I’m about to write something really controversial. Probably the most controversial thing ever said on +972. The Bat Yam Biennale, that currently has the Israeli media in such a tizz with gushing reports about the city’s gritty urbanism, is a load of bull.
There. I said it.
Look, I’m not even attempting to approach this from some sort of artistic point of view (you might already have realized this thanks to the very technical term I just used). I have no idea what the installations are meant to mean or whether they are any good. I’m writing this as someone who is unfortunate enough to currently reside in the coastal city. Someone who returned after a decade, excited about all the new possibilities and achievements that this long-ignored city had allegedly chalked up. Someone who has seen the bulldozers and construction crews working virtually round the clock for the last week to plant flowers, paint benches, set up installations and mow the newly-laid grass. Someone who knows all too well that those flowers will be uprooted when it’s all over. That the temporary glow emanating from Bat Yam will fade all too quickly, leaving nothing but the stench of uncollected rubbish and sweaty armpits.
Bat Yam is an ugly city. The buildings are ugly, the people are ugly. Even the beach – its one saving grace – is spoilt by the ugly behavior of its residents. “Bat Yam’s frustration is understandable. So close to Tel Aviv, yet so far. A trendy bike ride away, yet hardly a crumb of Tel Aviv’s aura has fallen its way,” wrote Esther Zandberg in Haaretz last week. Perhaps it’s because there’s Jaffa and Tel Aviv’s less hip southern neighbourhoods in between, but the distance between Tel Aviv and Bat Yam is vast – far more than a few kilometers.
I wasn’t always such a snob. When we would come out here for the summer when I was a kid, I could never understand why people would snigger when I said I was staying in Bat Yam. I thought it was great: the beach was on my doorstep, I could hang out with my cousins on the high street without my parents worrying, and it was right next to Tel Aviv. Just a short bus ride away – and the public transport links were great. But I’ve been spoilt. I’ve spent most of the last decade living in the northern neighborhoods of Tel Aviv and I’ve been spared the nonstop procession of arsim with their ars music blaring at full blast from their ars cars.
I’ve also become a parent. And the frustration I feel with a city where there aren’t enough open spaces, where the playgrounds are few and far between and have sand to pad a kid’s fall rather than the rubber floors found in Tel Aviv (even in the roughest parts of Jaffa and South Tel Aviv) is endless. Having to listen to the sounds of Sarit Hadad when I call my daughter’s kindergarten teacher at a daycare center where they don’t think it’s a problem that they let the children watch TV, makes for sleepless nights wondering what on earth we’ve done.
Bat Yam is one of Israel’s most densely-populated cities. In fact, there was a time in the 1980s when it was more densely populated than Gaza and Bnei Brak. I’m not saying that Mayor Shlomo Lahiani hasn’t done some fabulous things (not all of them legally, if the allegations are to be believed): store fronts which sat vacant along the promenade for years are finally doing a bustling trade, the sea-front cafes are packed and all the big chains now have branches here (there are three Aromas!). Lahiani helped Bat Yamim feel a little bit more proud of their city.
But unfortunately, it’s just not enough. It’s a city where nobody smiles, where nobody thanks you when you hold the door open for them, where people drive as though they’re in some sort of fight to the death to prove every single stereotype about Israelis on the roads. Our neighbours kept on telling us that we’d find the people here nicer than in Bavli, north Tel Aviv. “They may be riff raff, but they’re warm and genuine,” they said. Our kids’ new doctor said “Wow, that’s a tough move going from north Tel Aviv to here. Lots of differences – including less SUVs,” she added trying to be cute. They’re all wrong. Riff raff yes, warm and genuine, no. Fewer SUVs? The cars and double and triple parked on every single street belies this theory.
An event which brings people into Bat Yam who might never have actually set foot in this place is certainly a welcome initiative. But it’s temporary – a fleeting glance of what might have been. The PR gurus for the biennale keep talking up how the installations are all temporary as they’re all on private land, as if it’s a good thing. The biennale will end, the visitors will be gone, the installations will be dismantled, the flowers and trees uprooted again and we’ll still be here. Stuck in “urbanism.” How very bohemian.
Karen Kaufman was born and raised in London and has been living in Israel for the last 14 years where she now works in PR