The White Elephant of Tel Aviv

Mishy Harman: ​Hi!
Shelly: ​Hi!
Mishy Harman (narration): ​I met Shelly this last Saturday. She was sitting at a bus
stop in front of Mount Herzl, Israel’s national cemetery.
Mishy Harman: ​I know this is completely random,
but I was just driving by here, and I noticed that you
were sitting in the bus stop here, umm… on Shabbat.
Shelly:​Ah, yeah.
Mishy Harman (narration): ​The thing is, ​buses in Jerusalem, at least in West
Jerusalem, don’t run on Shabbat.
Mishy Harman: ​I mean I imagine you know, but the
bus isn’t really about to come.
Shelly:​Yes, I know. I wasn’t expecting a bus to stop
here. I just… I was on my feet all day, and now I got
tired and I wanted to sit for a while.
Mishy Harman (narration): ​Shelly’s a sixth year medical student, and she had just
gotten off a long shift at the nearby Sha’arey Tzedek hospital. ​I asked her what she
thinks about the fact that there’s no public transportation on Shabbat. A lot of people get
really riled up about that. But not Shelly.
Shelly:​Personally, it would make my life more
comfortable if there was… if there were buses on
Shabbat. But I understand that in Jerusalem it’s more
problematic than in other cities.
Mishy Harman (narration): ​One of the people who works tirelessly on solving this
problem is Laura Wharton. She’s a member of the City Council, from the left­wing
Meretz Party.
Laura Wharton:​I established something called the
‘Cooperative Transportation Association of
Jerusalem.’ And we now run something called Shabus,
which is transportation services on Saturday in
Mishy Harman (narration): ​Shabus got a lot of media attention last summer when
it first launched its late Friday night bus routes. And why was it such a big deal? Well,
Laura says, in a country where there is no separation of Church and State, and in a city
in which more than fifty­five percent of the Jewish population is either Orthodox or
Laura Wharton:​Basically the situation was frozen
in terms of public transportation in… when the State
was founded, ummm… and our message is ­ it can be
done, ‘cuz we think that people have the right to, and
should be allowed to travel as they want, whenever
they want, and freedom of movement is, you know, a
basic right, I think.
Mishy Harman (narration): ​So yeah, in Israel I guess, even something as innocuous
as a bus schedule turns into a contentious battleground of beliefs, rights and ideals.
And that’s because buses matter. A lot. There’s no subway in Israel. Jerusalem has the
relatively new light­rail, and there’s a bunch of trains along the coast, but most Israelis ­
more than 1.2 million people a day ­ ride the bus.
So there’s a lot of discussion and debate around buses. And it isn’t just about whether or
not there should be public transportation on Shabbat. You might have read or heard
about some of the recent cases of gender segregation on bus lines here.
MSNBC Anchor:​Tonight there’s a big storm
brewing in Israel. It has to do with seating on public
Martin Fletcher:​On a bus to Jerusalem, and
Orthodox Jew told her: ‘You’re a woman, go sit at the
back of the bus.’
MSNBC Anchor:​That is until one woman refused
to move. It certainly might remind a lot of folks of a
woman who took a stand in this country more than
fifty years ago.
Yair Ettinger:​Every day there was something in the
news about what’s happening in the buses, because
secular people and religious people were fighting ­
“You’re right!” “You’re wrong!’
Mishy Harman (narration): ​That’s Yair Ettinger. He’s a correspondent for the
Israeli daily Ha’aretz, and writes mainly about the Ultra­Orthodox community. Yair’s
spent a lot of time covering the struggles on buses.
Yair Ettinger:​So everything… it became like really
crazy. What happened next was that people went to
court and said this is illegal.
Mishy Harman (narration): ​So we’ve got tension around buses on Shabbat, tension
around where men and women can or cannot sit on the bus. And there is, of course, a
whole other anxiety about buses.
[Suicide Bombing Mashup]
!לשמור על צירים פנויים לבתי חולים מני​:Medic
אחת עשר הרוגים ויותר מחמישים​:Channel Two News
פצועים בהם שמונה קשה בפיגוע התאבדות הבוקר באוטובוס
.בקרית מנחם בירושלים
Fox News: And back to this news in Jerusalem. We
were told that a bomb exploded on board a bus.
Reporter:​Bill, this expulsion took place near the
Central Bus Station. That’s the main hub where all the
buses come in and out of, right at the entrance of
Mishy Harman (narration): ​Suicide bombings were an inseparable part of growing
up here in Israel in the nineties. When I was a kid taking buses to Elementary School or
Junior­High, that was the single most talked about thing at home. My parents would tell
me where to sit, where not to sit, what to look for. You know, when you’re that age, you
don’t really think much about danger, or dying. But I remember constantly surveying
the people on the bus, wondering whether these would be the last people I ever saw.
Recently buses have become the focal point of attention for another reason: There was a
short lived attempt, by the Minister of Defense, to create segregated bus lines for
Palestinian workers coming from the West Bank.
[News Mash Up]
News Woman 1:​We’ll take you now to an uproar
over an Israeli program that critics say compares to
apartheid [goes under].
News Man 2:​Benjamin Netanyahu’s government
under pressure once again, after a new…
News Woman 3:​Palestinian only bus lines.
News Woman 4:​… discrimination, segregation
taken right out of the Apartheid Era.
[enter bus ambi]
Mishy Harman (narration): ​So buses are, clearly, a place where deep social tensions
play out, on a daily basis. And, in a sense, Sohila Fadila embodies all those tensions.
Sohila drives the no. 17 bus in Kfar Saba. She isn’t just one of only a handful of female
drivers, she’s also the only driver who shows up to work in a hijab.
Sohila Fadila:​All the time the passengers is so
happy, and the same time they surprised when they
see that the driver is a woman, and I’m Arabic, and I
with hijab.
Mishy Harman (narration): ​Sohila’s also encountered hostility. There was one time,
she told us, when two soldiers wouldn’t get on her bus because she was a Muslim. But
she chooses to focus on the positive side of her job.
Sohila Fadila: ​I smile, and I respect my passanger.
?גאים, איך אומרים גאים …And they ehhh
Amir Factor:​Proud.
Sohila Fadila:​Ah, and they proud that I am a driver
from Tira. A woman driver from Tira. And I have now
many many passengers who are now… We are…
friends with me. That’s really.
Mishy Harman (narration):​Hey, I’m Mishy Harman, and this is Israel Story. Israel
Story is brought to you by PRX and is produced together with Tablet Magazine. And our
episode today ­ “Stop that Bus!”​We’ve got two stories about buses, but neither of
them is about terrorist attacks or religious segregation: Our first story is about a bus
station which is, really, a microcosm of the whole country. And our second act, which
you won’t want to miss, is one of the favorite stories of one of our favorite contributors:
