Thursday, November 17, 2011


As part of a series of history lectures at the AACI Netanya I gave a talk about "Meir Dizengoff, First Mayor of Tel Aviv." This series is entitled "Street Names" since there are many streets named after famous Zionists in Netanya and other cities, but often very little is known about them.

Meir Dizengoff was born in 1861 in Bessarabia, which is now Moldova, and grew up and studied in Kishinev. He was drafted into the Czarist Russian Army in 1882 and served in the Ukraine. After demobilization he joined a a pre-Communist revolutionary socialist organization and was arrested and jailed for a year for "insurrection." Then in Odessa he met members of the early proto-Zionist group "Hovevei Zion" (Lovers of Zion) and started a branch in Kishinev. He went to Paris in 1989 to study Chemical Engineering. There in Zionist circles he met Lionel de Rothschild, who persuaded him to go to Turkish Palestine in 1895 and start a bottling plant to bottle the wines from the Rothschild wineries in Rishon Lezion and Zichron Yaakov. Unfortunately, Dizengoff knew nothing about glass and the bottles he produced from the plant he built in Tantura were defective due to some impurities in the sand. As a consequence, the venture was a failure and Dizengoff returned to Kishinev. The building of the plant still stands today and is used as a museum.

In Kishinev he met Theodor Herzl, the founder of political Zionism, and as a result Dizengoff returned to Palestine permanently in 1905. He landed at Jaffa and found that there was no motorized transport to Jerusalem, only donkeys or horse-drawn carts. So Dizengoff started the first taxi and bus service between Jaffa and Jerusalem. The Arabs had no interest in such a service but the Jews did. He also started a shipping line and rapidly became wealthy. He heard about the plans to start a Jewish suburb outside Jaffa, called Ahuzat Bayit (Pleasant Housing). He quickly joined this organization and became a major investor. In1906 they held a meeting on the sand dunes outside Jaffa and auctioned lots for this development. Dizengoff planned the community with straight streets and uniform houses. It was the first planned community in Palestine and he was the first City Planner.

There were several other Jewish villages already outside Jaffa, including Neve Tzedek, that had been built by the French Jewish contractor Aharon Chelouche in 1887, Har Tikva, that had started as a Christian farm in 1844 intended to attract Jews to re-settle in the Holyland and a Yemenite village that had been settled starting in 1904. Combining these all together they chose the name Tel Aviv, as an approximate translation of the famous prophetic book "Altneuland" by Herzl. Noone could have predicted that these villages would cohere into a mjaor city of 500,000 people and become the first Hebrew-speaking city. This was largely due to the efforts of Dizengoff. There is a statue to him on Rothschild Blvd. in Tel Aviv astride his horse as he rode to inspect the various parts of his city. He officially became Mayor of Tel Aviv in 1911 and remained in that post until 1922. His grand house became the Mayor's House and when his wife died he left it to the City and it became the first Museum in Tel Aviv. It was in the main Hall of this house that Ben Gurion declared the Indpendence of the State of Israel in 1948, and today it is callled Independence Hall. Dizengoff remained actrive in Telk Aviv politics until near his death in 1936.

Tel Aviv is famous for its Bauhaus buildings (also known as "the international style") that were designed by German Jewish architects who fled Germany in the 1920's and 30's. They put into practice what they had learned at the famous school of modern architectural design and Tel Aviv is famous for the greatest concentration of Bauhaus buildings in the world. Because they were all painted white the nickname for Tel Aviv was "The White City". In 2003 UNESCO proclaimed Tel Aviv as a "an example of new town plannign and architecture of the early 20th century." During the French Mandate of Syria, they wished to modernize Damascus, and requested the British in Palestine if they had a modern city planner available, rather than spend the money to bring one from France. The British sent Dizengoff, and it is ironic that the plan of modern Damascus was designed by the Jewish Mayor of Tel Aviv.

Another interesting incident in Tel Aviv and why it spread so far north was that in 1917 when the British were fighting the Turks during WWI, after the battle of Beersheva, the Turks were forced to retreat northwards from Gaza followed in pursuit by the British forces. The Turks took a stand on the northern shore of the Yarkon River, known as the Ouja or Auja River in Arabic, just north of Tel Aviv. Then it was a large marshy area, and the British were unable to cross it. The General in charge of the British forces was surprised to find Jews living there and asked for their help in crossing the marshland. They did indeed help to transport British soldiers with weapons across the river at night, and in the morning they attacked the Turks from their flank. In response for this help at the "Battle of the Auja River," the British later ceded the the land north of the River to Tel Aviv, that is now the area of Ramat Aviv. A pillar was erected that stands on the northern shore of the Yarkon River with a metal inscription to commemorate this event.


Post a Comment

<< Home