While the history of Jerusalem is a grand biblical epic, the making of Tel Aviv is a modern short story centred on drive and ambition coupled with town planning blunders.
Tel Aviv was begun by small groups of Jews who wished to migrate from the cramped and unsanitary confines of long-established, predominantly Arab Jaffa. Initially they settled in two small communities, Neve Tzedek (1886) and Neve Shalom (1890), among the dunes on the sandy coastal plain just north of the Arab town. Before long they were joined by another 60 families who were led by Meir Dizengoff, an ambitious figure who had plans to create a major Jewish town.
Taking as a model the English garden city, several town planners were invited to submit schemes for the new town. The plan adopted was that of Professor Boris Schatz, founder of the Bezalel Art School in Jerusalem. It centred on what is now Herzl St and the new town was given the name Tel Aviv (Hill of Spring), from a reference in Ezekiel 3:15.
Progress on the new town was briefly halted when the Turks broke up the settlement and expelled the Jews from the area, but with the British victory in WWI, development was permitted to continue. Arab riots in Jaffa in 1921 sent many Jews fleeing for Tel Aviv, swelling the numbers from a founding 550 people in 65 homes to an outsized 40, 000 inhabitants.
The town grew quickly to accommodate the newcomers, but the development was on occasion a little eccentric. Allenby St, for instance, planned as the new main thoroughfare, was meant to run north-south parallel to the seafront but it was diverted in order to reach a coffeehouse on the beach. The Neve Shanan district in the south was planned in the shape of the seven-branched menorah merely because of the associated Jewish symbolism. And the immigrants kept coming. The 1930s saw waves of arrivals from overseas, many fleeing the threat of Nazi Germany.
When war did break out in 1939, Tel Aviv played host to about two million Allied troops. It also became a centre of the Zionist resistance against Britain’s anti-immigration policies. In 1948, as the British pulled out, Jewish forces attacked Jaffa and after bloody fighting most of the Arab population fled, leaving the old town in Israeli hands.
All this was a far cry from the English garden city envisaged just 40 years earlier.
Tel Aviv’s growth in the 1960s and ’70s sent it crashing into other cities, turning neighbours such as Ramat Gan and Holon into virtual suburbs of the greater municipality. Early restrictions on the height of buildings had to be amended when authorities realised the only place to go was up. Skyscraper development began in earnest in the 1980s, and with it came a hi-tech boom. Development in this area did not go unrecognised and Newsweek recently called Tel Aviv one of the world’s top 10 tech cities. Investment, however, was hampered in the 1990s by a wave a suicide bomb attacks that targeted buses, cafés and nightclubs. The second intifada (2001–05) left Tel Aviv virtually devoid of foreign visitors. But investment still flows, sometimes in a big way: in 2006 Donald Trump announced the construction of a new 70-storey building in Ramat Gan. Despite its vibrancy and upward movements, Tel Aviv is at heart a low-key city, much of its centre still dominated by unobtrusive Bauhaus architecture. In 2003 Unesco recognised this and bequeathed the ‘White City’ with world heritage status.