Writer Etgar Keret.
If you’ve ever taken a bus to or from Tel Aviv’s ‘New’ Central Bus Station, chances are
you haven’t forgotten the experience. It’s one of the most bizarre and magical and
disgusting and enchanting places you can imagine. It’s dirty, and smelly, and feels
depressing. Poor. Deserted. But at the same time it’s colorful and full of life. There are
vendors, foreign workers and refugees from all over the world.
Mash Up:​Filipino, Ethiopian, Sudan, South Sudan,
Eritrea, China, Morocco, Brazilian…
Mishy Harman (narration):​On the fourth floor, in what’s called “Manila Avenue,”
you can stuff yourself with homemade pan­fried lumpia that Filipino caregivers sell on
their day off. If you turn the corner, an oldtimer might drag you into the Netzach David
synagogue, to complete a minyan, after which you can meander past tattoo parlors,
churches, the free STD clinic, Eritrean brides getting their hair braided, the
Israeli­Filipino matchmaking agency, fringe theater spaces and end up at a giant Yiddish
book library. (If you are long time Israel Story listeners, you might actually remember
Mendy and his Yung Yiddish kingdom from our episode “People of the Book”).
The Bus Station is dizzying. In fact, it’s almost impossible not to get lost there: For a
long time it was the largest central bus station in the world. That’s right ­ in the world.
Here in Israel ­ a country with a population not much larger than Papua New Guinea’s.
But then, in 2010, things return to their natural state of being…
[insert from Indian TV]
The New Delhi Millennium Park Bus Depot opened up.
But what’s probably most interesting about the New Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv is
that it’s sort of a layered fossil of the history of Israel. If archeologists or sociologists
were to start picking it apart, they’d find remnants of every phase in the short story of
this State. From independence through post­war euphoria to recession and
Westernization. They’d be able to trace the waves of immigration to Israel. From Europe
and North Africa all the way to the African asylum seekers that have been in the news so
much in recent years.
So in many ways, the story of Tel Aviv’s New Central Bus Station is the story of Israel.
Act One ­ The White Elephant​. Here’s Yochai Maital.
Ilan:​There’s isn’t a single thing I like about this
station. Everything here is worthless. Believe me, I’m
here ‘cuz I have no other choice.
Yochai Maital (narration):​That’s Ilan. He bought a small store in Tel Aviv’s ‘New’
Central Bus Station in the early 90s, even before it opened. He dreamt of eventually
passing it on to his children.
Ilan:​I bought it as an investment twenty years ago,
and now I’m stuck here. No matter what happens, I’m
stuck: Paying taxes, utility bills, office fees… this place
ruined me.
Yochai Maital (narration): ​Ilan’s store has been closed for years, because no one
hangs out anymore at the far end of the fourth floor, where a huge supermarket used to
stand. And Ilan is just one of hundreds of vendors who paid good money to purchase a
store here, and who are ­ today ­ stuck with a property that’s worth absolutely nothing.
I met Ilan in a section of the Station called the ‘Ramlod Market,’ on the third floor. He
was moonlighting selling baby clothes to Eritrean refugees at a friend’s stall, trying to
make up for the lost income from his own out­of­business shop. Most of the stalls
around him are abandoned. Old newspapers are glued to the display windows of nearby
storefronts. If you come close, you can make out headlines about the 2003 Columbia
Space Shuttle disaster, or the disengagement from Gaza in 2005. The ceilings are
covered with black soot. Bored peddlers anxiously smoke cigarettes right underneath an
old sign that says “No Smoking,” and the smell of nicotine blends into the stench of
urine, sweat and diesel fumes.
What can I say? It’s depressing to hang out with the vendors of the Tachana
Ha’Merkazit Ha’Chadasha, Tel Aviv’s ‘New’ central Bus Station.
The structure itself is terribly confusing, and that’s no coincidence. It was designed to
make people get lost. “The Labyrinth,” it was coined by the station’s chief architect, Ram
Rivka Karmi:​and in a labyrinth you get lost. You
know how you get in, but you have no idea how you
get out, or even if you get out.
Yochai Maital (narration): ​That’s Rivka Karmi,
Rivka Karmi:​I am an architect, and the widow of
Ram Karmi. ​Rami loved to say that a good city is a
city you get lost in. And he imagined the Central Bus
Station as a city underneath a roof. So if it’s a city
under a roof – why shouldn’t we get a bit lost inside?
Yochai Maital (narration): ​So in order help me get lost in… I don’t know, a slightly
more organized fashion I teamed up with an energetic architectural duo.
Talia Davidi: ​Hi I’m Talia Davidi.
Elad Horn:​My name is Elad Horn, I’m an architect
from Israel.
Talia Davidi: ​I’m an Israeli architect as well, and I’m
currently a Masters student at the Architectural
Association in London.
Elad Horn: ​I just graduated from Masters School of
Design in Harvard, and I’ve been investigating
researching the Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv with
Talia for many years now.
Talia Davidi: ​The whole research of the Central Bus
Station started when we had to reorganize Ram
Karmi’s archive and while going through loads of
dusty documents and plans we found amazing
materials dated from the sixties and seventies about
the Central Bus Station.
Elad Horn: ​We… we knew the station pretty well
even before, and we knew what everybody thinks
about the station. How complicated the building is,
but then we saw these drawings, and they were like
really beautiful actually.
Yochai Maital (narration): ​The drawings are, indeed, beautiful, with their sweeping
lines and huge glass skylights, but few people see much beauty in the building as it
stands today. Talia and Elad are exceptions.
Talia Davidi: ​It’s really hard to describe it without
getting lost in these weird dark alleys, were you really
don’t have anybody around you.
Elad Horn:​Almost half of it is underneath the street
level, so it is dark. Really dark actually. And airless.
Talia Davidi: ​In a way it’s like a dark amusement
park. You’re actually afraid on one hand, and on the
other hand having like the most exciting environment
around you, with people from all around the world.
Super colorful.
Elad Horn: ​I would say it’s a multi­sensual place.
Talia Davidi: ​It allows almost anything or
everything to happen in it.
Elad Horn: ​The biggest question that we asked
ourself is what went wrong actually. So we go there
and try to find the answer for that.
Yochai Maital (narration): ​They took me around this magical multi­sensual dark
amusement park of theirs. At some point they led me down to the abandoned first floor,
then up a narrow ramp, and through a creaky side door. I looked around and realized we
were in the lobby of a deserted movie theater.
Talia Davidi:​So we’re actually fifteen meters below
