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Tel Aviv: From Spring Hill to Independence

After the start of the First Aliyah in 1882, the Jewish community of Jaffa, the main port of entry to Ottoman Palestine, grew fivefold or more (to about 6,000) in the space of a few years. Two new Jewish neighborhoods — Neve Zedeq and Neve Shalom — were founded before the end of the century; several others followed before the Second Aliyah began in 1904–1905; this new wave exacerbated the housing shortage.

In 1906, a group of middle-class Jaffa Jews organized a voluntary Homebuilders Society to build a new Jewish garden suburb outside town. Soon after they renamed their group Ahuzzat Bayit — “Homestead.” About five hectares of dunes northeast of Jaffa were purchased and divided into 60 plots. On Apr. 11, 1909 — the date observed as the birthday of the new town ever since — the society’s members held a picnic at the site and conducted a lottery to apportion the plots among them.

Within a year, Herzl, Ahad Ha‘am, Judah Halevi, Lilienblum, and Rothschild Streets had been laid out, pipes laid for running water, and the 66 houses (six of the plots had been subdivided) completed; a site at the end of Herzl St. was set aside for a new building for the Herzliyya Hebrew high school, founded in Jaffa in 1906. Shortly thereafter, on May 21, 1910, the householders renamed their settlement “Tel Aviv” — “Spring Hill.” Their immediate inspiration was the title that Nahum Sokolow had given to his Hebrew translation of Herzl’s utopian romance, Altneuland. Sokolow, who borrowed the name from Ezekiel 3:15, thought of tel — a heap of ancient ruins — as corresponding to alt ‘old’; and of spring as conveying the idea of rebirth latent in neu ‘new’.

By 1914, after the addition of several new neighborhoods, the area of the suburb had grown to more than 100 hectares, the number of houses had tripled, and the population had increased almost sevenfold, to around 2,000.

World War I and the Ottoman authorities’ suspicion of the large unnaturalized Jewish immigrant population put an abrupt halt to the town’s growth. Finally, as the British Army approached Palestine, the Ottomans expelled the Jews from both Jaffa and Tel Aviv (Mar. 28, 1917). Eight months later, after the British forces occupied the area, the refugees (most of whom had been living in the Jewish agricultural colonies of the interior) were able to return home.

Two major watershed events took place in May 1921: On May 1, Arab rioters began a pogrom in Jaffa, which took the lives of 47 Jews. The Arabs won the battle — to get the Jews out of central Jaffa — but lost the war: the Jewish mass migration to Tel Aviv, which left Jaffa almost devoid of Jewish residents and especially commercial interests, provided an important stimulus to the economic growth of the Jewish city.

On May 11, the British Mandatory authorities gave Tel Aviv “town council” status, which included the right to set up a local police force and local court. The next year, the Jewish neighborhoods of northern Jaffa were transferred to Tel Aviv, whose population reached 15,000.

The boom continued with the advent of the Fourth Aliyah, mainly central European bourgeois; by 1925 Tel Aviv was a bustling city of 34,000. Cultural life was professionalized with the establishment of the Ohel theater and the decision by Habimah, founded in Moscow in 1918, to make Tel Aviv its permanent home (1931). The economic slowdown of 1927–30 kept the growth from continuing. But after the Nazis came to power in Germany, the Fifth Aliyah (mainly 1933–35) flooded Tel Aviv, whose population skyrocketed—from 45,564 in 1931 to 120,000 in 1935 and 150,000 in 1937 (“mother” Jaffa, mostly Arab, had only 69,000 residents in that year).

On May 12, 1934, Tel Aviv officially received municipal status. The gardens of Ahuzzat Bayit had disappeared, but the city was the undisputed heart of Jewish Palestine in every major realm — economic, financial, cultural, and even political. Of the major institutions of the Yishuv, only the Chief Rabbinate and Jewish Agency were in Jerusalem. In 1936, the Tel Aviv port was opened to provide an entrance to the country that would be in exclusively Jewish hands. By 1939, Tel Aviv had 160,000 residents — slightly more than a third of the Jewish population of Eretz Israel.

When the War of Independence broke out, Tel Aviv’s population had swelled to 210,000 (in part because of the annexation of additional Jewish neighborhoods of Jaffa). The city was shelled continually from Arab Jaffa until forces of the Irgun Z’vai Leumi (Etzel) and Haganah effectively surrounded the old town and most of its residents fled. Once again the watershed events took place in May: On May 13, 1948, the remaining Arabs of Jaffa capitulated; the next day, the Jewish State of Israel proclaimed its independence in the municipal museum — the former home of the city’s first mayor, Meir Dizengoff.

The process soon came full circle: in 1950, Tel Aviv and Jaffa were merged and the city adopted the official name Tel Aviv–Yafo.

Sources: Israel Yearbook & Almanac 1999, pp. 11-12.