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Eytan Schwartz

Eytan is an entrepreneur and an expert in the field of urban innovation and ecosystem building. Having completed 15 years of senior management positions at the Tel Aviv Municipality, Eytan was pivotal in the global transformation of the city and its positioning as an international centre of technological creativity. We spoke to Eytan about The DNA of Tel Aviv.

Image credit: Shar Pei via Unsplash.

Caitlin Morrissey

So I think the first question for me has got to be, what is the DNA of Tel Aviv?

Eytan Schwartz

Wow, that's a fantastic question. Let me try to explain why I'm on the street right now and that might take us to the broader discussion about the DNA of Tel Aviv. So I am now walking to a neighbourhood event organised by City Hall in one of our neighbourhoods in which we have small performances, artistic installation and various artistic interventions in front yards of small buildings. And this is one of our responses to what has been going on in the world for the past few months, our desire to experience art and culture in the community in face of an epidemic.

So what we have in this scene happening right now is the following that has to do with the DNA of Tel Aviv: a, art and culture; b, outdoors; c, a very small, walkable city where everything is within reach within one hour by foot; and four, innovation and this energy, always seeking different ways to do things. So those four components really blend in beautifully in our conversation today and having to be the background of our conversation because I'm spending the next hour to walk to this event.

So let's go down to the definition, the DNA of the city. We believe there are three layers to our character and that specific unique blend is what we're proud of. So we have the innovative side, we have the creative side, and we have maybe the ethical, moral side of what we do.

Innovation is something that people have been discussing for the past two years a lot. It is well known in the technology scene. It is most monetarily or financially observed in the technology scene, but it touches many aspects of our lives. The creative, energetic, artistic side is very important. It has to do, of course, with innovation, but it's something we very much celebrate. And the moral and ethic side is something that for the past two years we've been trying to explore to see how a city stands out and stands up for certain values in a world which is constantly changing and debating its moral and ethical identity. And this is something that many cities are facing in the 21st century vis-a-vis their national government, something that you find in many cities in the United States, something you find in many major cities in Europe. And it's also in the case of the large city of Israel, Tel Aviv.

Caitlin Morrissey

Would you say that there have been moments in Tel Aviv's evolution or certain leaders that have given Tel Aviv a reason to have these traits?

Eytan Schwartz

I think it has to do with the foundation of the city from day one. We like to talk about the founding of the city of Tel Aviv as its defining moment - Tel Aviv being, what we call today, a start-up city, a city of start-ups - and its defining moment, its formative moment a 110 years ago, as the first start-up of the city, being the city itself because the people that founded the city were a group of 66 families that bought a plot of sand dunes and said "this will be the New York of the land of Israel."

And essentially, they had a dream and a vision that nobody else believed in. They created an ecosystem that everybody thought would fail, and they succeeded beyond their expectations. So this is a start-up; that's the essence of the story. And that zeal of entrepreneurship, which was not very characteristic of the time, really set the tone for the energy and the pace and the character of the city for years to come.

Another thing that was very, very important in the early days of the city was, since this was the only city in the land of Israel at the time that was 100% Jewish, it was founded by Jews. Essentially, unlike the historical cities of Israel, which were predominantly Arab, this was a city founded by Jews. You had a phenomenon of many Jewish families sending their young kids to be educated here, so at a very, very early stage, this was sort of like a college town or university town for the Jewish world. So from day one, this city developed services meant to cater for young people like laundry services and restaurants and coffee shops and entertainment. And this character of a very young, vibrant city continued and continues to this day, so this is also a very, very important part of the DNA of the city that was there from day one.

Obviously, the leadership of the city had to be in par with its character. But as the Mayor said "I don't select my residents; my residents elect me. So the values that I project are my values, but apparently, or obviously, the people of Tel Aviv, the majority of them, believe in my values because that's why they elect me." So while he is a manifestation of these values, obviously, he wouldn't have been elected if the majority of people in the city didn't think that what he represents is, in fact, a reflection of what they believe in.