ground level here, in what was the grand cinema.
There are six movie theatres here with amazing names
like John Wayne, Everest, Gandhi.
Yochai Maital (narration): ​Even though it’s been more than fifteen years since the
credits rolled on the last movie played here, the theaters are still in great shape. The
walls are covered with posters of films like Pulp Fiction and Titanic, the acoustics
remain excellent and the cushions of the red velvet seats are still pretty comfy. This
forgotten glamour is testimony to the big hopes this station embodied in its early days.
The planners’ original idea was that passengers would pop in and catch a movie as they
waited for the bus. But that never happened, and the cinema closed down just a few
years after it opened.
Talia Davidi:​Today, as you can see, it’s completely
Elad Horn:​Yeah, that’s it. Time stood still here.
[music enters]
Yochai Maital (narration): ​The New Central Bus Station opened its doors to the
public in the summer of 1993, after nearly three decades of planning. It was shiney and
new, and exciting. But then, in just a few short years it became the grimiest place in
town. So how does a place go from such splendor to such neglect in so short a period?
Sharon Rotbard…
Sharon Rotbard:​I’m an architect, a writer,
publisher and teacher.
Yochai Maital (narration): ​Who lives right near the station…
Sharon Rotbard:​Three hundred meters.
Yochai Maital (narration): ​Thinks that in order to answer this question, we need to
go all the way back to the days before the establishment of Israel, in 1948.
Sharon Rotbard:​We should talk about the land the
Central Bus Station was built on. And this land
belonged to Arabs from Jaffa, it used to be an orange
Yochai Maital (narration): ​Pinchas Abramov grew up on the outskirts of that grove.
He remembers it well.
Pinchas Abramov: ​Of course! ​It was called Abed’s
grove. We used to sneak in underneath the fence, steal
some oranges, and then run away.
Yochai Maital (narration): ​Following the War of Independence, most of these citrus
groves in the area between Jaffa and Tel Aviv were abandoned slash deserted slash
confiscated (depending on your political point of view). In any event, the State took over
the land, and Jews started moving in. Pinchas’ home stood exactly where the New
Central Bus Station is situated today.
Pinchas Abramov: ​My house was a special house.
Right on the corner of Levinsky Street, the second
house from the corner. On the second floor there was
this big wall which had a mural of the Sea of Galilee,
with a fisherman fishing, it was really something. A
beautiful house. What a house!
Yochai Maital (narration): ​Initially, the government wanted to expand a nearby
neighborhood by the name of Neve Sha’anan. But, as always, the plans were delayed
and stalled, till they were forgotten altogether. So instead of a brand new residential
neighborhood, a favela of sorts developed there ­ a slum of tents, sheds and warehouses.
[I’d have the swing music start up AFTER the “meanwhile” here, not before] Meanwhile,
in a better part of town, lived a man called Aryeh Pilz. [and then let the music come up
and play a bit in the clear before Elad comes in]
Elad Horn:​Yeah, he was an immigrant coming from
Poland in the 30s, ummm… and he opened up Café
Pilz, which was a really famous coffee shop on the
seaside of Tel Aviv.
Yochai Maital (narration): ​Café Pilz was the swankiest joint in town: Senior British
officers came to relax over dry martinis, elegant waiters, in long tails and a bowtie,
would walk around serving Coq Au Vin and Steak Béarnaise. And an orchestra played
the latest hits in the background.
And as he spent his days sitting in his café smoking his cigars, Pilz couldn’t help but
notice the construction frenzy going on all around him.
Promotional Archive Film:​Tel Aviv is bursting
with light by now.
Yochai Maital (narration): ​This is a promotional film of Tel Aviv from the late 50s.
Promotional Archive Film: ​Three hundred
thousand people arrive in our town every day!
Although Jerusalem is our capital, Tel Aviv is a center
of industry…. Once I saw a picture of New York, well
Tel Aviv is almost the same, apart from the fact, of
course, that we haven’t got sky scrapers. Yet… [I agree
with Mishy ­ fade this promo reel out right after this
clip ends]
Yochai Maital (narration): ​Tel Aviv was humming, and Pilz ­ a tireless
entrepreneur ­ spotted real estate opportunities everywhere. So he purchased the old
orange­grove­turned­slum from the Jewish National Fund. [I don’t think you need the
oud music here ­ it feels like we think we need to direct the listener’s emotions at every
turn.] But then there was the problem of the squatters, like Pinchas.
Pinchas Abramov:​Pilz showed up and wanted us
Yochai Maital (narration): ​Gradually he bought them all out, brought in tractors
and razed the sheds to create one giant plot of land. The location wasn’t ideal. Across the
street was Neve Sha’anan, a densely populated low­income neighborhood. And in the
middle of Neve Sha’anan stood Tel Aviv’s main bus station. The ‘Old’ Central Bus
Station. Every day, dozens and dozens of buses zigzaged through the neighborhood’s
narrow streets, and as often happens, this contributed to the area’s decline into a hub of
crime and poverty. It was clear to the municipal planners that something wasn’t
Elad Horn:​They wanted to move the station to
another place while they renovate and open up the old
one. So Pilz, who was a really clever guy, just came up
to the municipality and told them: ‘Wait a minute,
why would you move the bus station and then bring it
back? Just keep it where it is, while I will build you a
new one.’
Yochai Maital (narration): ​And Piltz had big dreams: He was going to finance the
building of the New Bus Station by making it part of a huge mall.
Sharon Rotbard:​It was meant to be the largest bus
station in the world when it was conceived.
Yochai Maital (narration): ​Israel was still a small country, with a population of just
over two million. So as you might imagine, lots of people thought the idea was
absolutely insane. But Pilz was charismatic, and (even more importantly), he knew all
the right people. So he managed to persuade the folks at City Hall, and with their
approval, he approached a thirty­three­year­old architect, Ram Karmi,
Talia ​Davidi​:​And Pilz said to him: ‘Rami, build me a
central bus station.’
[musical beat ­ drums]
Talia Davidi: ​Karmi’s first proposal was relatively
simple. The idea was that the station’s lower level
would be similar to a train station, in the sense that
the buses would pass right through it. On top of that
they would build apartments, hotels, offices, and in
the center there would be a big park, which would
actually sit on the station’s roof.
Elad Horn: ​From there on it only went downhill.
Yochai Maital (narration): ​Pretty quickly issues arose with Karmi’s plan: Egged
and Dan, the two rival bus companies, who had become stakeholders in the project,
were furious when they realized they would have to share a floor. Not a problem, said
