In the 1990s, upward of 10,000 young Israelis would gather on an open beach and dance for days to trance-style music. These rave parties were the inspiration of young people who, fresh from two years of required army service, had traveled to Goa, India. Partying in such exotic, tranquil surroundings left a deep impression, and the raves they put on after coming home attracted perhaps 200,000 young Israelis overall, and put Israel on the global youth map. Tel Aviv became as important a stop as Ibiza, Amsterdam and Berlin.
Some saw the raves as mere hedonism, and there was that. But, as one organizer told me, they also symbolized a desire to live normally, in coexistence with Arabs: “We simply want to have fun together, that’s the kind of Israel we want to see.” This phenomenon was one aspect of something called “Israeliness,” a youthful embrace of a lifestyle of culture and music that transcended national borders. Israeliness arose among the nation’s elites at the beginning of the Oslo decade -- the last attempt at a comprehensive peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. Its advocates argue that the Zionism that fulfilled the long-held goal of returning the displaced Jewish people to Palestine also created a culture. They coined the term “Israeliness” to define it.
Jewishness is part of this, but only part. Israeliness is the special national culture that has evolved over the 50-plus years since the founding of modern Israel. It is fast-paced, cutting edge, daring and more than occasionally hedonistic. It is a cosmopolitan embrace of a modern state whose citizens yearn for worldliness, travel and openness. It was born of necessity, in a place where living each moment as if it could be the last is more than a cliche.
In the 1990s, as debates over Israeliness peaked, many derided it for being insufficiently ideological, not Zionist enough. In truth, it celebrates Zionism’s success. Zionism, after all, was about re-creating the Jewish people as a nation. But people can’t live in a permanent ideological revolution -- especially in a post-ideological age. The original Zionists had promised that Israel would become like any other state.
Reaching that goal would, of course, strengthen Israel’s economy and ease global integration. It would also keep young Israelis from moving overseas to escape the army and the difficulties they now face. But the transition toward normalcy has been frequently disrupted, most recently by the Palestinian intifada. Along with so much else, the raves died. The DJs who had traveled from city to city, followers in tow, stopped coming. As the rest of the region sank into tribal warfare, Israel too reverted to a tribalism that put Jewish identity above all else.
Now there’s hope again. No one would suggest that a sense of universal brotherhood is about to envelop the Middle East. But with two war horses -- Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas -- prepared to give peace a chance, perhaps someone will also give the young another chance.
In the 24-hour city of Tel Aviv -- the anti-Jerusalem -- the raves disappeared, but the cafes, clubs, culture and commerce never lost their allure. Tel Aviv is a city that reinvents itself each day and, as such, it’s the center of Israeli contemporary life -- the heart of Israeliness. In many ways, it’s a mirror image of the club scene in another city just 130 miles away -- Beirut, Lebanon, where young people demonstrate to bring about regime change by day and party by night. Add the West Bank city of Ramallah -- a mere 40 miles from Tel Aviv -- to the mix and you have the possibilities of a truly renewed region.
Before the intifada, it was not unusual for Israelis to frequent Ramallah’s jazz clubs and cafes. Those days could return -- and eventually, the flow of cafe-goers could travel in both directions, from Ramallah to Israel and back.
At the moment, these twentysomethings and thirtysomethings are separated by geopolitics. But the potential for them to come together over music, Internet chat rooms and MTV could be greater than all the ancient rivalries.
The elders will have to formalize final borders, but the young are poised to cross the boundaries.
One peace activist and veteran of the Tel Aviv club scene invites us to imagine Tel Aviv and Beirut as two Greek city-states, surrounded by barbarians in the hills. The cities have more in common with each other than with the rest of their respective countries. Their vitality rivals any European or U.S. city.
In his vision of a new Mideast, this optimist imagines a bullet train linking the vibrant cities, its coaches packed with clubbers and gallery patrons who have their noses buried in hip entertainment magazines, say -- depending on which way the train’s running -- “Time Out Beirut” or “Time Out Tel Aviv.”