Caitlin Morrissey

Are there any inventions or discoveries or innovations that Tel Aviv is particularly proud of?

Eytan Schwartz

Wow, that's a very good question. I would say that our pride is the ability to identify this innovative ecosystem and empower it. I will quote the mayor that said the following, and maybe he had a prophecy in understanding the needs of cities when he became mayor. 22 years ago, the city was bankrupt, but Israeli technology was starting to emerge. And to convert this country from a poor country to be a very wealthy country, one of the reasons being its very, very strong technology sector, and this began in the early '90s.

So the mayor was approached by one of the godfathers of Israeli technology, a guy by the name of Yossi Vardi, who said, "Mayor, there's all this technology going on in the country. What are you going to do to attract the technology sector to the city?" So what the mayor said, "I'm not going to focus on the technology sector. I'm just going to focus on making this city the best city for young people to live in and the creative people within the technology sector who want to live there." And his main mission was to change the balance from a city that gives services, that gives preference to the business sector, to the commuters to a city that gives preference to its residents. And he understood that if the city was desirable enough for people to want to live in it, that would bring everything else along. And that was the turnover of Tel Aviv, so from a city of commuters to a city of residents.

The reality today being that you want to live in the city and work in the city and not only just work here, use it, abuse it, and then go back home to a nice, cushy, cleaner suburb? No, people insist on working in the city but also living in the city. And they don't give up on this desire even after they marry and have kids and establish families. They insist on staying in the city, even if it means a smaller apartment, even if it means giving up on some of what used to be the Israeli dream in terms of real estate and your living conditions. So I think that's the thing we are most proud of, that the city became a place not only to work in, but it's a place to live in.

Caitlin Morrissey

That makes a lot of sense, and I think it's, in some ways, a story that a lot of cities have been observing around the world: this definite return to the city core. I wonder, before I pass onto Greg, what were the kind of investments and infrastructure upgrades that were introduced that allowed this to happen?

Eytan Schwartz

I'm going to go back to the history because I don't think-- I want to make it clear, the fact that I talk back and forth, go back and forth to the mayor is not only because, a, I love the guy and, b, he signs my paycheck but also because when you've been around for 22 years, you can truly show an impact on the city. It's not somebody who was elected 3 years ago and can't really show much achievement. After 22 years in office, you can really say that the city has been shaped by him and really is an embedment of what he set out to achieve.

So he did focus his first 10 years on a complete makeover of the infrastructure of the city which had been very much neglected, and naturally so, because for most politicians to invest in something that would only result 15 years later is something that politicians are reluctant to do. But he understood the importance of working with a method and with a system on a complete makeover of the city. And today we enjoy that, even though, I think, for the first 10 years, his first two terms, many people suffered the daily conditions for the transition period the city was in.

So he also always said that he invented nothing, or he built nothing, just uncovered gems that other people built before him and that were neglected over the years. So the main, I would say, treasure of the city being its beachfront, the boardwalk and the development of the beachfront as the single most important asset of the city, the boulevards that have been around for 90, 80, 70 years - and they cut through the city - all of the major cultural institutions, historical landmarks, recreational areas and parks. So if you look at the overall public sphere in the city, it all underwent renovations on a large scale.

And also, the other main focus being the historic city of Jaffa, where our Arab minority population lives, as a major, major project because since it was merged with the city of Tel Aviv after the independence of Israel and it became the backyard of the city, that has been his major agenda, his most important agenda.

Now, if you add to that the overall development in the city, the rise of our technology sector, the amazing leap that the Israeli economy underwent, the concentration of our economic force in Israel in this small city, there was a perfect storm or, if you wish, the stars all aligned perfectly to a city where both the public investment and the private investment created an unparalleled energy in our country.

Greg Clark

One of the things you told me once is that Tel Aviv was called the Lighthouse City even before it had a lighthouse. What did you mean by that?