the developers. We’ll put the bus companies on separate levels.
Talia Davidi:​Karmi had a brilliant idea ­ dividing
the transportation between the first and the sixth
Yochai Maital (narration): ​The Dan city buses would stop on the first floor, and
Egged’s intercity buses would leave from a platform all the way up on the sixth floor. So
passengers transferring from one to the other would have to go through the entire
building, and would spend good money in the mall’s shops.
Elad Horn:​Yeah, it seemed logical at this time.
Talia Davidi:​The idea of building a huge structure,
a mega structure, was very trendy at the time.
Elad Horn:​And Rami Karmi imported this idea to
Yochai Maital (narration): ​Pilz, in the meantime, understood that the project was
going to be much more expensive than he’d originally expected.
Rivka Karmi:​So he said: ‘Rami, we need more
spaces which we can sell.’
Yochai Maital (narration): ​And so, in every subsequent design Karmi submitted, the
station grew bigger and bigger. By the sixth draft, handed in in November 1967, the
blueprint had started to resemble the behemoth we know today.
Rivka Karmi:​In fact I remember Rami talking
about the central bus station, and saying that they
wanted to build the largest bus station in the world.
And I kept wondering, why would anyone want to
build the largest central bus station in such a small
country? But this is exactly what happened.
Yochai Maital (narration): ​In the end, ​the New Central Bus Station was designed to
include eight floors ­ for a total of two­hundred­and­thirty square meters, or fifty­seven
Elad Horn:​Which is more or less, two Empire State
Buildings together.
Yochai Maital (narration): ​By the time Pilz got all his building permits in order,
architectural styles around the world had begun to change. New wisdom had it, that a
few small­scale public transportation hubs, were more efficient than one gigantic
station. And besides, there were enough examples to conclude that megastructures
rarely functioned the way they were originally intended to.
On top of all that, Pilz had other problems: He had bought out all the squatters, but the
residents in the adjacent streets were livid. Even though their neighborhood had never
been particularly nice or upscale, they were concerned that the new station, and all the
increased bus traffic, would depreciate the value of their apartments even more. That
they would end up living in a cloud of smoke and fumes. And, as it turns out, they were
This is Shula Keshet, a resident of the neighborhood:
Shula Keshet:​Can you imagine what it feels like to
wake up to this terrifying rattling noise? And I wake
up and this noise doesn’t stop. You sit at home, you
want to watch TV and you can’t hear it, you want to
talk with the family, you can’t talk, it’s a deafening
noise. Beside that we had to shut the balconies,
because the people who go by in the buses can
practically see what’s going on inside our houses.
Simcha Nasi:​If someone knocks on the door I can’t
hear it. It’s awful, what can I tell you. Terrible noise,
all the time.
Yochai Maital (narration): ​That’s Simcha Nasi, who still lives directly across from
one of the bus exits. He was one of the residents who complained to Pilz. And well, you
can judge for yourself.
[buses ambi]
This is a recording from his living room window at 10pm.
Simcha Nasi:​The New Central Bus Station should
never have been built here in the first place.
Absolutely not.
Yochai Maital (narration): ​But Pilz was determined. And on December 14
th 1967, six
months after Israel tripled its size in the Six­Day War, the Minister of Transportation,
the Mayor of Tel Aviv and many other dignitaries gathered at the edge of the old orange
grove, and laid down the cornerstone for Karmi’s creation. In what now felt like a huge
country, a huge station seemed fitting. The hubris of building the world’s largest bus
station was in line with the general sense of post­war euphoria.
[musical beat]
In the months that followed, hundreds of workers dug foundations, laid rebar, poured in
concrete, drilled, and hammered. And all the while residents demonstrated outside.
Pilz, in the meantime, was ready to move on to the second stage of his plan. He needed
to sell the vast commercial space he was building.
Elad Horn:​So he invited Jews from all over the
world to come on and see the place, and get a free tour
in Israel. On him. Sort of like Birthright before
Talia Davidi:​And of course the grand finalé of the
trip would be a visit to the New Central Bus Station,
Pilz’ new project, with the expectations that the
visitors would buy a shop in the station.
Yochai Maital (narration): ​Pilz hoped to tap into the overflowing Zionist sentiments
that followed the Six Day War, and amazingly, he succeeded! ​Hundreds of people
bought shops ­ some of them took out loans, and others, like Mark Almog from France,
sold their houses and made aliya.
Mark Almog: ​We were promised a magnificent shop
in a shopping center that the whole world would take
pride in.
Yochai Maital (narration): ​Others ­ like Pinchas, whose house with the painting of
the Sea of Galilee was demolished to make way for the Station ­ were given shops as
some sort of compensation.
Pinchas Abramov:​I got forty­two meters at the
Central Bus Station. They said this shop will be
something … Something great.
Yochai Maital (narration): ​It’s important to bear in mind that ​Pilz didn’t lease those
shops as a mall developer would today. He sold them, as property. The owners
registered the asset under their own names, just like buying an apartment.
Over the next six years, as Pilz sold more and more of his stores on paper, the massive
building started taking shape. People were excited about it. Every few months there
would be a headline in the papers saying something like, “A City Under A Roof Is
Coming To Life,” or “The World’s Most High­Tech Bus Station Due To Open.” But then,
in 1973, came the Yom Kippur War, and with it a general nationwide recession. ‘Kikar
Levinsky’, the contracting company Pilz had set up to build and bankroll the project,
started faltering. There was a shortage of concrete, problems with the workers unions,
and growing debt. Finally, in 1976, Pilz filed for bankruptcy and the construction
stopped altogether.
By that time, the structure was already mostly built. A huge concrete skeleton in the
middle of the city.
Elad Horn: ​Tel Aviv’s grandma and grandpas all
remember this place as the city’s ‘big white elephant.’
[could music peak up for a bit after this line before we
move into the whole fiasco state? Seems like we go
very quickly from excitement to failure; need to give
the listener a few seconds to take this all in]
Yochai Maital (narration): ​Now, a saga of who should take responsibility for the
fiasco erupted. Public commissions were established, but the blame game went on and
on. And so, for 12 years, “the miserable station”, as Pilz himself called it, remained
empty. Or… almost empty. A huge colony of bats made the building their home.
