Rivka, the tragic protagonist of Amos Gitai’s new film Kadosh, is unable to conceive a child. Her anxiety is acute. The ultra-Orthodox community of Me’ah She’arim in West Jerusalem, in which Rivka lives with her husband Meir, is known to ostracize its barren women. Seeking spiritual guidance, she leaves their home one evening to pray. The camera follows Rivka as she walks through the darkened streets of Me’ah She’arim, then cuts to her arrival in the spacious, well-lit courtyard of the Western Wall. Hands pressed against the stones, she seeks salvation.

Gitai’s film embodies the secular Jewish imagination of religious Israel. It is a predictable fantasy, premised on a liberal feminist narrative of women trapped by tradition and liberated by secularism. Yet a second fantasy is at work: Gitai portrays a Jerusalem peopled only with Jews, in which “difference” turns on the religious/secular axis alone. In the scene of Rivka’s pilgrimage, in her unbroken journey from Me’ah She’arim to the Old City’s Jewish Quarter, Gitai renders invisible both the Palestinian city and the contact zones where Orthodox Jews and Palestinians meet. [1] In truth, these Jewish neighborhoods are not contiguous; the fastest route to the Western Wall from most Me’ah She’arim neighborhoods passes through the Damascus gate into the Old City’s Muslim quarter. The Bab al-`Amud marketplace is a place of dense contact in the intermingling of ultra-Orthodox Jews, Palestinian residents and merchants, Jewish Israeli soldiers and Western tourists. Despite the insularity of Me’ah She’arim, such scenes of intercultural contact are not unusual. They recur on city buses, traversing the invisible Green Line, in the lobbies of public hospitals, in the crowded marketplaces of the West Jerusalem open market. Even in the western city, where Palestinian movement is actively policed by the state, contact is virtually unavoidable.

Imagining Tel Aviv

The elision of Palestinians within dominant Israeli popular culture is anything but new. Yet Gitai’s fantasy of Jewish space has particular political meanings and effects in the present. Kadosh might be understood as part of a new generation of Israeli media that is responding, even if only implicitly, to the Oslo accords and their reconfiguration of regional geopolitics. Even as the New Middle East imagined by Shimon Peres promised Israel a new horizon of transnational economic opportunities, it also generated popular anxiety about Israel’s ability to preserve its Jewishness. The fantasy of uninterrupted Jewish space mitigates this anxiety.

Eytan Fox’s Florentene, produced for Israeli television’s Channel 2, is part of the post-Oslo media phenomenon. This weekly drama premiered in the fall of 1997 and has run for three consecutive seasons to rave reviews in Israel and abroad. [2] Fox came into prominence with Time Off (1990), hailed as the first film to explore gay life in the Israeli army, and the box office hit Song of the Siren (1992), a melodramatic comedy about upper middle-class Tel Aviv during the Gulf War. Florentene is a portrait of bohemian Tel Aviv in the 1990s. The series takes its name from the Jewish neighborhood south of downtown, bordering Neve Tzedek to the west, just north of the Jaffa port. Florentene was established by Zionist developers in 1929 on land purchased from Palestinian Arabs; Ashkenazi craftspersons comprised the majority of its new inhabitants. [3] As Tel Aviv began to expand in the decades following state formation, and as Florentene property values declined, working-class North African and Middle Eastern Jews began to inhabit the neighborhood. In the 1990s, following a gentrification campaign sponsored by the municipality, Florentene was rediscovered by twentysomething Ashkenazi artists, yuppies and hipsters, attracted by inexpensive lofts and Bauhaus architecture. [4] In the last decade, they’ve shared Florentene’s residential blocks with poor Mizrahi Jews, workers from Africa and Eastern Europe and occasional Palestinian Israeli families. In recent years, discotheques and cafés began to compete for space with carpentry workshops and small factories. While gentrification continues apace, residents attempting to transform this light-industrial district into an artist’s colony complain of ongoing municipal neglect: broken streets and sidewalks, irregular garbage collection and insufficient police presence. [5]

Like Fox’s previous films, Florentene explores the intersection of national politics and private lives; it’s less a drama than a chronicle of urban Israeli culture. The opening sequence documents daily life in southern Tel Aviv: rapid camera movement and unorthodox frames archive a largely non-Ashkenazi urban working class through colorful snapshots of Ethiopian children at play, Mizrahi grandmothers stooped over shopping bags and men conversing in synagogue doorways. It is also a highly stylized pastiche of labor: the buzz of a drill, trucks in transit, boxed fruit delivered to the corner store. We meet the central cast of characters in these spaces, posed against Florentene’s familiar cement apartment blocks and crowded corner stores, interrupted with the brightly painted walls of gentrification. Documentary footage perpetually interrupts the plot, marking the transition between sequences, grounding the episodes in daily urban rhythms.