Eytan Schwartz

This is a very interesting story. Our city was founded, first, as a suburb or a neighbourhood of the ancient port city of Jaffa, which we believe has been the most ancient, continuously active seaport in the world. It's been around for 4000 years, and it was one of the most important cultural centres of the Arab world of the region.

And then not two decades after its formation as a suburb, it was granted its own identity. It was given the status of a township by the British mandate that controlled the region. And the mayor of the time, Dizengoff, who was the founding father of the city, declared a competition because he wanted a city crest. He wanted to be like a real city in Great Britain that had its own crest even though it was a small town. But he was already, at that time, toying with the symbolism and wanted to present a facade of a larger, more important city than it actually was.

And in this competition, all the artists of the time submitted all kinds of designs. And the symbol that was finally elected was created by a young artist - relatively young, less important than some of the people that presented their ideas - a native of the city by the name of Gutman, and Gutman presented a lighthouse.

Now, this was a very interesting symbol for the city because the city did not have a lighthouse. It did not have a port so therefore, obviously, did not have a lighthouse to go with the port. And when asked why this is the symbol he suggested, Gutman said, "Because the lighthouse represents the dual-destiny of our city to be a place that absorbs everybody and that spreads a light upon the nation." And this was an extremely ambitious statement in 1925, again, when this city was a small town, part of the British mandate in Palestine, with ambitions to be, one day, an independent state and a large city, but both these were yet to come.

It should, I think, also be noted that the way he phrased this ideal of a city that receives everybody and spreads a light upon the nations is, I think, resonating of what it is written on the footsteps of the Statue of Liberty in the United States, in New York: a poem by the famous poet Emma Lazarus, essentially saying 'send me your weary, and I will shed a light upon the nations'. Essentially, saying that this city would be, if you will, the Liberty Island of the Jews of the state of Israel, the future state of Israel of the Jewish community at the time. This city would be a city that receives everybody but also would set a moral standard, would set an ethical standard to the Jewish world, maybe to the world entirely. And that's a very, very, very ambitious statement for a small city in a remote part of the Middle East in the 1920s.

Greg Clark

It certainly is. And of course, it's incredibly inspiring. And it gives rise to, I think, two other questions. One of the things about Tel Aviv, Eytan, is that it seems to be a city that has dreamed big or it dreams big. It wants to be the New York or the Paris. It has the idea of being a beacon or a lighthouse to the whole world. It sees itself in a global context, and it sees itself as a significant part of that global story. Where does the city derive this incredible sense of ambition and significance?

Eytan Schwartz

That is a wonderful question. I think that since its founding, the people of Tel Aviv had to rely on their ingenuity and their entrepreneurial zeal to succeed against all odds. As I said, it was a dream to create the New York of the land of Israel in the Sand Dunes and because of our unique history, to also be understood that unlike the other cities of the region in which Jews lived at the time, like Jerusalem, that we all know, or Tiberias, that we all know - these are the historical cities of the land of Israel that have mixed populations of Jews and Arabs - the city of Tel Aviv was founded by Jews and only Jews lived in Tel Aviv up until a very later date which meant that in the process of nation-building of the Jews in the first few decades of the 20th century, all the financial institutions and the political institutions and the cultural institutions were set in this city. So it was a revolutionary city in that sense.

There were several major, major events that took place in our history in this city. But I think there is one process that should be mentioned, which is not only unprecedented in our history, it was probably unprecedented in human kind, which is the rebirth of the Hebrew language. I will explain. This city was founded in 1909 in what was then part of the Ottoman Empire. And as were all the communities living in the Ottoman Empire, they had their local language: the Arabs spoke Arabic and the Turks spoke Turkish and whatever minority existence spoke its own language and, of course, spoke Turkish with the government.

And towards the late 19th century, as the first Jews start arriving here under the national idea of creating a homeland in this country, the Jews used whatever language they spoke back home in Europe or in Northern Africa or the Middle East. And the people of Tel Aviv that founded this community in 1909, coming from many different countries, said "We are founding a city in a part of the world where we hope to one day have a national homeland. And if we will indeed have this national homeland, we need to have a national language that will unify us all."

