Tel Aviv at 100: A Short Walk to Modernity

Tel Aviv was founded on 11 April 1909 (20 Nissan 5669) as a city of rebellion. It was a reaction to the misery and deprivation of the East European shtetl. It was a desire to improve living conditions for the Jews of nearby Jaffa and to liberate them from Arab slumlords. It was a break with the ultra-orthodox of Jerusalem who believed that Jews should passively await the coming of the Messiah and not force God’s hand. It was an attempt to build a clean, efficient and economically sustainable European city on the shores of the Mediterranean. Not Vilna, but Vienna. For the Socialist Zionists, the model was ‘Red Vienna with its public ownership of common utilities, wide open spaces, collective responsibility and community loyalty as important. Yet Tel Aviv in 2009 with its high rise buildings, booming economic development, high tech enterprises, frenetic stock exchange and an urgency to overcome all obstacles suggest that Herzl’s capitalism has triumphed over Borochov’s Marxism. Yet the spirit of political dissent has not been extinguished. All mass demonstrations take place in Tel Aviv — from support for the West Bank settlements to the legalisation of marijuana. In 1982, over 400,000 Israelis demonstrated against Menachem Begin’s ill-fated invasion of Lebanon. And it was here that Yitzhak Rabin was murdered by bullets from a beretta, following a Peace Now rally.

Tel Aviv is famously known as ha’ir ha’ivrit ha’rishona — the first (modem) Hebrew city. It is also, of course, where escapees from Nazi Germany propagated their belief in the Bauhaus, but the earlier streets — Berdichevsky, Bialik, Brenner — were all named after East European Jews in transition. They no longer belonged to the world of religious learning in Eastern Europe, but neither could they strip themselves of the traditions of millennia. Vladimir Jabotinsky, the liberal-conservative founder of the Revisionist movement and founder of the Jewish Legion, vigorously promoted the evolution of the ‘new Jew’ and the burial of the old. In 1924, he wrote:

The ghetto despised physical manhood, the principle of male power as understood and worshipped by all free peoples in history. Physical courage and physical force were of no use, prowess of the body rather an object of ridicule. The only true heroism of the Ghetto acknowledged was that of self-suppression and dogged obedience to the Will above.’

Jabotinsky’s political opponents, whether Ben-Gurion or Ahad Ha’am, also lauded the coming of the ‘new Jew’, moulded in their own image. In one sense, Tel Aviv, a city with no history, was to become the location where they should dwell and build.’ It was a place to innovate and to rebel. On the twentieth anniversary of its founding, Jabotinsky idealised it as ‘a city spoken about all over the world’.3 The poet Natan Alterman called it ‘naughty and mischievous, joyful and daring’.4 Its ‘whiteness’ and plethora of architectural styles attracted writers such as Shai Agnon and painters as Reuven Rubin.’

Today, Tel Aviv prides itself on its secularism, a place to disrobe religiously. Jews came to the city to shake off the past – a past often studded by persecution, insult and humiliation. It is a city where the little Jew could disappear and the Israeli warrior could emerge. The Israeli writer, Dahn Ben-Amotz insisted for many years that he did not understand Yiddish and held the Galut in utter contempt. Yet as he revealed later on in life, he was really Moshe Tehillimzager from Rovna, Poland.

Ironically, the founders of the first districts which eventually became Tel Aviv were traditional Jews. Neve Tsedek was established primarily as the first Jewish quarter on the outskirts of Jaffa just as there were other ethnic quarters such as the Armenian and the Greek. It abutted the German colony of Valhalla.

Prior to the first wave of immigration in the 1880s, probably 1000— 2000 Jews lived in Jaffa. Unlike the Jews of Jerusalem, these traditional mainly Sephardi Jews earned their own living through a multitude of professions rather than relying on halukah — donations for the pious from Jews abroad.

The first aliyah after 1882 brought another 5,000 Jews who lived in squalid conditions in Jaffa. In 1884, the Rokach brothers, Eliezer and Shimon, established Ezrat Israel to help the new immigrants. Both believed in Jewish settlement beyond the holy cities of Jerusalem, Hebron, Tiberias and Safed. Eleazar was thus one of the founders of Gei Oni (Rosh Pina). Ezrat Israel initiated the building of Neve Tsedek and acquired the land from Aaron Chelouche who had settled in Jaffa in 1840. Chelouche worked in his shop in the port and with the fruit of his labour purchased land outside Jaffa’s walls. It was appropriately named Neve Tsedek — ‘a dwelling of righteousness’ — from the Book of Jeremiah.’ Shimon Rokach lived in one of the first houses constructed there. It even boasted the presence of two synagogues – one for the Hasidim and one for their opponents.

