviv, 2000) 140, 179 [Hebrew].

xxvii. Menashe Har-El and Dov Nir, Geography and the Land of Israel (Tel-Aviv, 1960) [Hebrew].

xxviii. Ibid., 253.

xxix. The quotations are taken from the 1965 edition, 253–260. Another contemporary textbook by Nir and Har-El, also written by graduates of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem Geography Department and used for decades, was Efraim Orni and Elisha Efrat, Geography of Israel (Tel-Aviv, 1960) [Hebrew]. Orni and Efrat stressed the aspect of planning and development, and rarely used superlatives.

xxx. Rina Havron, The Central and Southern Coastal Plain of Israel (Tel-Aviv, 1975) 91–98 [Hebrew].

xxxi. Eliezer Patkin, The Sharon and Judea Coastal Plain (Tel-Aviv, 1982) 74–75 [Hebrew].

xxxii. Ibid., 76–77.

xxxiii. The Center for Educational Technology in Tel-Aviv, founded in 1971 by the Rothschild Foundation, aimed at promoting education in Israel. It specializes in the development of study programs and textbooks on various subjects. About 20 years ago a team was set up to develop programs for geography and homeland studies.

xxxiv. CET, Israel, Man, and Space (Tel-Aviv, 2000) 157 [Hebrew].

xxxv. Ibid., 153.

xxxvi. CET, The Central, Southern and Northern Coastal Plain of the Country (Tel-Aviv, 2000) [Hebrew].

xxxvii. See Maoz Azaryahu, “McIsrael? On the ‘Americanization’ of Israel,” Israel Studies, 5 (2000) 41–64; Uri Ram, The Globalization of Israel: McWorld in Tel-Aviv, Jihad in Jerusalem (New York, 2007).

xxxviii. CET, The Central and Southern Coastal Plain Either the author or the title is incorrect here, 178–179. A photo of Tel-Aviv towers taken from the sea; on the opposite side, the nostalgic yellowed Nahum Gutman drawing portraying the formation of a Jewish city growing out of the sand dunes in the shadow of Jaffa.

xxxix. Eric Cohen, The City in Zionist Ideology (Jerusalem, 1970).

xl. Yedidiya Yoash, “How shall we teach kibbutz children about the city,” Ofakim for Education and Culture, 11 (1957) 246–247 [Hebrew].

xli. Maoz Azaryahu, Tel-Aviv: The Real City (Sde Boker, 2005) [Hebrew].

xlii. CET, The Central and Southern Coastal Plain, same problem as in Note 38 179. See also a brief reference in CET, Israel, Man, and Space, on economic gaps, aging population, etc., 153.

xliii. Azaryahu, Tel-Aviv: The Real City.

xliv. CET, Tel-Aviv from Aleph to Tav (Tel-Aviv, 2008) 34 [Hebrew].