Tel Aviv – From Settlement to State

A tour of Tel Aviv, given by Yonatan K., written by Deena Levenstein

Tel Aviv from Jaffa
View of Tel Aviv from Jaffa

I stood in Jaffa with Yonatan K., my tour guide for the day, overlooking the Tel Aviv skyline.

“Imagine nothing there.”

I tried, but how does one imagine nothing in place of a booming city, north of which are even more vibrant cities and towns along the Israeli Mediterranean coastline?

Tel Aviv is a total success story, Yonatan said. It is humbling to think that in 1909 it was a bunch of sand dunes and today, with over 400,000 people living within its borders, it is the core of Israel’s economic, technological and, arguably, cultural life.

But could it actually be that I was feeling touched by Yonatan’s impassioned narratives about the city I couldn’t really relate to?

See, the truth about the Israeli population is that it’s split into two groups: those who prefer Tel Aviv, and those who prefer Jerusalem. And ideally one should not waive from their position on this most important of matters. (Although, to be honest, some of the greatest Israeli artists have admitted to having mixed feelings on the subject.)

As I had explained to Yonatan prior to our tour, I’m a Jerusalem gal and I was curious to see if he’d be able to instill any enthusiasm in me regarding the city he loves so much and, not coincidentally, calls home.

The auction of first plots for Tel Aviv

Tel Aviv - Founded on land purchased from Bedouins, north of the existing city of Jaffa. This photograph is of 1909 auction of the first lots. (Photo by Avraham Soskin)
Tel Aviv was founded on land purchased from Bedouins, north of the existing city of Jaffa. This photograph is of 1909 auction of the first lots. (Photo by Avraham Soskin)

So, remember that desolate sand dune? Now imagine, on April 11, 1909, 66 Jewish families gathered there to parcel out the land by lottery using seashells.

But this was not at all the beginning of Jewish settlement outside Jaffa…

Neve Tzedek – the first neighborhood outside ancient Jaffa

Neve Tzedek was the first Jewish settlement outside of Jaffa, founded in 1887. Today a gentrified neighborhood, the settlement was started by Aharon Shlush, an Algerian Jew who had had enough of the difficult living conditions in Jaffa. He decided to create a better option for the local Jews by purchasing land nearby and selling it to people for them to build homes.

The place was named Neve Tzedek which means “oasis of justice” from Jeremiah.

See Shlush’s home in the background of this photo:

Tel Aviv - His house is in the background.
Aharon Shlush’s home is in the background.

The neighborhood went through some difficult times when it did not feel safe to live there. But following 1948 and the founding of the State of Israel, it has become a progressively popular place for artists, with cultural centers such as the Susanne Dallal Center, opening there. The Russian wave of aliya (immigration) in particular has helped change the direction of this neighborhood into one of the most hip and cultural areas in Tel Aviv.

The German Templars

Over a bridge from Neve Tzedek, under which were train tracks, there was a settlement of German Templars which began in 1871. Unlike the Americans who arrived in Jaffa in 1866 and lived just north of Jaffa quite unsuccessfully for a short time, the Templars did their homework and came prepared with machinery for their livelihood and plans of how to succeed in the Holy Land.

Unfortunately their settlement was only successful until World War II broke out. It was clear that many of the German Templars were Nazis. For example, in a motor factory in Tel Aviv, one had to be a Nazi in order to work. There is clear documentation of Nazi activity in Bethlehem and the Galilee.

Tel Aviv - German Colony
The small, preserved building next to the modern skyscraper was the infamous factory where only Nazis were welcome.

And so the British deported the Templars to Australia. All that’s left is their distinctive buildings in Haifa, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

Tel Aviv - German Colony houses
German Colony houses

And back to Tel Aviv

Tel Aviv is the Hebrew title of Theodor Herzl’s book Altneuland (“Old New Land”). Aviv is Hebrew for spring, symbolizing renewal, and tel is a man-made mound accumulating layers of civilization built one over the other and symbolizing the ancient. It was found as a fitting name since it embraces the idea of a renaissance in the ancient Jewish homeland.

We ended the tour sitting (for my sake) on a cute bench on Rothschild Boulevard outside Independence Hall.

Tel Aviv - Rothschild Blvd
The bench

When plots were handed out to families in 1909, Meir and Zina Dizengoff acquired plot number 43. Meir Dizengoff went on to become the first mayor of Tel Aviv in 1911.

After his wife’s death, Dizengoff donated their house to the city. It housed the Tel Aviv Museum of Art for a few years, it was the location of the Declaration of Independence ceremony, and it since became a museum about the signing of the Israeli Declaration of Independence and the history of Tel Aviv-Jaffa.

Tel Aviv - Independence Hall - Photo by Avishai Teicher
Independence House (Photo by Avishai Teicher)

The declaration ceremony took place on May 14, 1948. This Friday afternoon ceremony was conducted by David Ben Gurion. People stood outside eagerly waiting to hear the name of this new state. The entire occurrence took 22 minutes and the State of Israel was founded.

Tel Aviv - Crowd outside Dizengoff House (now Independence Hall)
Crowd outside Dizengoff House (now Independence Hall) to hear declaration and signing of Israel’s Declaration of Independence in 1948 (Photo is creative commons)

And in conclusion…

It is clear that we only scratched the surface of Tel Aviv but it was exciting to see the places where so much of our history unfolded not so long ago, in a truly different era. Of course there is nothing like ascending back to Jerusalem but, it seems, Tel Aviv is indeed a place one can grow to love, or at the very least, begin to appreciate.

Historic dates from the tour

1866 – American Colony begins

1871 – German Templar Colony begins

1887 – Founding of Neve Tzedek, the first Jewish settlement in the area outside Jaffa

1892 – Train begins running between Jaffa and Jerusalem (a speedy four-hour ride in each direction) (stopped running in 1948)

April 11, 1909 – Founding of Tel Aviv (first called Achuzat Bayit)

May 14, 1948 – Founding of the State of Israel

About Yonatan K.

Thank you, Yonatan, for the tour of Jaffa (see last week’s post) and Tel Aviv.

Yonatan chose to take me to Jaffa and Tel Aviv because he loves the city as a resident and as someone who really appreciates the inspiring and humbling story of the founding and growth of this vibrant city on the coast.

Read more about him here.

All photos are by Deena Levenstein unless otherwise specified.


Deena Levenstein

Deena Levenstein is a writer and social-cultural entrepreneur in Jerusalem. She creates and hosts events and runs "Things to do in Jerusalem," a Facebook group of handpicked cultural events in the city. In her spare time she blogs at

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