[sound of bats]
Elad Horn:​Gradually, it started to host all sorts of
marginal parts of society.
Talia Davidi:​Some legal, some not so much.
Yochai Maital (narration): ​By the early 80s, the station had already gained its
notorious reputation. It served as an underground meeting point. Huge raves and rock
and metal concerts took place here.
Yochai Maital (narration): ​In 1983, after a decade of neglect, inhabited only by bats
and punks, it finally seemed like the station was going to be redeemed. Contractor
Mordechai Yona bought the project from its creditors for a bargain price of five million
Dollars. Once again you could hear the hustle and bustle of construction work in the
empty concrete shell. Yona, like his predecessor Pilz, knew the right people, like the then
Minister of Transportation, Moshe Katsav. When Katsav visited the site, just a few
months before it was supposed to open to the public, he said:
Moshe Katsav:​I am certainly pleasantly surprised,
and we, of course, will be happy to help you in any
way to overcome bureaucratic obstacles.
Yochai Maital (narration): ​What Katsav was happy about, was that Yona was
delivering. The station was set to open more or less on schedule. Most of the real estate
had already been sold, in the Pilz days. So in order to make this financially viable, Yona
had to build more. And more. And more. The huge station, like the very hungry
caterpillar, just grew and grew.
Tzvi Shuv:​The total build up area in the station is
more than double the area that was authorized.
Yochai Maital (narration):​That’s Tzvi Shuv, a lawyer who represents many of the
original shop owners in a long­standing class­action suit against the station. He’s
actually continuing a fight his father, also a lawyer, started.
Tzvi Shuv: ​There are tens of thousands of square
meters that were built illegally. Without building
permits or even organized plans, and they were also
sold to people. And there’s really nothing to do about
Yochai Maital:​So what you’re saying is that the
New Central Bus Station is the largest construction
violation in the city?
Tzvi Shuv:​In the country.
Yochai Maital (narration): ​but Katsav kept his word. bureaucratic obstacles were
Advertising brochures and radio campaigns urged the public to buy a shop: ‘The
country’s biggest commercial center is on its way,” they said, “don’t let it start without
Advertisement for the station:​Action in the New
Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv. [Jingle] The new
central bus station – you’re going to have great fun.
Yochai Maital (narration): ​And again, people who seem to have forgotten the
heartache of the station’s first incarnation, lined up to buy a store from Yona.
In the summer of 1993, 29 years after the ambitious architect Ram Karmi put pencil to
paper, all the usual dignitaries reconvened at the station: Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin
was there, as was the Transportation Minister, the Finance Minister, the Mayor of Tel
Aviv, and even Karmi himself – in what was the only time he ever visited the building
while it was working. In a rare moment of self­deprecating humor, the opening
ceremony was kicked of by releasing a giant helium balloon in the shape of… a white
But not everyone was amused. Here, again, is Shula Keshet, one of the station’s unhappy
Shula Keshet: ​At the time they were celebrating
inside, we were standing outside in a big
demonstration of thousands of people. Thousands of
people! And we were standing and demonstrating at
the foot of the Central Bus Station, of this terrible
monster that is destroying lives until today.
Yochai Maital (narration): ​But the neighborhood residents’ protest was largely
ignored, while all of Israel heard about the grand opening that evening, on national TV.
Ya’akov Ahimeir​​[Channel One archival footage]:
The new central bus station in Tel Aviv is open to the
public. [Goes under].
Yochai Maital (narration): ​More than thirty years after Pilz had first set his eyes on
the plot, the New Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv was now up and running. It’s been
open ever since, but it’s far from the posh shopping mall it was meant to be.
There is a certain temptation to view those first few years as ‘the years when things were
still working.’ But honestly, things never really worked here. Yona never managed to sell
all the new stores he had built, so many of them stood vacant. Many of the ones that
were open, especially stores located in the far corners of this vast labyrinth, were barely
getting any foot traffic. You can understand why the vendors don’t have many good
words to say about this place. [The vendors who have stuck around are full of
Shopkeeper 1:​This, ahh… in Tachana… not good
Shopkeeper 2: ​When are they gonna burn this
place? There’s nothing here. There’s more life in a
cemetery than here.
Shopkeeper 3: ​It’s very muznach, in Hebrew…
Shopkeeper 4: ​There’s no aircon, nothing. It stinks.
You see there ­ over there there are black people! [A
little weird… no?] And come look at my cash register,
no money! Come look!
Shopkeeper 6: ​You can’t make a living here. No
work, no nothing. I am just sitting here passing time.
Shopkeeper 7: ​I prefer to work in another place
than inside here, in Tel Aviv Central Bus Station.
Yochai Maital (narration): ​And we can go on like this. Believe me, we’re not short
on this kind of tape.
[musical beat]
In 2002 the ground floor was closed for good. The reason: Excessive air pollution.
That meant that Dan, the municipal bus company, moved up to the sixth and seventh
floors, right next to Egged ­ the national bus carrier. So now, with all the bus platforms
located on the top floors, the entire concept of the station ­ that people will trickle down
through the shops on their way from one bus to the other ­ was gone. The lower floors of
the station became ‘ghost floors,’ and before long, just like his predecessor Pilz,
Mordechai Yona filed for bankruptcy.
Since then, the station has fallen deep in debt.
There are real estate billionaires and banks passing the hot potato from one to the other,
store owners suing in court, and in the middle of all this is Miki Ziv, the station’s
General Manager, who’s doing his best to run the place. He’s tried all kinds of creative
solutions: Cheap rates for artists’ studios, cultural events, conferences. But it seems as if
the station is just getting emptier and emptier.
Miki Ziv:​We have here one thousand five hundred
stores, but only six­hundred are open. Because the
building is so huge, they are not necessary.
Yochai Maital (narration): ​At first, the planners thought that a million people a day
would pass through the station.
Miki Ziv: ​Nowadays average fifty thousand people are
coming. It’s going down.
Yochai Maital (narration): ​Fifty thousand people. ​That’s just five percent of the
original estimate. Maybe this is the root of the problem – the developer’s greed led them
to sell more and more commercial spaces, which ­ in turn ­ blew the station’s size out of
