I was never much of an international traveler before I made Aliyah. Back in the States, Hong Kong, for example, seemed so far away that I never seriously thought of going. But, even though the flight is actually only two hours less than if I was flying from Los Angeles, it just doesn’t seem like much of a huge deal to go there from here in Israel. Mentally, the whole rest of the world seems closer when you living in a tiny country like this that is so dependent on what happens “outside the Land” (חוץ לארץ) as Israelis say. It’s just opened up my mind in important ways living here.So, I was more than happy for the chance to tag along with my wife for Shavuot and a scholar-in-residence gig she had at the United Jewish Community synagogue there earlier this month.
It’s the “tiny country problem that makes me especially interested in going to places like Hong Kong or Holland to see how other nations handle the issues of being a small country among big ones and of having very limited land compared to the United States.
Hong Kong is especially interesting because — despite the profound cultural and ‘real’ political differences from Israel — there is so much in common between the countries. The population size is very close as is the nominal GDP; and, both countries have some kind of special relationship with a superpower that is very important to them. Israel is about 10 times larger in area, however, and income inequality — as measured by the Gini coefficient — is much higher in Hong Kong. Hong Kong has addressed its challenges in an extraordinary and unusual way. No other place has concentrated more of its population and businesses as densely; despite the small amount of land available, Hong Kong has also limited intense construction to a small part of it near the water. The sharply steep mountains, above on the other hand, remain largely untouched and much serve as park land. It is a particularly orderly place, at least in the central districts we saw, without the chaos and litter and shouting and honking that we know of (and love?) in Israel.
An unbelievably efficient public transit system — and the relative lack of private automobiles — makes this all possible. The MTR subway system is one of the best I have ever seen. Fast and easy to use with particularly well-designed options for changing trains; often it’s a matter of just walking across the platform.
Tel Aviv, on the other hand, may be the largest city in the developed world not to have a subway. Instead, in central Tel Aviv, there is the madness of electric bicycles and scooters and alike seemingly whizzing all over the place, both on and off the sidewalks. That ‘balagan’ is, however, hardly the worst of it (and even adds to the incredible urban energy that is central Tel Aviv’s greatest charm). The real problem is the larger, car-based sprawl that is today’s Gush Dan — the sprawling urban conglomeration around Tel Aviv where some 45% of Israelis live.
Sometimes I think — much to my chagrin — that Israel has chosen the urbanization path of that most ‘non-urban’ of American cities, Los Angeles. Most middle-class Israeli families I know own at least one car, and that’s how they mostly get around. Not surprisingly, the highways often look like Los Angeles freeways in the worst way (albeit with less lanes and much smaller cars). Parking can be truly insane. In our neighborhood in Jerusalem, the sidewalks are full of parked cars as are many sidewalks in Tel Aviv. This drives the American part of my brain crazy — sidewalks are supposed to be for people to walk!
Israel still has a public transit system — mostly buses, but also a growing inter-city train system — that puts the United States to shame; you can get just about anywhere in Israel proper by public transit, although sometimes you might have to wait an hour or two for a bus you need between cities.
Hong Kong shows that it is possible for a country with Israel’s level of economic activity to do much better, and to refuse to become car-plagued like Los Angeles.
But that’s not the real message of Hong Kong for us. The real message is just how many more people could live fairly comfortably within the space that we and the Palestinians have no choice but to share, as long as we’re willing to live mostly in apartment towers and to get around without a personal car. This will become even more important _when_ we have finally have a peace agreement — one that may require us to move literally hundreds of thousands of people to new homes inside the Green Line. Hong Kong’s rapid growth can teach us a lot about how to handle that challenge.
Of course, there are many things that are not so admirable about Hong Kong’s choices — they have pretty much demolished the history of their city by tearing older buildings down for so many towers, they live with a democracy that is limited in many ways by the mainland Chinese government and the gap between the rich and (working) poor is huge.
But, nonetheless, we still could learn a ton from them. It certainly wouldn’t hurt to have not only less cars, but less trash and honking!
Photo credit: all photos by Alan Abrams.