Neve Shalom, the next Jewish settlement outside Jaffa was founded by Zerach Barnett, a graduate of Kovna’s Slobodka yeshiva.’ Barnett married Rachel Leah of London in 1864, settled in the British capital and developed a trade in furs.’ He and his family travelled to the Holy Land for the first time in 1872 and reached Jerusalem after a perilous journey via Ramie and Bab-el-Wad.’ Zerach Barnett purchased one of the first houses in Mea Shearim, the first neighbourhood outside the walls of Jerusalem.

Barnett was ultra-orthodox, yet was a Zionist before the first aliyah of 1882 and long before Pinsker and Herzl.” Ironically, Barnett has become part of secular Israeli folklore as one of the founders of Petah Tikva.” Indeed his deep desire to build in the Land of Israel was frowned upon by his fellow Jerusalemites as unseemly and unholy. His compatriots in London ridiculed him, asking if he had rebuilt Jerusalem yet. His daughter, Hannah Treger, recalled her father’s attempts in the 1870s to survey land near Jaffa for purchase – and the reaction of his fellow inhabitants in Mea Shearim.

But not all the faces I saw reflected the light in my father. There were faces of old men and faces of young men, framed all alike in black caps and earlocks and all equally intent on his words, but expressing various shades of doubt and even of contempt and displeasure. I did not know then, but I know now, that they disapproved of the whole scheme. In their eyes, the duty of a pious Jew was to study the Torah and to wait for the restoration of Palestine by miracle, and all this talk of buying land, piece by piece, and of building and farming, was little short of sinful.”

According to his daughter, Zerach Barnett believed that ‘God helps those who helps themselves’. Yet he remained true to the traditions of his fathers. Hannah Treger wrote that he was clearly disdainful of any ‘freethinkers who called themselves Jews, but in the eyes of our parents, were not.'” Barnett established a Talmud Torah, Sha’arei Torah in Neve Shalom in 1896 and founded the Or Zore’ah yeshiva in Jaffa.

The second aliyah after 1904 increased the number of Jaffa’s Jews to 7,000. This catalysed a desire not simply to create another Jewish quarter, albeit on Jaffa’s outskirts, but a separate location, removed, yet in close proximity to Jaffa and to the foreign consulates. A first meeting on 5 July 1906 at Jaffa’s Yeshurun Club made a decision to move away and to establish a building society, Ahuzat Bayit, under the leadership of Akiva Weiss” and Meir Dizengoff, was established to look for and purchase land. They soon found Sheikh Jebali’s vineyard.’ This land was worked and occasionally lived on by local Arabs. There were also bedouin who grew vegetables there and grazed their cattle. The bedouin objected to the intentions of the Zionists, went to court and won their case. They were subsequently paid to leave the land peacefully. Since only Ottoman citizens could purchase land, two Jewish inhabitants of Jaffa actually bought the land. In return, they received a plot of land in the new neighbourhood. Yet life in these new Jewish quarters was painfully hard.

Arthur Ruppin, later the World Zionist Organisation’s representative in Palestine, made his first visit to Palestine in 1907. As the archetypal yekker, he found both Neve Tsedek and Neve Shalom, dirty and neglected, while the German colonies were clean and efficient He wrote about Jaffa:

In the areas inhabited by Arabs and Jews, many houses were dilapidated or were still being built, and the rubbish-filled streets were unpaved or the surfaces marked with innumerable holes. There was no drainage, and therefore an unpleasant smell hung everywhere. There was no running water, and as water was obtained from draw wells or pumped up by hand from – frequently heavily contaminated – wells, every summer there were typhoid epidemics; trachoma and malaria were also widespread. The roads were lined with beggars, men and women (often holding children) whose eyes, sick with trachoma, were covered with flies.’

By July 1907, Ruppin was already requesting a loan of 300,000 francs from the Jewish National Fund in Cologne.” The loan, to be repaid over 18 years with 4% interest guaranteed on the capital, would be paid to Ahuzat Bayit to build the first houses that would become Tel Aviv. Since Arab labour was cheaper than Hebrew labour, they were employed to build the first 50 homes. These were ready by 1910.

Various names were suggested for this new settlement including Herzliya and Yefe Yafo (Oasis of Jaffa). The name, Tel Aviv, was proposed by Menachem Sheinkin after the title of Nahum Sokolov’s Hebrew translation of Herzl’s book, Altneuland. Set twenty years hence in 1923, its futuristic and utopian sentiment seemed appropriate. Ironically, Tel Aviv (Abib) was originally a village of Jewish exiles in Babylonia near the River Chebar, which was visited by the Prophet Ezekiel.”

The first public building was the Herzliya high school where its pupils studied the cultural values of Europe interspersed with Jewish history.” It was paid for by another British Jew, Jacob Moser, a one-time mayor of Bradford” and also served as a cultural centre for the growing community.