proportion. Or maybe it’s all just “location­location­location,” and putting the station in
the poor neighborhoods of Southern Tel Aviv sealed it’s fate. Or perhaps it was simply
short sitedness: In the 60s there were only twenty­four thousand private vehicles in all
of Israel, and everybody used public transportation. Who knew then that this number
would increase more than a hundredfold and reach the 2.5 million cars that crowd our
roads today?
When Pilz and Karmi dreamt up the project, they imagined a “City Under A Roof.” And,
when all’s said and done, it does kind have that vibe. Here’s Talia, the architect.
Talia Davidi:​In a way the fact that it’s called ‘A City
Under A Roof,’ kind of says it all. In a city you’ve got
everything: You’ve got the dark spaces, you’ve got the
lit spaces, you have the interesting bits, you have the
scary bits, you have the exciting bits. And all of it just
exists there, coexist there, in a way.
Yochai Maital (narration): ​And despite the gloominess all around, sometimes you
get the feeling you can spend your whole life here. There’s a post office, a grocery shop,
travel agencies…
Talia ​Davidi​:​You can find a dentist clinic, lawyers,
churches, market.
Miki Ziv​: Shoes, clothes.
Talia ​Davidi​:​Artist studios, kindergartens.
Elad Horn: ​There’s also an atomic bomb shelter,
and synagogues.
Talia ​Davidi​:​There is a whole world in here, right
under Tel Aviv’s nose. It’s just a shame that nobody
bothers to pick up the stone and take a look beneath
[musical beat]
Yochai Maital (narration): ​More than fifty years have passed since the idea for the
Central Bus Station was born in the creative mind of Aryeh Pilz, and started to take
shape on Ram Karmi’s drawing board. Ever since, people have trying to figure out what
do with it. Here’s Sharon Rotbard, the architect, again.
Sharon Rotbard:​I can certainly see how in the past
ten, fifteen years the use of the station is decreasing,
the shops closing, trade is deteriorating, and gradually
causing deterioration in all the neighborhoods around
here. In this case there is no really a winner.
Everybody is a loser. The architect of this building,
Ram Karmi, has been really despised for this project
and it affects very severely all the residents of the
neighborhoods around it. You know, they say in
Hebrew even she tipesh zorek la’be’er gam me’a
chachamim lo yochlo lehotzi ota hachotza. It means
“a fool may throw into a well a stone which a hundred
wise men cannot pull out.”
Yochai Maital (narration): ​Rivka Karmi, Ram’s widow, is a bit more optimistic.
Rivka Karmi:​I believe the story of the Central Bus
station is not over yet.
Yochai Maital (narration): ​Pinchas, for his part, is desperate:
Pinchas Abramov:​I am over eighty years old today.
I used to be young and I had the will to deal with
them. Nowadays I have no energy.
Yochai Maital (narration): ​There are many parallels between the story of the
Central Bus Station and the entire Zionist project – entrepreneurship, creating facts on
the ground, the patchwork system, a gradual move towards privatisation and capitalism.
In the State’s case it worked pretty well, but not so with the Central Bus Station, at least
not so far. But who knows, maybe the Station’s good days still lie ahead, and the
grandchildren of Ilan, Pinchas, Mark and many more, will end up inheriting a shop in
the SoHo of Tel Aviv. For now, while history debates whether the New Central Bus
Station is a stone thrown by a fool, or a spectacular human monument, many people
that we would rather forget, have turned this strange and confusing place into their
Mishy Harman (narration):​Yochai Maital. Yochai also composed some of the
original music in that story.
OK, when Yochai and I were in eighth or ninth grade, we became big big fans of Etgar
Keret’s short stories. Yochai grew up in Haifa, and I’m from Jerusalem, and we would
often go visit each other for Shabbat. And I remember one time that we started talking
about this particular story of Etgar’s that we both really liked. And then we decided to
write our own version of it. We created this character, I think we called him Max, who
would sit and play backgammon all day long. The twist, which we blatantly stole from
Etgar, was that Max was actually god.
I remember being quite happy about the story, and reading it out loud in class the next
day. No one else was all that impressed. It was a really bad imitation of Etgar’s story,
and everyone knew it. But you, dear Israel Story listeners, are getting the real deal. Act
Two ­ The Bus Driver Who Wanted To Be God.​Here’s Etgar Keret.
This is the story about a bus driver who would never open the door of the bus for
people who were late. Not for anyone: Not for repressed high school kids who’d run
alongside the bus and stare at it longingly, certainly not for high­strung people in
windbreakers who’d bang on the door as if they were actually on time and it was the
driver who was out of line, and not even for little old ladies with brown paper bags full of
groceries who struggled to flag him down with trembling hands.
And it wasn’t because he was mean that he didn’t open the door, because this driver
didn’t have a mean bone in his body; it was a matter of…ideology.
The driver’s ideology said that if the delay that was caused by opening the door for
someone who came late was just under thirty seconds, and if not opening the door
meant that this person would wind up losing fifteen minutes of his life, it would still be
more fair to society, because the thirty seconds would be lost by every single passenger
on the bus. And if there were, say, sixty people on the bus who hadn’t done anything
wrong, and had all arrived at the bus stop on time, then together they’d be losing half an
hour, which is twice fifteen minutes.
This was the only reason why he’d never open the door.
He knew that the passengers hadn’t the slightest idea what his reason was, and that the
people running after the bus and signaling to him to stop had no idea either. He also
knew that most of them thought he was just an SOB, and that personally it would have
been much, much easier for him to let them on and receive their smiles and thanks.
Except that when it came to choosing between smiles and thanks on the one hand, and
the good of society on the other, this driver knew what it had to be.
The person who should have suffered the most from the driver’s ideology was named
Eddie, but unlike the other people in this story, he wouldn’t even try to run for the bus,
(that’s how lazy and he was). Now, Eddie was an Assistant Cook at a restaurant called
“The Steakaway,” which was the best pun that the stupid owner of the place could come
up with. The food there was nothing to write home about, but Eddie himself was a really
nice guy — so nice that sometimes, when something he made didn’t come out well, he’d
serve it to the table himself and apologize.
It was during one of these apologies that he met Happiness, or at least a shot at
Happiness, in the form of a girl who was so sweet that she tried to finish the entire
