Young Israelis are flirting, shopping, dancing - and draft-dodging - as never before. When Benjamin Netanyahu was defeated in last month's elections, they hailed the dawn of a more liberal and peaceful era. By Patrick Cockburn
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
ROY AMRAM, a 25-year-old computer specialist in Tel Aviv, began to cry with relief on 17 May when Israeli television announced that exit polls showed Benjamin Netanyahu had been swept out of office after three years as Prime Minister. "I started sobbing like a baby," he said. "I went out of my apartment into Rabin Square where thousands of young people were dancing. It was the first spontaneous street party in Tel Aviv for years."

The reason the defeat of Netanyahu provoked such an emotional response in Amram and his friends was because they saw it as the victory of a more tolerant, open and less militarised ethic over the Prime Minister's vision of Israel as a Jewish island permanently surrounded by Arab enemies. Boaz Paldi, a television cameraman who is a friend of Amram, says: "The Zionist myths about the soldier/farmer as the ideal Israeli have died away. Israel is not the enclosed society it once was. Young Israelis are more relaxed. They don't feel they have to fight for their existence every second of the day."

Tel Aviv, straggling along Israel's Mediterranean coast, is at the forefront of the change that has come in the last five years. Boaz Paldi sees the new values reflected in small aspects of social behaviour: "Israelis here have started to smile more at you. Men and women flirt in a way they didn't before. The idea of the sabra [native- born Israeli] who can survive on a basic schnitzel [fried chicken breast] is going out: now sabras want a good cup of coffee, and they can get it."

New streets and neighbourhoods lined with cafes and clothes shops began to spring up in Tel Aviv in the early Nineties. First there was Shenkin Street, whose name became a synonym for young, smart, left-leaning Israeli intelligentsia. It was very self-consciously Tel Avivian. One of its most fashionable restaurants is called Cafe Kazze. The name refers to the habit people have in Tel Aviv of adding the Hebrew word "kazze", meaning "sort of", to the end of other words.

Shenkin is now considered somewhat passe. It has been superseded by other newly fashionable districts, such as Neve Zedek, once one of the poorest parts of the city. Neve Zedek's crumbling houses were inhabited by Jewish immigrants from Yemen. (Yemenites still live in the district, and voted overwhelmingly for Netanyahu in the election.) But since the Suzanne Dellal Centre for Dance and Theatre opened five years ago, small designer shops and restaurants have been sprouting up all over the area.

Three years ago, in a side street in Neve Zedek, Ygal Pergamentzev, who was born in Moscow but moved to Israel aged 12, opened the successful Tamuz restaurant, which serves high-quality Mediterranean food. He says: "The ethos here in Israel used to be that it was good to die for your country. Now young people feel that it is much better to live for their country."

This is not an idea without opposition. Israel is seeing a consumerist revolution similar to that of other industrialised countries; but it produces more conflict in Israel than elsewhere in the world because it is taking place in such a deeply religious and nationalist society. Cultural wars in Israel are fought with ferocity. Earlier this month ultra- orthodox youths attacked a woman getting out of a car in front of the Education Ministry in Jerusalem simply on the grounds that she was wearing trousers. Secular and religious Israelis are often ignorant of each other's practices. It is doubtful whether the Yemenites still living in Neve Zedek know that the pottery shop which has just opened in their neighbourhood sports the multicoloured flag of the Israeli gay community.

There is also a cultural battle between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. The two cities are only 45 minutes' drive apart, but their atmospheres are so contrasting that they might be on different continents. Jerusalem is religious where Tel Aviv is secular. Every Sabbath, 240 roads are blocked off in Jerusalem. A growing proportion of the Jewish population is ultra-orthodox, and dress in black hats and clothes similar to those worn in 19th-century Poland. David Yosef, one of the leaders of Shas, the powerful ultra-orthodox Sephardi party, recently dismissed Israeli secular youth as: "Knowledgeable about various types of drugs, and many of them have tried smoking drugs at least one or twice, while they haven't an inkling about everything that is sacred and dear to the people of Israel."

Many of those at the cutting edge of the new Israeli culture formerly lived in Jerusalem. "It's a crazy city full of fanatical energies," says Amram. It is also at the frontline of conflict with the Palestinians. Pergamentzev says: "The Jews are very Jewish there, the Arabs very Arab. They have nothing in common." In Tel Aviv, by contrast, it is easy to forget that there is any such thing as an Arab-Israeli conflict. Palestinians still live in Jaffa, built on a rocky promontory just south of Tel Aviv, a remnant of the community expelled in 1948, although few Israelis visit its shops and markets.

Israelis have always flocked to the beaches along the Mediterranean coast. They are not the most agreeable of places, since they are cluttered with beach huts; and authoritarian lifeguards can be heard roaring out instructions. But the cafe culture of Tel Aviv, with its young, confident secular ethos, is a more recent development. In part, this is in keeping with international trends: Israelis are becoming less isolated from the rest of the world. Cable television entered the country in the late Eighties. MTV has been available since 1991. In 1995 it was difficult to find an Internet provider, but now they are advertised everywhere: Israel has become a centre for high-technology computer expertise. Paldi and Amram have plans to open an Internet cafe called Webstop in the centre of Tel Aviv.

Israeli men are conscripted into the army automatically for three years when they are 18 (women serve for a shorter period), but military service is losing its old glamour. Its attraction is lessened because fewer Israelis feel under threat now. In the May election, Netanyahu claimed that a vote for Ehud Barak, his opponent, would once again bring Arab artillery within range of Tel Aviv. His words fell on deaf ears. Parties dedicated to holding on to all of the West Bank and the Golan Heights, both captured in 1967, did badly. One party, whose platform was to retain the Golan, received fewer votes than the Green Leaf party, which wants to legalise cannabis.

It is not that young Israelis have turned against the army, but rather that it plays a less central role in their vision of themselves. Patriotic fervour has diminished. The last three conflicts in which the Israeli army fought served in various ways to undermine its prestige. The invasion of Lebanon in 1982 led to the massacre of Palestinian civilians in Sabra and Chatila refugee camps. Five years later Israeli conscripts battled stone-throwing Palestinian teenagers in the Intifada. The war in southern Lebanon has produced a steady trickle of casualties, while Hizbollah guerrillas have grown stronger. Ehud Barak has promised that the army will be pulled out of Lebanon within a year.

It is usually the case that Israeli parents worry about military service more than their children do. There has never been a shortage of recruits for combat units in Lebanon; and it is parents, anxious about the overall effect of military life on their children, who are the driving force in pressure groups for a withdrawal.

In the Eighties, Boaz Paldi was one of the few Israelis to refuse to enter the army (only 10 Israelis had ever done so before). He served five months of a one-year prison sentence. "It was not as horrible as you might imagine," he recalls. "But there is no doubt that the other Israeli prisoners considered me a traitor." Some of his friends took the safer course of deliberately flunking a psychological and physical test. In fact, when Israeli-Arabs and ultra-orthodox Jewish students are included, some 45 per cent of 18-year-olds do not join the army.

The divide between secular and religious has always been at the heart of Israeli politics. It is reinforced by the division between Jews from Europe and those from the Middle East. It was this cultural war as much as differences over negotiations with the Arabs that decided the result of the last election: for three years the people who sat in cafes in Shenkin Street had felt a permanent sense of threat from the Netanyahu government. Behind the exhilaration in Rabin Square on election night was sheer relief that finally the threat was lifted.