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Meir Dizengoff

(1861 - 1936)

There is almost no major personality in Israel that doesn't have a street in Tel Aviv named after them; and there’s almost no community which symbolizes something in the life of the Jewish people that doesn't have a street named for it in Tel Aviv. Initially, streets were not given official names, but were called variously by early residents. Eventually, however, street names became another way of marking the city as Hebrew, and the names were often drawn from Jewish history or important personalities in contemporary Jewish Life.

One of the sanctioned sites in Tel Aviv is Dizengoff Street. Having an almost mythic ability to announce the city’s essence, Dizengoff Street is an example of how a street has become instantiated in a city’s collective memory.

Meir Dizengoff, the first mayor of Tel Aviv (from 1911 until his death in 1936) was once described as a man who could reminisce about the future. With faith and vision, he saw the future in a way that made it real, and pointed Tel Aviv in that direction. One day he invited the media to the opening of the new port. Hundreds of reporters arrived. They saw nothing but water, sand, and blue sky. Dizengoff took a stick and hammered it into the sand. There was nothing but water, sand, blue sky and a stick. Dizengoff stood before the crowd. He began by saying: "Ladies and Gentlemen, I can still remember the day when Tel Aviv had no port."

Faith, for Dizengoff, was seeing something so vividly that it became real. This was how he envisioned the city that is, to many, garish and ungainly, but fully embodies the essence of Dizengoff's dreams. The main street in today's sprawling city received his name in 1934, until then it was called 187 Street. The slang - Le'Hizdangef - expresses the pleasure of 'going out on the town' on 3 km long Dizengoff Street. This is not merely a commercial place, but an emotional space, bearing a cosmopolitan presence mingled with pioneering memories. Often compared to Broadway and Sunset Boulevard, Dizengoff Street merges the ambiance of a gracious European boulevard with the needs of contemporary Israel.

The city of Tel Aviv and the State of Israel share a birthplace. Meir Dizengoff was a central figure in both these major events. In 1909, sixty-six families gathered on the sandy shoreline to divide up lots of what was to become Tel Aviv. Meir Dizengoff, the civic leader who would be the city's first mayor, led the struggle for the new neighborhood to gain independence from Jaffa. Following this independence, Dizengoff established the first municipal police force in Tel Aviv, including 25 police. He built his home on those dunes and after the death of his wife Zinia, he donated it to the Tel Aviv Art Museum.

Destiny and history filled Dizengoff's home as the State of Israel was declared on May 14, 1948 in the simple stucco building, now called Independence Hall (located at 16 Rothschild Blvd). Two thousand years of exile ended in the celebration there. Today, in the main hall of the house, visitors can hear a recording of Ben-Gurion reading the Charter for the new State. The festivities, sadly, were short lived, because by the next morning Arab armies were invading and the Egyptian Air Force was bombing Tel Aviv.

Born in Akimovici near Orgeyev, Bessarabia in 1861, Dizengoff was active in Russian revolutionary circles in his youth, and was arrested in l885. Later he became active in the Hibbat Zion movement. During the late 1880s he studied chemical engineering in France, specializing in glass production and was sent to Eretz Yisrael in 1892 by Baron Edmond de Rothschild to establish a glass factory at Tantura (Dor) to supply bottles for the wines produced in the settlements. The factory, however, was closed in 1894 when it became clear that the local sand was unsuitable. During his stay in Erez Yisrael, Dizengoff together with others, tried to form a Jewish workers' organization.

Returning to Russia in 1897, he settled in Odessa, went into business and became active in the Zionist movement. He participated in Zionist Congresses and was among the opponents of the Uganda Scheme. Dizengoff was a founder of the Gulah Company, formed in 1904 to purchase land in Erez Yisrael. As director of the company he returned to Eretz Yisrael in 1905 and settled in Jaffa.

Dizengoff was one of the founders of the Ahuzat Bayit Company, organized to establish a modern Jewish quarter near the Arab city of Jaffa in 1909. A lottery was held for the first 60 lots. Five years later the Gymnasia Herzliya high school was established at the center of the "first Hebrew city," which made it the Mecca of the living Hebrew language, the Hebrew press, theater and literature. The suburb's name was converted to Tel Aviv (a romantic name meaning 'Hill of Spring'), chosen because of its associations with rebirth and revitalization, also because it revealed the vision of Ezekiel 3:15 and chosen by Nahum Sokolow as the title of his Hebrew translation of Herzl's novel Altneuland.

In 1911, Dizengoff was elected head of the local council. At the outbreak of WWI, Dizengoff headed a committee that assisted war sufferers and refugees. However, the Turkish authorities expelled him to Damascus, where he remained until the conquest of northern Palestine by the British at the end of 1918. In 1919, Dizengoff founded Ha-Ezrah, The Citizen, a first attempt to politically organize the non-labor middle class. He was a member of the Zionist executive during 1917-19, and ran its trade and industry department. Later, when Tel Aviv became a city in 1921, Dizengoff was elected its first mayor and, except for the years 1925-8, he served as mayor of Tel Aviv until the end of his life in 1937. At that time the population of the city totaled 160,000. Upon the outbreak of the Arab riots in 1936, Dizengoff urged that the government offices be opened in Tel Aviv and succeeded in establishing a separate port at Tel Aviv, independent of Jaffa and its port.

Dizengoff's vision for the city was a contradictory one: he emphasized the city's newness, modernity and epistemological distance from the Diaspora. He explicitly rejected the golah (exile), yet was ideologically driven to represent and interpret the past. His memoirs, published in 1931 were titled: Im Tel Aviv ba-GolahWith Tel Aviv in Exile.

Dizengoff was one of the major initiators and dedicated supporters of cultural and bohemian life in Israel. A highly spiritual, yet social individual he encouraged cultural life in all its variations. Tel Aviv has, from the start, followed Dizengoff's life interests: it became the center of a tumultuous cultural life. Artists and writers saw themselves as the vanguard of a secular Hebrew culture; cultural movements replaced one another in turn.

Ninety years later, once known for its vibrant Histadrut and Labor Party institutions, Tel Aviv today is the nerve center of finance and business. It is considered so dynamic by international standards that Newsweek recently sited it as being one of the three 'hot new tech' cities outside the United States, the other two being Cambridge, England and Bangalore, India. Some say that the Silicon Valley's most serious global competitor is the mini-sprawl around Tel Aviv. A magnet, it also attracts people from poor countries as well as those from Israeli towns looking for opportunities to make it big. There are about 80,000 foreign workers, as well as homeless in the white city.

At this time Tel Avivians are now beginning to ask what kind of community they have created. Although they may lack interest in the old Zionist collective, the current sense of helping each other and moral outrage at injustice might bring young Tel Avivians around full circle to the dream that motivated the 60 founding families, including the visionary, Meir Dizengoff.

Sources: Doing Zionism: World Zionist Ogranization Department for Zionist Activities