portion of roast beef that he brought her, just so he wouldn’t feel bad. And this girl
didn’t want to tell him her name or give him her phone number, but she was sweet
enough to agree to meet him the very next day at five at a spot they decided on together
— at the Dolphinarium in Tel Aviv, to be exact.
Now, Eddie had this… condition… It had already caused him to miss out on all sorts of
things in life. It wasn’t one of those conditions where your adenoids get all swollen or
anything like that, but still, it had already caused him a lot of damage.
This sickness always made him oversleep by ten minutes, and no alarm clock did any
good. That was why he was invariably late for work at “The Steakaway” — that, and our
bus driver, the one who always chose the good of society over positive reinforcements on
the individual level.
Except that this time, since Happiness was at stake, Eddie decided to beat the condition.
Instead of taking an afternoon nap, he stayed awake and watched television. Just to be
on the safe side, he even lined up not one, but three alarm clocks, and ordered a
wake­up call to boot.
But this sickness was incurable, and Eddie fell asleep like a baby, watching the Kiddie
Channel. He woke up in a sweat to the screeching of a trillion million alarm clocks ­­
(ten minutes too late), rushed out of the house without stopping to change, and ran
toward the bus stop. He barely remembered how to run anymore, and his feet fumbled a
bit every time they left the sidewalk. The last time he had run was before he discovered
that he could cut gym class, which was about in sixth grade, except that unlike in those
gym classes, this time he ran like crazy, because now he had something to lose, and all
the pains in his chest and his Lucky­Strike­wheezing were not going to get in the way of
his Pursuit of Happiness.
Nothing was going to get in his way… except our bus driver, who had just closed the
door, and was beginning to pull away.
The driver saw Eddie in the rear­view mirror, but as we’ve already explained, he had an
ideology — a well­reasoned ideology that, more than anything, relied on a love of justice
and on simple arithmetic. But Eddie didn’t care about the driver’s arithmetic. For the
first time in his life, he really wanted to get somewhere on time. And that’s why he went
right on chasing the bus, even though he didn’t have a chance.
Suddenly, Eddie’s luck turned, but only halfway: a hundred yards past the bus stop there
was a traffic light. And, just a second before the bus reached it, the traffic light turned
red. Eddie managed to catch up with the bus and to drag himself all the way to the
driver’s door. He didn’t even bang on the glass, he was so weak. He just looked at the
driver with moist eyes, and fell to his knees, panting and wheezing.
And this reminded the driver of something — something from his past, from a time even
before he wanted to become a bus driver, when he still wanted to become God. It was
kind of a sad memory because the driver didn’t become God in the end, but it was a
happy one too, because he became a bus driver, which was his second choice.
And suddenly the driver remembered how he’d once promised himself that if he became
God in the end, he’d be merciful and kind, and would listen to all his creatures. So when
he saw Eddie from way up in his driver’s seat, kneeling on the asphalt, he simply
couldn’t go through with it… and in spite of all his ideology and his simple arithmetic, he
opened the door, and Eddie got on. He didn’t even say thank you, he was so out of
The best thing would be to stop listening here, because even though Eddie did get to the
Dolphinarium on time, Happiness wasn’t there… because Happiness already had a
boyfriend. It’s just that she was so sweet that she couldn’t bring herself to tell Eddie, so
she preferred to stand him up.
Eddie waited for her on the bench where they’d agreed to meet for almost two hours.
While he sat there he kept thinking all sorts of depressing thoughts about life, and while
he was at it he watched the sunset, which was a pretty good one. He also thought about
how charley­horsed he was going to be later on.
On his way back, when he was really desperate to get home, he saw his bus in the
distance, pulling in at the bus stop and letting off passengers. He knew that even if he’d
had the strength to run, he’d never catch up with it.
So he just kept on walking slowly, feeling about a million tired muscles with every step.
When he finally reached the bus stop, he saw that the bus was still there, waiting for
him. And even though the passengers were shouting and grumbling to get a move on,
the driver waited for Eddie, and didn’t touch the accelerator till Eddie was seated.
And when they started moving, he looked in the rear­view mirror and gave Eddie a sad
wink, which somehow made the whole thing almost bearable.
Mishy Harman (narration):​And that’s our episode.
[music should come in]
You can hear all our episodes on our site,, or by searching for Israel Story
on iTunes, Stitcher, or any of the other main podcast platforms. You can also follow us
on FB, Twitter, Instagram, all under Israel Story.
Now, this is becoming like a Torey Malatia kind of running joke, and believe me, I’m
dying to stop saying it, but… we are looking for a sponsor. We have a wonderful
audience, people like you, who are all interested in and engaged with Israel. So if you
want to support our show, and reach what has become a lot a lot of people, email us at
[email protected]
Before we go, I wanted to share some exciting news. We’re coming to the States, on
another tour, in mid­May, with a great new live show, which we’re busy preparing these
days. It’s all about Yom Ha’Atzmaut, Independence Day, and is kind of a fun radio and
live­storytelling journey through Israeli history. We have a whole bunch of
performances planned, all over the country, and we’ll be releasing the dates soon. But, if
you want to bring us to your community, just email us, at [email protected] We’d
love to come.
(I started here Katie)
There were many folks who worked hard on this episode ­ thank you to Or Matias,
Tarshisha Tzabari, Federica Sasso, Jonathan Turner, Adrianne Matheiwitz, and Yael
Factor. To our team of voice over actors: David Harman, Jack Gilron, Shlomo Maital,
Zafrir Kochanovsky, Chanoch Lipperman, Wayne Hoffman and Jonathan Zalman.
And finally, to our dear friends Jake, Alana and Matan Ballon, whom I nearly stood up,
as I recorded Shelly in the bus stop.
Israel Story is brought to you by PRX ­ the Public Radio Exchange, and is produced in
partnership with Tablet Magazine. Go to tabletmag dot com slash Israel Story to hear all
our previous episodes. Our staff includes Yochai Maital, Shai Satran, Roee Gilron, Maya
Kosover, Shoshi Shmuluvitz and Rachel Fisher. Amir Factor, Itay Hyman and Katie
Pulverman are our incredible production interns. Julie Subrin’s our Executive Producer.
I’m Mishy Harman, and we’ll be back next time with a brand new Israel Story episode.
Till then, yalla bye.
­­ END ­­