Florentene is a drama of and about its time. The series shuttles between the personal dramas of its characters and the central political moments of the last decade (the bus bombings of 1995, the Rabin assassination and the 1996 national elections). Florentene‘s early episodes on the Rabin era, portraying a cosmopolitan Jewish world celebrating difference and embracing peace, aired on Israeli television during the fall of 1997 as the Netanyahu administration entered its second year. The colorful opening sequence and the nostalgic portrait of the Rabin era can be read as implicit critiques of the Likud administration and its war on “coexistence.” Fox’s Florentene also documented Israeli life amidst shifting regional geopolitics. His drama chronicled a Tel Aviv that was the simultaneous center of secular Jewish culture, the growing high-tech industry and the New Middle East imagined by the Labor Party.

Queer Nation(alism)

Like Gitai’s Jerusalem, Fox’s Tel Aviv is a fantastical urban space. It is a city perpetually inflected with gay male culture and one wiped virtually clean of Palestinian Arabs. The neighborhood’s proximity to Jaffa is invisible, and Arabness appears largely as a cultural and aesthetic terrain, disassociated from politics and national histories. While Jews of Middle Eastern and North African descent have a place in Fox’s central cast, they are a minority — in keeping with the demographics of Tel Aviv’s bohemian culture. The politics of Jewish ethnicity are rarely engaged, save snapshots of Russian immigrant life and biographies of the show’s prominent Mizrahi characters. In both instances, stories about individuals take the place of serious engagement with urban social politics. Fox’s Tel Aviv is a Jewish and largely middle-class Ashkenazi city where sexuality is the privileged site of difference.

Building on the films of Israeli director Amos Guttman, who died in 1993 of AIDS-related illnesses, Fox celebrates the possibility of a new Israel in which gay men have a legitimate place; lesbians and lesbian culture are largely ignored. [6] His early films Time Off and Gotta Have Heart (1997) contended with the relationship between foundational Zionist institutions and cultural practices and their gay practitioners. Nationalism and queer culture are not at odds in Fox’s work. [7] Rather, mythic Zionist discourse is refracted through a gay lens. Gotta Have Heart, a campy melodrama about sexuality in rural Ashkenazi Israeli society, ends with a triumphant gay fantasy in which boys fall in love and join the army. These dual initiations into an out-gay world and a normalizing state institution are mutually constitutive and enabling.

Episode Six, which aired in Israel in the fall of 1997, features Tomer, who has just concluded the middle-class Israeli ritual of post-army travel (India, in his case). Tomer disappoints his Ashkenazi parents, who have already begun to plan his professional future, with dreams of film-making inspired by the Hollywood classics stored in his childhood room. Shortly after his return, he comes out to his high school friends in their cramped Florentene apartment. This episode dramatizes Tomer’s difficult reckoning with his parents in the living room of their comfortable Jerusalem home. Set on November 6, 1995, one day after Rabin’s assassination, the episode pairs Tomer’s painful disclosure with a portrait of the family gathering mourning their fallen leader around the television.

This episode juxtaposes private and public mourning, coupling national sorrow over a fallen leader and the myth of Jewish unity violated by a Jewish assassin with a father’s lament over his son’s perversions and a son’s grief over homophobic parents. In conjoining these stories of mourning, pairing the public rituals of nationalism with the private stories of queer sexuality, Fox has quite powerfully rewritten the heteronormative story of the Israeli nation-state. Yet this episode leaves other national myths intact. Fox’s portrait of Rabin memorial, interspersed with documentary footage, depicts a nation mourning as a united front, save the rupture between the secular left and the religious right. Fox offers no alternative to the celebratory narrative of Rabin as fallen peacemaker that captivated the Zionist left. [8] Here, Florentene reinstates the fiction of secular Jewish Israel united in nationalism across ethnicity, class, gender and sexuality. [9]

The intersections of queerness and nationalism are staged again in Episode Eight. Maor, Florentene‘s masculinist sex symbol, is called by the army to perform his annual reserve service. The timing is terrible — he has just opened a café in the heart of Florentene to take his mind off a painful breakup, and fears that the six-week leave will severely damage his business. In an effort to skirt his national obligations, he is persuaded by friends to “play gay.” Yet when called before the army board to explain his request for exemption, his schooling in queer affect falters. The board room becomes a confessional, with army personnel as witnesses, as Maor reveals the pain of love lost. In Fox’s drama, the army both produces Israeli subjects and elicits the truth of the Israeli self. [10]

In this episode, gay identity functions as an alibi, promising exemption from the army, if performed successfully. This portrait of queer culture also stands in for a portrait of army violence. The triangle of army service, gay performance and heterosexual melancholy entirely occludes mention of army violence and its Arab (largely Palestinian) subjects; the only violence is that of love lost, enacted on (not by) the body of the reservist. Yet another narrative informs this episode; as Maor is schooled, Florentene‘s central characters negotiate their relationships against the background of Umm Kulthum’s haunting voice. Her spectral figure functions as another kind of surrogate, doing the work of representing Arabs and Arab culture in their absence. Her music is stripped of explicit political context, without reference to 1950s Arab nationalism and the transnational communities of Arab listeners (Jews, Muslims and Christians) that her music has mobilized for decades. [11] Instead, Florentene portrays Umm Kulthum in Jewish Tel Aviv as an instance of the New Middle East, an illustration of the cultural flows between Israel and the Arab world that Oslo made possible. Like elsewhere in Fox’s work, “peacetime” is persistently marked as gay; Umm Kulthum’s music functions as the background for the negotiation of same-sex desire and identity. Arabness, by extension, comes into visibility only when it is queered.

