Power in the City: Revenge of the Squares
What's wrong with the picture above? Ostensibly nothing – just a crowd of young people having a good time on a warm Friday afternoon. So why can't I get this image out of my head?
There's a word you hear sometimes in Tel Aviv: sachi. Back in the day, it was used to describe someone who was sober – as in not-high. Nowadays, it's used by a certain crowd – the "cool" crowd: hipsters, leftists, activists, writers and so on – to describe the "squares."
The sachi is the other half. The adult equivalent of the high school jock. He's the guy (or girl) who works in finance, or maybe he's a start-up guy or in hi-tech. He gets around in a car (not on a bike, like hipsters do), uses traffic apps and complains about there not being enough parking in the city. He has multiple pictures of Gilad Shalit on his Facebook page. He takes Instagrams of himself at clubs. He voted for Yair Lapid and has vaguely positive feelings about Ron Huldai, Tel Aviv's mayor.
If you're not a sachi, you can't stand sachi culture. And if you are one, odds are you probably don't know the word. A few years back, an internet meme called "Sachim, they're everywhere" became roughly the Israeli equivalent of the blog "Stuff white people like." To hipsters, who are constantly seeking out "authenticity" and pride themselves on their sense of irony, the sachi's lack of self-awareness is his most annoying flaw.
Back to the photo. It's an Instagram, taken by the Tel Aviv municipality and posted on its Facebook page. The caption, in English, reads: "Now in Tel Aviv – Harlem shake with 30,000 dancers." (Later, that number was inflated to 70,000 and presented as a "world record"). The photo eventually gathered close to a thousand 'likes' and was shared by almost 100 people (myself included, although in an ironic way).
The image will presumably reappear one day in a Power Point presentation by Ron Huldai at some international conference, where he'll talk about how cool the city has become under his leadership. This is city hall's new magic formula for election-year PR: staging "trendy" public events, generating an online buzz about them and giving people (mainly sachim) the opportunity to look cool in Instagrams and share them on city hall's Facebook page. Huldai shows up in a cape and a mask, takes pictures with a few young people, and everyone goes home happy.
But if you look closer at the picture, there's something almost sinister in the way it is framed. The crowd of happy sachim has unwittingly posed against the backdrop of an overcast sky that partially obscures some of the most salient symbols of Israeli state control, both military and economic. The photo captures them, Where's Waldo-like, dancing in front of one of the iconic buildings of the Kirya, the defense establishment's Pentagon-like compound in central Tel Aviv, while further off in the distance a forest of cranes looms – the physical agents of a high-rise building boom, filling the city with fancy apartment buildings for the super-rich, which few of the people in the picture will ever be able to afford.
Meanwhile, at exactly the same time of day, this photo was taken in the West Bank:
I'm not one of those people who think that no one should ever be allowed to have any fun in Israel because of the occupation. Still, I can't help but be struck by the juxtaposition of these two photos, which were both making the rounds on my Facebook wall on Friday afternoon. The first, shared by my sachi friends, the second, by hipsters and leftist activists. The link between the two lies in the fact that the chaos captured in the second photo was the direct result of plans and orders emanating from the Kirya, which looms above the Harlem shakers in the first – but the occupation and the Palestinians living under it couldn't be further from the minds of the people in the foreground.
The glaring disconnect between the two images reflects a larger moment of cultural transition happening in the city. Until very recently, Tel Aviv was considered the focal point of the Israeli counterculture – if such a thing could be said to exist. The city has always been the place where Israelis critical of their country's policies and politics could gather and pursue an alternative, radical cultural and political agenda.
Just two years ago, the 2011 social-justice protests – arguably the most successful counter-cultural project in at least a generation – erupted in central Tel Aviv. That movement – which had some of its formative moments in the very same spot captured in the photo – was eventually squashed by the very same Ron Huldai, whose neoliberal governance of the city created the conditions that led to it in the first place, and who now apparently sees his role as the city's most powerful party promoter.
Under Huldai, Tel Aviv has gentrified in a way that has blunted its anti-establishment edge and displaced its cultural vanguard. Central Tel Aviv, once ground zero for alternative living, cultural creation and political organizing, has been transformed into a yuppie enclave where sachim and rich foreigners may now outnumber everyone else. Sachi culture, with its embrace of the generic and viral trendiness, has filled the void left behind by the artists, activists and intellectuals, who now inhabit the city's southern neighborhoods.
The fact that young people there are now spending their Friday afternoons dancing at city hall-branded parties instead of staging angry demonstrations against it has unmistakable political significance for Huldai, who needs their votes to get reelected this fall. Obviously, prompting people to pose for Instagrams doing the "Harlem shake" is much more convenient for the powers that be than mass demonstrations calling to "change the system."
The gentrification and displacement process has yet to be completed, and the city now finds itself at a crossroads. If Huldai is elected to another 5-year term, the market may finish the job of pushing out everyone who makes Tel Aviv interesting, and all that will be left is the occasional sachi block party. But the people dancing in the photo are blissfully unaware of all that. All they wanna do is pose for a cool Instagram, and then get on with their lives.