And the only language that all Jews could somewhat understand commonly was the ancient, holy liturgical language of Hebrew, which had not been spoken as the spoken language for 2,000 years, but they could all read and write in because they studied it in their Jewish school. But it had been, in essence, a dead language, like Latin is today for the Christian world. Nonetheless, they said to themselves, "If we are to be a people, one people, we need one language, and therefore, we will adopt the Hebrew language as the single language allowed in the public sphere, and this will unify us all." So essentially, they created a cultural revolution of abandoning whatever mother tongue they had and adopting a language which none of them knew how to speak or pronounce while inventing forms and words that had not been invented in 2,000 years.

And this was a cultural revolution of revival of a dead language that many nations had tried to before, and had been trying since in the 20th century and even in the 21st century, but never succeeded on this scale. So today, the fact that in Israel, there are nine million Israelis, seven million of them which are to speak this dead language now as their daily language, and the Arab population of Israel speaks this as their second language, this is a cultural miracle which nowhere else has been in the world. This cultural miracle and revolution began in the city of Tel Aviv, and I think it represents the persistence and the ingenuity and the creativity and the energy that was characteristic of the city from day one.

Greg Clark

That's a fantastic story, Eytan, and that is a story you haven't told me before. And of course, when I call it a story, I don't mean it's only a story. My next question is very related to that. It was going to be, in what ways is Tel Aviv, as you see it, a Jewish city? And you've already said something about how the founding families envisaged the state of Israel, how they adopted Hebrew as their language, how it was the first city to be 100% Jewish. Don't hesitate to repeat some of that, but are there other obvious or significant ways, to you, in which Tel Aviv is a Jewish city?

Eytan Schwartz

Yes. And this is something that should maybe be explained a bit to an audience which is not Jewish or not necessarily Jewish. In our country, Judaism is two things: it is our religion, but it is also our nationality. So we are Israelis, but our nationhood relates to us being Jewish. This is a very unique concept. It's very hard sometimes to explain.

If you think about the ancient times in which every ethnic group also had its god, we are sort of a dinosaur. We survived that evolution of thousands of years in which you can be a nation and have a religion which is common to another nation, but you're not the same people. In our case, we're like in the old times, when a people had a god, and they were one.

So when I talk about the city as being a Jewish city, it must be understood, it's a very secular city in the sense that most people here are not observant Jews. But nonetheless, 90% of the population of this city is Jewish. By the way, when people think about Jerusalem, they tend to think about it as a very religious city, which it is, but there, the variety of people is much, much wider, and it's much more cosmopolitan, in that sense. And other cities in Israel, as well, have a much broader blend of Arabs and Jews living together. In our city, ironically, we are the most secular city in Israel. We are also, in terms of our political voting, the most progressive in Israel and nonetheless, we are very, very homogeneous in our identity, in that 90% of the population of the city is Jewish.

In this country, there was never a separation of state and church. And in this city, there was never a separation of state and church in the sense that there was a very, very deep respect to the Jewish tradition and the Jewish writings, even among the most secular of people in the city. And to this day, there's a very unique Jewish sense of the city, even though most of the population is secular.

Greg Clark

The next question is really about Tel Aviv's relationships. And I wonder if you would talk a bit about the relationship between Tel Aviv and Jaffa, Tel Aviv and its metropolitan area, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and Tel Aviv and Israel, just to think about these different overlapping geographies. What is Tel Aviv's relationships with those places as you see it? What is the flow of love, affection, trade, money, ideas? What is the areas of competition, the areas of harmony? How do you see that?