Israel and The New Middle East

Amos Gitai’s portrait of Jerusalem makes no mention of contemporary regional political processes. While Eytan Fox’s Florentene continually invokes the political present through documentary images and historical subject matter, his drama does little to grapple with the meanings and effects of Israel’s new relationship to the Middle East. Yet both mappings of Israeli urban space, premised on a series of exclusions, might be understood as a response to the reconfiguration of regional geopolitics in the post-Oslo era. Although the New Middle East has been celebrated by the Labor Party for its promise of new markets, labor pools and opportunities for multinational investment, regionalism has also carried considerable threat for Jewish-Israeli publics. As borders become penetrable in new ways, dominant Jewish Israeli popular culture has sought to defend the cultural integrity of Israel, to shore up its Jewishness and to preserve the fantasy of a Euro-Jewish nation-state. The more complicated stories of Israeli space — in which Thai foreign workers, Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, working-class Mizrahi communities and upper middle-class Ashkenazi bohemians negotiate a single city — remain to be televised. [12]

Author’s Note: Thanks to Joel Beinin, Yael Ben-zvi, Rob Blecher, Shira Robinson and Ted Swedenburg for insightful comments on this essay.


[1] Palestinians are granted a different kind of visibility in Kadosh. In a highly unorthodox move, Gitai cast Palestinian Israeli actor Yusuf Abu Warda as the Rabbi. Much of Gitai’s previous work dealt with controversial aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and relations between Jews and Palestinians within the state. See Bayit (1980), Wadi: Ten Years Later (1991), and Give Peace a Chance (1994).
[2] Fox stopped directing Florentene in 1998 yet the series continued for a third and fourth season.
[3] When founded in 1929, Florentene lay within the municipal borders of Jaffa and contained a mixed population of Jews and Palestinian Arabs. Its eventual annexation by the municipality of Tel Aviv was the subject of considerable controversy. See Mark LeVine, “Overthrowing Geography, Reimagining Identities: A History of Jaffa and Tel Aviv, 1880 to the Present,” Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, New York University, 1999. As Ruth Kark notes, while Jaffa’s Jewish community was founded by Jews of North African and Middle Eastern descent, ethnic demographics shifted at the end of the nineteenth century with massive European immigration to Palestine. Ruth Kark, Jaffa: A City in Evolution, 1799-1917 (Jerusalem: Yad Izhak Ben-zvi Press, 1990), pp. 180-203.
[4] For an account of current gentrification projects, see Daniel Sekel and Danielle Haas, “Florentin Flavor,” Jerusalem Report, April 2, 1998.
[5] A group of community activists (Kvutza Peilim Florentin) have organized to present their demands to the municipality. Their Hebrew-language “manifesto” can be found at the Florentene web-site: http://florentene.btv.co.il.
[6] Amazing Grace (1993), for example, Guttman’s final film, chronicles Israeli society contending with AIDS through a portrait of a young, gay Ashkenazi man. Joel Beinin discusses this film in “Pushing Israel’s Boundaries of Debate,” Middle East Report 182 (July-August 1993).
[7] On the coarticulation of queerness and Israeli nationalism, see Yael Ben-zvi, “Zionist Lesbianism and Transsexual Transgression,” Middle East Report 206 (Spring 1998).
[8] I discuss the politics of Rabin memorial culture in “From Schmaltz to Sacrilege: Commemorating Israel After Rabin,” Middle East Report 207 (Summer 1998).
[9] Palestinians with Israeli citizenship did participate in the culture of Rabin memorial. See Majid al-Haj, “An Illusion of Belonging: Reactions of the Arab Population to Rabin’s Assassination.” Unpublished manuscript.
[10] In the mid-1990s, a confession of homosexuality was not grounds for army exemption. The ban on gay, lesbian and bisexual persons openly serving in the armed forces was lifted in 1993.
[11] Umm Kulthum has long been enjoyed by Mizrahi communities within Israel. Moreover, since the early 1990s, Mizrahi singer Zehava Ben has performed her music within Israel and the Palestinian territories. Florentene could thus use the figure of Umm Kulthum to tell a story of cultural linkages between Mizrahi communities and the Arab world. For discussion of these popular music circuits, see Ted Swedenburg, “Saida Sultan/Danna International: Transgender Pop and the Polysemiotics of Sex, Nation and Ethnicity on the Israeli-Egyptian Border,” The Musical Quarterly 81/1 (1997).
[12] Afula Express (released as Pick a Card in the US), a 1997 film by Israeli director Julie Shles, explores the social politics of multi-ethnic, working-class Tel Aviv. The film’s “rags to riches” narrative undercuts what might otherwise be a serious social portrait.

How to cite this article:

Rebecca L. Stein "Spatial Fantasies," Middle East Report 216 (Fall 2000).

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