The Birth of a City – Tel Aviv “The White City” – Act One

Did you ever wonder how a city came to be? Why was it built in a certain place and in a

The First Tel Aviv Municipality Building

certain way? Why did it develop? Why didn’t it develop? Like many things we take our cities for granted. However, should we?

In 2009, Tel Aviv celebrated its 100th birthday.  A hundred years is not a long time in a place like Israel where you have ancient cities that have existed for thousands of years, such as Jerusalem, Jaffa, Acre, Ceasaria, Zefat, Tiberias and more. Despite its relative youth, Tel Aviv has become one of the most important cities in Israel. Indeed, it rivals Jerusalem which is often called the spiritual capital of Israel while Tel Aviv is the seen as its commercial capital. How did this happen?  How was Tel Aviv conceived and developed? What made it into what it is today?

Historical Background for the Establishment of Tel Aviv

To answer these questions we need to go back in time to the end of the 19th century. The Jewish people were on the move and the modern Zionist movement was born. The dire circumstances under which the Jews were forced to live in Europe made it evident that they could not go one in the same manner.  Many Jews began to consider the Land of Israel as a place to settle. They were encouraged to turn their talents to farming and form agricultural settlements. In this manner, settlements such as Petach Tikvah, Rishon Lezion, Rehovot, Hadera and others sprouted up all over the land of Israel.  These settlements today are major Israeli cities. In addition to this, many Jews saw themselves as city dwellers and not farmers. At this time several brave souls dared to leave the protection of the walled ancient cities, establishing neighborhoods just outside the city. A few examples of this are Nachalat Shiva in Jerusalem, and Neve Zedek and Neve Shalom in Jaffa.

Obstacles

All new settlements had to overcome huge obstacles. The Land of Israel was governed by the Ottomans. The Ottoman Law did not allow for someone who was not an Ottoman citizen to own land. In order to buy land and register title in the land registry offices one had to prove in court who the real owners were, who the owners were of the plots adjacent to the land in question and that there were no objections to the sale. This was very difficult to do and it allowed anyone to just lay claim to a plot of land and extort funds.  Even though this claimant may have had no legal right to the land his bogus claim could delay the purchase and construction indefinitely, until the claim was heard in court. The only way to solve this was with “bakshish” (a bribe) to the government authorities and “compensation” to the bogus claimant.  This of course made buying land in the Land of Israel an expensive affair.  Even after the battle for title of the land was resolved the authorities did not always give permission to build.  In addition to this the Ottoman government did not look favorably on the establishments of Jewish settlements and they certainly did not want hordes of Jews from abroad settling in the Land of Israel.  And yet, that is just what happened.

Ahuzat Bayit and the beginning of Tel Aviv

In 1906, a group of Jews living in Jaffa decided to establish an organization that would purchase for them land adjacent to Jaffa on which they could build a neighborhood. This organization was called “Ahuzat Bayit”. Jaffa was a crowded, dirty city and they wanted out.  However, they were not farmers, but rather tradesmen, professionals and businessmen and they needed to live near a city.  For most of them this was to be a suburb of Jaffa, with single family houses, gardens, wide streets, running water, electricity and improved sanitary conditions. For a few, this was to be the start of a large cosmopolitan city, with schools, theaters, stores and coffee shops. That is just what Tel Aviv became.

See my next blog post to find out how this was achieved.

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