Eytan Schwartz

Very good question. Let's start with our smaller inner circle. So the cities of Tel Aviv and Jaffa are one city. It is like Buda and Pest. It's one city: Budapest. Unlike Budapest, where you have two entities, I think, which are comparable in size, the story of Tel Aviv and Jaffa are quite-- the stories are quite different: Jaffa, again, being an ancient port city and a very important cultural centre of the Arab world; the city of Tel Aviv being a small neighbourhood, a small suburb founded by 66 families but growing extremely fast, exceeding the size of Jaffa.

And four decades after its formation in 1948, when the State of Israel is proclaimed, in the city of Tel Aviv, the War of Independence between Jews and Arabs in this region also affects our city, when you have the people of Tel Aviv, the Jews, and the people of Jaffa, the Arabs, fighting against each other. And a year later, when the War of Independence is over, essentially, the Jews of Tel Aviv take over Jaffa. The two cities merge, and the young sister swallows the older sister. The young, small sister has grown to be much larger than the older sister which is a shadow of its former self by 1948.

And for many decades, it was the backyard of Tel Aviv. It was the home of the minority population of Arabs in the city of Tel Aviv and also, historically interesting, disconnected from the other Arab populations of Israel, so sort of like an enclave and a small Arab community which was not very, very powerful in itself. The city has invested over the decades, tirelessly, many, many, many efforts financially and of course, in terms of its overall efforts to bring the two cities or the two communities together. It must be said that in terms of sheer numbers, the population of Jaffa is less than 10% of the overall population of the city, but it's a very unique part of the city because of its heritage and its legacy and its history and its religious difference. So that is one part of our identity.

Now, in terms of the Greater Tel Aviv urban area, essentially, one-half of the Israeli population lives in Tel Aviv or around Tel Aviv in this ongoing, continuous urban development. The hegemony of Tel Aviv in terms of finance and economic activity is very, very apparent, and the way the country is going, it seems like that will only get stronger. Despite the country's attempts, the national government's attempts, which are very understandable, to disperse the wealth and to spread the power and to allow for other centres to develop, it seems like the contrary is happening, and more and more people are concentrating in the centre. And it should be said that, geographically speaking, we are smack in the centre of the country, and the way our transportation infrastructure is set up is that all roads lead to Tel Aviv.

Which brings us to the third relationship you refer to, Tel Aviv vis-à-vis Jerusalem, so the spiritual-religious centre versus the creative urban hub. This is a very, very complex relationship because though we are very, very patriotic in our local city, there is only one capital built in this country. And because of the political complexity and religious complexity of Jerusalem, there has always been this popular tendency to compare both cities. I believe the relationship we have is similar to the one you find between D.C. and New York, or Milan and Rome. There's the capital and there's the financial centre.

And there's obviously a difference in population. The population of Tel Aviv is more secular, is wealthier; the population of Jerusalem is poorer and more religious, whether it's Jewish or Arab. But both communities tend to be more poor and more religious. And this is something that has always been, I think, part of our history. But it's growing. These tensions are growing and the gap is growing.

And finally, when we talk about Israel as a whole, again, one of the derogatory terms which are used against Tel Aviv is the 'state of Tel Aviv', as if the wealth and the success and potence of this city have driven it to behave like it's its own state. We do not like this term, but we understand why it's used. We are concerned of its implications because it's never a good thing to be seen through such a lens by members of your larger community. And I think we are very proud of our heritage, in the formation of the state and being, on one side, a very global city, but also a very, very local patriotic city and very much a representation of the mosaic of the State of Israel in terms of the population is something we're very proud of.

Greg Clark

Thank you, Eytan. I do have one more question, but I just want to check one thing with you which is that, of course, the population of Greater Tel Aviv, only a small proportion of those people live within the city of Tel Aviv. The people who live in all of the other suburban and neighbouring cities that only exist because the city of Tel Aviv-Yafo exists, how do they understand their relationship to Tel Aviv? Do they see Tel Aviv as the place that they belong to today?

