When 66 families gathered among the sand dunes of Ottoman Palestine in April 1909, they might have thought they were part of something big. They were, after all, Zionist pioneers trying to reshape Jewish history. But they were also a tiny anomaly. The modern Zionist movement was less than 12 years old, not even old enough for its bar mitzvah. The vast majority of the world’s Jews was far away—as far away, it seemed, as the reality of these Zionists’ utopian dreams. Surely few among the 66 families could have imagined just how significant their legacy would be. Yet whether they knew it or not, these people were about to build history.
Residents’ meetings don’t normally go like this.
The plan was to build a modern, Jewish suburb of Jaffa. One of the oldest ports in the world, Jaffa is from where the prophet Jonah departs on his whale-fated voyage in the Old Testament. Despite its biblical pedigree, for centuries the port remained small. In the 1860s, Jaffa had some 5,000 residents, about a fifth of which were Jews. Then as a result of the first aliyah of Jewish immigrants to Palestine (1882-1903) and the second aliyah (1904-14), Jaffa’s population swelled. It quickly became the cultural and educational capital of the Zionist settlement in Palestine, which was known as the Yishuv. Although Jews built two new neighborhoods, Newe Shalom and Newe Zedek, in Jaffa, the city was unpleasantly overcrowded.
So inspired by the English “garden suburb” concept, a group of Jews decided they would build a new neighborhood north of the ancient city. They would call it Ahuzat Bayit, which means “homestead,” and it would be modern and forward-looking, like Zionism itself.
In order to fairly allocate the land they had bought, the families decided to hold a lottery. The lottery chairman, Akivah Arieh Weiss, a watchmaker and jeweler born in Lodz in Russian Poland, assembled 66 gray seashells, on which he wrote plot numbers, and 66 white shells, on which he wrote names. As he drew each gray and white shell, Weiss determined where each family would build their lot. The 66 homes would soon house about 550 Jews. And these people would build the world’s first modern Hebrew city.
About a year after the lottery, having drilled a water well and built houses and roads, Ahuzat Bayit was renamed Tel Aviv, which means Spring Hill. The name was both a biblical reference—the prophet Ezekiel refers to a Tel Aviv in Babylonia—and a political gesture, as Tel Aviv is the Hebrew title of the book “Altneuland” by modern Zionism’s founder Theodor Herzl. In the utopian novel, Herzl describes a Zionist state in the ancestral Jewish homeland. Within ten years of its publication the founders of Tel Aviv were working to make this vision a reality.
Their work was interrupted in 1917, when the Turkish authorities that ran Ottoman Palestine forced the Jews to leave Jaffa and Tel Aviv. But when the British won World War One and became the imperial power in Palestine through their British Mandate (1918-48), Jews were permitted to return and continue developing the town. The city grew with further Jewish immigration. But this was a time of increasing tension between Arabs and Zionists. In 1921, Arabs rioted in Jaffa and attacked the Jewish population, leading thousands of Jews to flee to Tel Aviv. That year Tel Aviv, which by 1921 was home to some 40,000 Jews, gained township status.
In 1923, Tel Aviv became the first community in Palestine to get electricity. That year Meir Dizengoff, who had been at the sand dune lottery in 1909, became the city’s first mayor. He quickly developed an outsized reputation as a man who each day would ride a horse around the rapidly growing city.
The growth of the city gained aesthetically from the barbarity of Germany. When the Nazis closed the pioneering Bauhaus art school in 1933, many Jewish architects fled the country for Palestine. In Tel Aviv they built some three thousand buildings in the Bauhaus style, for which Tel Aviv was named a UNESCO world heritage site in 2004. By 1933 the population of Tel Aviv had outgrown that of Jaffa to become not only the most important center of Jewish life in the Yishuv, but the largest and most important city in Palestine.
As the situation in Europe worsened, more and more Jews fled to Palestine despite British and Arab attempts to suppress immigration. Tel Aviv became a center of Jewish resistance to British anti-immigration policies and by 1936, about 130,000 people called it home.
While they were being slaughtered in Europe, in Palestine the Jewish people were fighting for the basic rights they had been denied for generations elsewhere. Zionism, the Jewish national liberation movement, was nothing short of a revolution. And nowhere was more central to its mission than Tel Aviv.
In 1932, Tel Aviv was host to the first ever Jewish Olympic Games. The city hosted the Levant Fair, the Jewish community’s first international exhibition, in 1934. In 1936, the first port of the Zionist project was built in Tel Aviv, where Jewish longshoremen schlepped cement to built Hebrew households in the city and other Zionist communities. The first international flight in Palestine took off from Tel Aviv to Beirut in 1938.
The city grew and grew, quicker and quicker. It became the largest economic center in Palestine, with the most cultural institutions, and developed a reputation as an international city of modern cafes, clubs and concerts.
When David Ben-Gurion declared the independence of the State of Israel on May 14, 1948, it was in Tel Aviv—near the very spot where, less than 40 years before, the families drew lots in the sand. The city by then was home to more than 250,000 people and, when five Arab armies invaded Israel, served as the fledgling Jewish state’s military command center. In the course of fighting, Jewish and Arab forces clashed in Tel Aviv and Jaffa, from where many Arabs fled or were expelled. After the war, Israeli authorities formally merged the two communities as Tel Aviv-Yafo in 1950.
Today Tel Aviv is a thriving city of leafy boulevards, thriving businesses and packed beaches beyond perhaps even the hopes of Herzl. It is also testament to the endeavor and accomplishments of Zionism and its early pioneers, those 66 families captured in a black and white photo of the spring day in 1909 they founded the Middle East’s most dynamic modern city. This event is commemorated at the intersection of Nahalat Binyamin and Rothschild Boulevard, where the city’s Founders’ Monument pays tribute to the 66 names that drew lots and built history. It is thanks to them and similarly minded pioneers, that Zionism conquered a land and freed a long-suffering people. And there is no greater testament to this historic achievement than the fact that between the golden sand and azure sea stands the white city of Tel Aviv.