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Tel Aviv celebrates hundredth birthday

Israel's hippest, most tolerant city celebrates its centenary.

Thousands of people dance during a musical performance in Tel Aviv April 4, 2009, as part of festivities for the city's centennial celebrations this month. (Gil Cohen Magen/Reuters)

 TEL AVIV — Purple fireworks sprayed off the roof of Tel Aviv’s City Hall last week to open festivities marking a century since Zionist pioneers began construction of the “first Hebrew city.” Watching among the crowd in Rabin Square, Marko Martin wept.

A German journalist, Martin travels the world to write cultural articles for Die Welt, filing from Myanmar to El Salvador. But he returns again and again to this Mediterranean metropolis, where his Israeli friends call him “Mister Tel Aviv.”

“No other place on earth makes me feel so much at home as this hot and shabby town, built by immigrants from all over the world,” says Martin, whose book “Tel Aviv — A Lifestyle” will be published in Germany this summer. “I was born in Communist East Germany, so I know how to appreciate an island of tolerance in an ocean of bloody fanaticism.”

At its centenary, Tel Avivians have many complaints about their city, from lack of parking to smog to the plain ugliness of most of its architecture. But they all agree with Martin that they’ve built a city that seems almost out of place in the Middle East. Where the rest of the region (including Israel’s capital, Jerusalem) is bigoted and hardline, Tel Aviv mirrors edgy European centers of social liberality like Martin’s native Berlin, even down to a flamboyant Gay Parade and a throbbing nightclub scene that brought you some of the most annoying “trance” music ever recorded.

In 1909, the area that’s now Tel Aviv was “a wilderness of sands,” according to the Zionist mythology. It had been a Canaanite settlement in the third century BC. When Napoleon besieged nearby Jaffa over two hundred years ago, he camped here. The early Zionists who decided to move the short way up the coast from Jaffa wanted to found a “Hebrew city,” unburdened by the biblical past.

They clashed with the Zionist establishment, which favored socialist collective farms and agricultural labor. Tel Aviv was home to tradesmen and shopkeepers. They called their new city “Spring Hill,” which sounds exactly like the bourgeois suburb it originally was. When the British army came through during World War I, it had a population of 2,000, compared to 50,000 in Jaffa.

But the Zionist dream was built around construction as much as agriculture. One of Israel’s national poets, Natan Alterman, immigrated from Warsaw to Tel Aviv in 1925. In his “Song to the Homeland,” he wrote: “We will clothe you in a robe of concrete and cement.”

Alterman might have specified that the robe would be a muumuu, because for a relatively young city Tel Aviv has the girth of a sumo champ.