From sands to skyscrapers: Tel Aviv launches the future

By Maxine Dovere/JNS.org

NEW YORK—Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai recently came to New York City to talk about his city of sun, sand, skyscrapers, and start-ups. With “just two minutes” on a winter afternoon to introduce the city and its entrepreneurs, he began his presentation with a weather report.

Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai at a recent New York event during which he headlined a series of presentations by Tel Aviv-based start-ups. Credit: Maxine Dovere.

Noting the damp, cold conditions, Huldai teased, “I’ve left behind the wonderful weather of Tel Aviv to talk about the start-up culture that began on the day the city was born.” During this event organized by the Consulate General of Israel, New York, he recalled the courage of the 66 families who left old Jaffa in 1909 to start a new community on empty sand dunes.

“They began with nothing, except a vision made into a reality by labor and love. They built the city of the future on the sands of the past,” Huldai said.

The mayor pointed out that Rothschild Boulevard, one of Tel Aviv’s main thoroughfares, started as nothing more than an idea. Just more than a century later, Tel Aviv is home to more than 700 start-ups.

“Huldai has changed Tel Aviv into a magnet of technology and future growth,” said Consul General, Ido Aharoni.

Huldai headlined a series of rapid-fire presentations by 10 Tel Aviv-based start-ups, including several joint American-Israeli ventures.

In an exclusive interview with JNS.org, Huldai emphasized, “Tel Aviv is the start-up city of the start-up nation. Our goal is to be the start-up city for cities around the world—the best point outside of North America for international entrepreneurs and academia.” He called Tel Aviv “a global city, ready to partner with other start-up cites to exchange ideas and concepts.”

“We are very proud of Tel Aviv,” Huldai said. “Proud of its ongoing development and open character.” He admitted he admires New York City, too, but quickly pointed out that the Big Apple will “never be sun-filled and ready for the beach in March!”

Click photo to download. Caption: Nahalat Binyamin Street in Ron Huldai's city, Tel Aviv. Credit: Sambach/Wikimedia Commons.

The best measure of Tel Aviv, Huldai told JNS.org, “is its humanity.”

“Tel Aviv has a multiplicity of atmospheres that create a type of city that you feel relaxed to live in,” he said. “It is friendly, welcoming, and comfortable.”

Israel is the only country in the Middle East that protects homosexuals with anti-discrimination laws, and Tel Aviv was named the world’s “Best Gay City” of 2011 in an international competition conducted by American Airlines. JNS.org asked Huldai to respond to the claim by Israel’s critics that the country seeks to “pink-wash” its problems with the Palestinians by touting its acceptance of the gay community. 

“Those who say anything against Tel Aviv’s policies regarding the gay community don’t understand reality… We did a lot to embrace the community—the city sponsors a pride parade and centers for young people,” Huldai said. 

“We are taking care of the all of the parts of the city, whether it’s the haredi community, the Masorti (the equivalent of the Jewish Conservative denomination in the U.S.) group, or foreign workers,” he added. “All are fully participating, all are part of Tel Aviv. Pluralism, tolerance, and democracy and human rights are the base of the city’s policy… What have they got to complain about?”

Tel Aviv is “a city of edges, of extremes,” according to Huldai. It is home to the richest and the poorest, Arabs and Jews, Muslim and Christians. The Wall Street Journal calls Tel Aviv the second-most innovative city in the world, noted the mayor, with understated pride.  

“[The] Lonely Planet [tourism guide book] says we are the best tourist destination—and the New York Times calls Tel Aviv the capital of Mediterranean cool!” Huldai said.

JNS.org asked Huldai where he thought his just more than 100-year-old city would be in another 100 years.

“Since the [Second Jewish] Temple was destroyed, there are no prophets,” he chuckled. “When you are trying to be a prophet, you are stupid. I would like the city to be developed as a right place to live—part of the real world. I would like Tel Aviv to continue to be the leader of every aspect of life in Israel. Whether in culture, science, research, or start- ups, we are proud to be welcoming for every minority. Everyone can live in Tel Aviv.”

Tel Aviv prides itself not only on being an entrepreneurial center, but Israel’s capital of art and culture.  

“Seventy percent of Israelis attending theater attend at a performance in Tel Aviv,” Huldai said. The city, he noted, spends 6 percent of its budget on cultural activities, significantly more than the one-third of 1 percent spent on that item by the national government of Israel.

Despite its sun and skyscrapers, Tel Aviv is not without its problems, according to Huldai. The city lacks a reliable public transportation system, and its first light rail, to be built partially underground, is set to open in 2018.  

“In the future, people [in Tel Aviv] will be able to live without cars,” Huldai said.
There are bike lanes, soon we will even have electrical bikes for rent. We want to establish a ‘car-sharing’ system and create a better ground transportation system as well.”

An important issue in Tel Aviv “is the exorbitant price of real estate,” Huldai said.

“The future of the city is in its ability to provide housing, especially for young people,” he said. “I don’t underestimate this problem.” There “have to be changes” in this area, Huldai added.  

The 2011 “tent city” social justice-themed demonstrations that brought more than 150,000 Israelis into Tel Aviv reflected “the unhappiness of the public with the government handling of the housing crisis and other issues,” Huldai said.

Asked by JNS.org how he defines his job as mayor, Huldai paused for a moment, and then answered concisely.

“Simple,” he said. “The job of a mayor is to do good.”

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Posted on March 21, 2013 and filed under Features, Israel.