Eytan Schwartz

I would answer your question by comparing it to what I think happens in Great Britain. If you live in a town surrounding London, and you commute to London to work and people ask you where you're from, you will mention the name of the town. But when you are abroad, you would use the name London, the brand of London to describe where you're from. And I think that's what people do when they talk about Tel Aviv.

I think many people living around the city love it. We know more and more people - and this is a sign of the success of the city - that want to live in the city. And the turnover that the mayor managed to create about 20 years ago is exactly that. People always worked In Tel Aviv, but the assumption was that once you grow a bit older from your university age and you marry and you have kids, you want to do that in the suburbs and continue working in the city and maybe come to the city for a restaurant or a play.

Today, it is a continuous movement of people struggling, fighting, competing for real estate in Tel Aviv, struggling to stay in the city after they have kids, struggling to hold on to their apartments even when their families grow larger. And this is a sign of success, of this insistence of people to stay in the city. So the city is constantly growing in population. We are now about 500,000 people, and we will probably be 600,000 by the next decade with massive construction but with soaring real estate prices as you see in many large cities in the world.

Greg Clark

Of course. And you're reminding me I can't wait to visit again. But the last question, Eytan, when you think about the things that Tel Aviv has invented or discovered - obviously, we know that one of Tel Aviv's greatest inventions is the city itself - but what are the other things that you point to when people say, what has Tel Aviv created, invented or discovered that is noteworthy? Is it in the area of technology or music or food or film or fashion? What are the things that you would highlight?

Eytan Schwartz

I want to go back to the concept of this Lighthouse City and talk a bit about how the founding fathers and mothers of the city envisioned its future. When they created this community and sought a name, they named it Tel Aviv because that was the name of the book written by the founding father of our national movement, a journalist by the name of Theodor Herzl, who wrote a book called 'Old New Land', translated into Tel Aviv in Hebrew.

So essentially, what the people of Tel Aviv said when they adopted the name of this visionary novel-- what they said was, "We are an embedment of the values in this visionary book. We will build a society in this city which will be, on one hand, very Jewish, very much rooted in our tradition, but will also manifest all the great humanistic ideas of the time: of equality, of human rights, of rational thinking, of art, of science, of justice." So this utopian society described in the book is what the people of Tel Aviv believe they will one day be, so it's a very ambitious naming or self-naming of a city.

And I think what they wanted to say was, "We are leaving our old homelands to our true homeland, the State of Israel, the land of Israel, and we will create a utopian society of Jews which will respect minorities, people coming from other cultures to create a new innovative Hebrew culture. We are coming to an ancient homeland to create an innovative society," which is a very, very, very ambitious idea. And I think that we try, at least in City Hall, when we budget, when we set policy, when we decide on projects, to be that beacon of light, that beacon of democracy, that bastion of humanistic values that our founding fathers and mothers set in place when they founded the city.

Greg Clark

Eytan, thank you so much. Is there anything that you would have said if we had asked you the right question that you didn't yet say?

Eytan Schwartz

No, I think you asked everything. I think you asked everything.

Greg Clark

Well, thank you so much. If we were speaking to the mayor, Ron Huldai, and we said to him, which leader before him in the city does he most respect, what would he say?

Eytan Schwartz

I think he would mention two people. The first mayor, Mayor Dizengoff, who was the founding father of the city: he was mayor for 25 years, and he was very, very, very smart in saying that what the city of Tel Aviv means to the nation is more than just setting infrastructure and institutions. It's the first time in 2,000 years, it's the first time since Jews went into exile or were sent to exile by the Roman Empire-- for the first time in 2,000 years that Jews practise self-governance. It's the first time that Jews set the rules and enforce the rules. And if they succeed in doing so, in not being a minority but being the majority, that might be a model for a future Jewish state. And that's how he saw his role, so that was a very, very, very inspiring character.

And the second mayor, I think, that our mayor respects was also around for 20 years. A guy by the name of Chich - that was his nickname - and he put a major, major emphasis on culture, art and on social services. And that was one of his many legacies that are obviously very, very important in how we see our role in modern-day Israel.

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