Reporter Yochai Maital produced this piece for Israel Story with help from Katie Pulverman and editors was Mishy Harman and Julie Subrin. Special thanks to Yael Factor, Adrianne Mathiowetz, David Harman, Jack Gilron, ShlomoMmaital, Zafrir Kachanovsky, Chanoch Lipperman, Wayne Hoffman and Jonathan Zalman. All images via Israel Story unless otherwise noted.


“Audrey’s Rise”- Sean Real
“Social Phobia”- Melodium
“Choanal Imperforation”- Melodium

Comments (15)


  1. Oh my God, the “New” CBS in Tel Aviv is the weirdest building I have ever been in. I have gone through it many times and I’m still not sure what’s going on there. I’ve even been on the “forgotten floors” which look like they are from a dystopian world.

  2. Nicole

    I wonder how user experience might have helped prevent this? This is part of a broader question – how can UX fit with architecture? Hard to prototype buildings and architectural designs – or could VR make this a reality? I’m envisioning an alternate history where the architects/designers used VR to test this projected design/space with users; found that it did not work for them; and then came up with a better design through usability testing.

    This is also an interesting topic of the gap between vision and implementation.

  3. Daniel S

    You have awoken so many memories in me. I spent very little in this bus station, but only because I was terrified of being in it alone.

  4. Shoshannah

    Wow. This episode brought up so many memories for me. In the early ’90s I was a teenager living in a boarding school away from home, and every few weeks we where bussed to the TLV station so we can go home for the weekend- first to the old bus station and then to the new one, which opened about a year or two after I started boarding school.

    I remember the ladies with the bus station logo who gave out maps of the place at the opening. How big and shiny it seemed, how modern compared to the open air old bus station. And while even then there where many empty shops, it still seemed fresh and new.

    But even before I finished studying the place had changed, and the optimism vanished.
    A wave of bus bombings that started in the country didn’t help- the thought of a bus exploding in a closed space like the new bus station wasn’t pleasant, particularly while waiting for a bus in the always dark underground floors.

    These days, the bus system has changed a lot, and many connections between buses are made in other smaller hubs.

    Yet the building still stands, serving it’s few passengers, and every once and while the media remembers it and asks what will happen to the building. Should it be demolished? Changed? Something else?

    Thanks again for a great show and great episode!

  5. Xiggy

    The first thing that came to mind was Buses? Why would anyone want to build a huge bus station? Trains maybe, not buses! Then ten minutes later, it hit me! Oh yeah. Trains! Already got enough train rides a few years back. Check.
    Still, world’s biggest bus station? Serious? If they go all electric it might be salvageable.

    1. Josh

      Interesting connection, although I don’t think it has anything to do with the Holocaust. The Ottomans (with German help) built a train system in what was then Palestine in the late 19th and early 20th century. The British took it over (and changed the gauge) in World War I. It was originally conceived and built as a way of connecting Turkey, Lebanon etc. with Egypt and Mecca and Medina to the East. When Israel became a country in 1948, the neighboring countries put a halt to train traffic, so Israel’s train system became essentially land-locked. Today it still functions, especially in the center of the country, and a new fast rail system linking Jerusalem and Tel Aviv in set to open in 2018.

    2. It is mostly that there are a lot of places in Israel where the train just does not go, such as smaller towns. It is also much easier to put in a new bus line than a train line, as long as the roads already go there.

      Oh and Moshe Katzev? He became president of Israel and is now in Jail for Sexual Assault.

      Most Israelis I know avoid the place at all costs. Even when I had to take the bus to and from Tel Aviv every day I made sure to get off long before it got to the CBS. Israeli buses generally pickup and dropoff at the road-side.

  6. It’s interesting to note that the same Ram Carmi designed the Supreme Court building in Jerusalem, a regal and inspiring structure.

  7. D

    Why not create mixed use housing for students, artists, and young families? The people could use the ease of access to markets, shops, and transportation. Most spaces have a use, it just might not be the use for which it was originally designed.

    1. Saint Miles

      “Maggot Brain” by Funkadelic. The most obvious music in the piece. No credit given.
      Not cool, man, not cool.
      Only way to make this up is to put a Maggot Brain symbol on the next coin.

    2. James Martin

      I’ve been trying to remember who that was for a half hour. No music credit. You saved my sanity.

  8. telatfor

    Tel aviv population is is about a 3 million and not 400,000 as mentioned.
    400,000 is only at the main municipality “tel-aviv-yafo”.

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