A Tale of Two Cities

Bridging the Gap between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv


The distance between Israel’s two largest cities, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, represents the greatest challenge facing Israel today. 

Of course, I am not referring to the 50 kilometers that separate the two cities but to the religious, social and cultural schism which lies at the heart of modern-day Israel. There are many fault lines in Israel’s social order, but none as crucial to the long-term success of our nation’s future.

In A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens portrays the social and cultural milieu of French and English society at the time of the French Revolution, making Paris and London the setting for his social critique. In a similar sense, the two greatest cities of modern-day Israel – Jerusalem and Tel Aviv – capture Israel’s salient social and cultural challenges.

Two remarkable cities 

The two cities are remarkable symbols of the astonishing success of the Zionist enterprise. But they couldn’t be more different. 

Founded in 1909 on the barren sand dunes north of Jaffa, Tel Aviv is a new and modern city of over 450,000. The epicenter of Gush Dan, the Greater Tel Aviv metropolitan area, home to over four million people, it is the focal point of almost half of Israel’s population and the undisputed hub of Israel’s commercial life – an extraordinary achievement for a city which did not exist 110 years ago! 

Not to be outdone, the story of modern-day Jerusalem is no less remarkable. In contrast to Tel Aviv, the 4,000 year old holy city is one of the oldest cities in the world. The greatest surviving city of antiquity, it has been destroyed twice, besieged 23 times, attacked 52 times and recaptured 44 times. Israel’s largest city, Jerusalem now has a population of 900,000, growing eighteen-fold in only 100 years! 

Clash of cultures

Culturally, the two cities could not be more different. Home to the Temple Mount, Judaism’s holiest site, Jerusalem is the cradle of religious yearning and practice for Jews, Christians and Muslims. There are more shuls, churches and mosques within one kilometer of the Temple Mount than any other place on earth. Jewish Jerusalem has seen explosive growth in the number of yeshivot, seminaries, and Chassidic courts, and is home to tens of thousands of religious students from Israel and the Diaspora. 

Tel Aviv stands in stark contrast. Known as the first modern ‘Hebrew city’, it was largely built by waves of early secular pioneers. The greater Tel Aviv area has become known as Medinat Tel Aviv, “The State of Tel Aviv”, a sort of state within a state of primarily liberal and secular middle- and upper-class Israeli Jews. 

In the State of Israel’s early years, religious communities also flourished in Tel Aviv, which was home to 650 shuls and over 20 Chassidic courts. Sadly, the religious community steadily declined, and by 2010 over 100 shuls were permanently closed while the vast majority of the others became inactive. Most religious Jews and communities in the area relocated across the highway to Bnei Brak and other parts of Israel. Only a handful of yeshivot and dwindling Chassidic courts remained. 

Though a modern city, Tel Aviv is surprisingly monolithic, made up almost entirely of secular Jews of a similar socioeconomic status and only a tiny Arab population. In stark contrast, Jerusalem is 38% Muslim, while the Jewish population, making up 60% of the city, is religiously diverse. At the same time, Tel Aviv was built on uncultivated and uncontroversial land, while many neighborhoods throughout Eastern Jerusalem and the Old City are hotly contested lands. 

The monumental schism

Jerusalem is ancient and sacred, while Tel Aviv is modern and secular. Jerusalem is Middle Eastern, while Tel Aviv is Western. Jerusalem is Israel’s spiritual center, while Tel Aviv is its commercial one. Tel Aviv votes left, Jerusalem votes right. Tel Aviv is the city that “never rests”, while Jerusalem grows quiet as Shabbat approaches. Jerusalem is the city our people are prepared to die for, Tel Aviv the city where we live and let live. Jerusalem is profoundly Jewish, while Tel Aviv is Israeli. Tel Aviv is a city of high-risers and beachfronts, Jerusalem of hallowed history and biblical memory. In Jerusalem, over 100 people a year experience ‘Jerusalem Syndrome’, a psychiatric condition of those who experience a messianic high, while in Tel Aviv bars and nightclubs, the ‘highs’ may be of a different nature. Tel Aviv is an earthly city, Jerusalem a heavenly one. 

History repeating itself?

How can these two cities live together, as one nation? For decades, the cities have coexisted by minimizing their interaction, a workable solution in the short-term but dangerous for the long-term viability of the nation. Jewish history is a cautionary tale, demonstrating the disastrous consequences of creating two separate and distinct societies within the borders of the Land of Israel. Barely 80 years after Kings David and Shlomo founded the first united Kingdom of Israel, the nation was torn asunder into two separate states. During the time of Rechavam, the son of Shlomo and grandson of David, the nation split into the southern religious Kingdom of Judah, with Jerusalem as its capital, and the northern idolatrous Kingdom of Israel, with Shomron – Samaria – as its capital (Melachim I, Chapter 12).

Two different kings; Rechavam in the south, Yeravam in the north. Two capitals and two cultures. A more Torah-committed kingdom in the south and extended Jerusalem area, a more idolatrous and pagan culture in the north. The nation’s split brought devastating consequences, which we suffer from to this day.

Only a few hundred years later, the Assyrian King Sancherev descended with his armies from the north, conquering and exiling the ten tribes of the northern kingdom. Indeed, we are all called Jews today because by and large we are all descendants of the tribe of Judah, the southern kingdom, which survived the Assyrian onslaught. Ten of the twelve tribes have been lost to Jewish history as a consequence of the people’s split along religious and cultural fault lines. 

Two hundred years after the rebuilding of the Second Temple, we suffered yet another schism in the Land of Judea between the Hellenistic Jews and the Hasmoneans, leading to the struggle of Chanukah. Later, the Pharisees and Sadducees devolved into infighting which greatly weakened the Judean State and ultimately brought about its destruction.

Two cities, one society

Thankfully, the cultural gap between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv has slowly and steadily grown smaller over the last decade. Tel Aviv is becoming more religious, while Jerusalem has become more commercial and modern. Jewish life in Tel Aviv is reborn, with thousands of religious young adults moving to the city, reinvigorating old communities and establishing new ones. The new arrivals have established yeshivot, learning centers and hundreds of new kosher restaurants. At the same time, Jerusalem is now linked to Tel Aviv by a direct, 28-minute train line, while Mayors Olmert and Barkat developed a long-term plan for the business and commercial modernization of Jerusalem. These are very encouraging trends. 

Interestingly, of the hundreds of highways and intercity roadways in Israel which have been given numbers to more easily identify them, the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv Highway has appropriately been named Road 1. This is most symbolic as I fervently believe that bridging the cultural divide of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv is the most crucial issue on Israel’s national agenda. As history has proven, nothing is more important to ensure the State of Israel’s success in the 21st century. 

Jews and Israelis, heaven and earth, body and soul, secular and spiritual, left and right, ancient and modern must come together if the State of Israel is to be a sustainable and united country capable of facing the challenges ahead. Both are central to Judaism, and both are essential ingredients of a harmonious Jewish identity.

May we soon see the day when Jerusalem and Tel Aviv stand together “as one person with one heart”.


Rabbi Doron Perez is the Executive Chairman of World Mizrachi.

© 2024 World Mizrachi

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