Herzl Street became the central thoroughfare of Tel Aviv. The settlement expanded at an astounding rate, amalgamating Neve Tsedek and Neve Shalom as well as other districts such as Machane Yosef, , Kerem Hateimanim and Ohel Moshe. Within four years, it had increased its area sixfold and effectively blocked the expansion of Jaffa northwards.Yet despite its desire to strike out, it held close to the east European model and its Jews still worked in Jaffa. Although they did not want Tel Aviv to resemble, Whitechapel-on-sea, there were no building regulations and each built according to his taste and means. The well-to-do tended to populate the north of the city and in the south was the Hatilcva quarter which was the residence of the poverty stricken. It was only when the British arrived at the end of 1917 that the city began to develop properly and Allenby Street became the main artery.

By the 1920s, there were so many different styles that such anarchy in planning not only gave Tel Aviv a distinctive character, but also its newly established municipal authorities great heartache. In 1925, Sir Patrick Geddes, the revamper of Edinburgh was asked to submit a blueprint for the city’s development. Geddes fixed the main traffic routes through the city from north to south along Dizengoff and Ben-Yehuda. He stipulated that there should be no buildings more than three floors high and they should face westward.

The boundaries of the city were the Mediterranean, Jaffa and the German colony of Samna. From these small beginnings, an “ir metropolinit” – a modem metropolis grew. The first inhabitants were both dreamers and realists. As one of the earliest inhabitants of Tel Aviv wrote in 1910:

Can anyone living in Europe imagine with what a sense of pride and liberation we residents of Tel Aviv draw our breath? In the eyes of the tourist who visits our city and is shown Tel Aviv as a sight worth seeing, I always read astonishment Of course our Tel Aviv is small and has modest little houses; but it is ours, and here we are entre nous.


  1. Vladimir Jabotinsky’s introduction to Chaim Nachman Bialik: Poems from the Hebrew ed. by LV. Snowman (London 1924).
  2. Natan Harpaz, Shel Shanot Hashloshim be-Tel Aviv in Tel Aviv be-reshitah 1909-1934 (Jerusalem 1984) ed. Mordechai Naor pp.91-106.
  3. Vladimir Jabotinsky, Tel Aviv Zu: Al Shum Ivlah? Doar Hayom 10 April 1929.
  4. From Diana in Natan Alterman’s Little Tel Aviv (Tel Aviv 1979).
  5. Delia Manor, Art in Zion: The Genesis of Modern National Art in Jewish Palestine (London 2005) pp.119-121.
  6. Jeremiah 31:23 ‘Thus said the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel: Yet shall they utter this word again in the land of Judah and in the cities there. When I will tum their captivity: The Lord bless you, o dwelling of righteousness, O mountain of holiness’.
  7. Zerach Barnett, Zikhronot (Jerusalem 1929) p.1.
  8. Jerusalem Post 19 September 2008.
  9. Zerach Barnett Zikhronot (Jerusalem 1929) p.7.
  10. Zerach Barnett was one of the two English delegates to the founding conference of Hovevei Zion in Katowice in November 1884.
  11. Avraham Ya’ari wrote about Barnett and the founding of Petah Tikva in Zikhronot Eretz Yisrael (Ramat Gan 1974. Yoram Tahar-Lev utilised it to write HaBalada al YoeI Moshe Saloman which was sung by Arik Einstein as a popular song of the 1970s.
  12. Hannah Treger, Stories of the First Pioneers in Palestine (London 1923) p.5.
  13. Ibid. p,39.
  14. Akiva Arieh Weiss, Kaysud nosud ‘Ahuzat Bayit’ (Tel Aviv 1934) in Tel Aviv be-reshitah 1909-1934 (Jerusalem 1984) ed. Mordechai Naor pp.2-3.
  1. Karm al-Jabali in Arabic and Kerem Jebali in Hebrew.
  2. Arthur Ruppin, Memoirs, Diaries, Letters ed. Alex Rein (London 1971) p.90.
  3. Ibid. pp.120-121.
  4. Ezekiel 3:15,
  5. The Hezliya High School was demolished in 1958 and the Shalom Tower built on its site three years later.
  6. Jacob Moser gave 80,000 francs towards the construction of the school in 1907. This was the largest philanthropic donation to the Zionist cause before 1914.
  7. Ya’akov Shavit and Gideon Biger, ha-Historiyah shel Tel-Aviv (Tel Aviv 2001) p.23.
  8. Sarah Leah, ‘Tel Awiw: Der Hilgel des Fallings’, in Palestina: Eine Werbeschrift fur die jüdische 24, Arbeit in Erez Israel, published by the Zionist Central Office in Cologne, 1910, quoted in Joachim Schlar’s Tel Aviv: From Dream to City (London 1999) p.48.

Jewish Year Book 2009 5769-5770


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