Nicole Levin
Nicole Levin
Historic Preservation Lawyer

The riots that led to a new commercial district

This month marks the 100th anniversary of the Jaffa riots, also known in Hebrew as “Me’ora’ot Tarpa” (literally, Events of the year 5681, according to the Hebrew calendar).  On May 1, 1921, Jews marching in a May Day parade in Neve Shalom (a Jewish suburb of Jaffa established in 1890) were attacked by Arab residents of Jaffa. In the following days, riots spread across Jaffa and surrounding areas.  Jewish shops and homes in Jaffa were looted and burned; altogether 43 Jews lost their lives, and 134 Jews were injured.  Although this wasn’t the first violent event of its kind against Jews in Eretz Yisrael at that time, it was a devastating moment for the Jews of Jaffa and marked a paradigm shift in the way they looked at their Arab neighbors.


Jaffa was an important city in Eretz Yisrael. Although there was always a Jewish presence in the country, it was during the late 19th century, under the Ottoman Empire, that Jews began to officially immigrate to Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel), as individuals and in small groups, and later as part of the wider Zionist movement. Jaffa, nicknamed the “Gate of Aliyah to Eretz Israel”, absorbed many of these Jews. In the late nineteenth century Jews of Jaffa began to purchase land in the vicinity of Jaffa outside the walls of the old city (which had already been taken down in 1869) and establish separate Jewish neighborhoods (such as Neve Zedek, Neve Shalom and more). In 1906, at the beginning of the Second Aliyah, there were already 5000 Jews living in such neighborhoods.

At this time, the plan to establish Ahuzat Bayit, (a neighborhood about one kilometer from Jaffa that eventually became Tel Aviv), was conceived.   This initiative reflected the desire of Jews to live separately from the Arabs of Jaffa and run their affairs autonomously. The Second Aliyah also brought with it the idea of Hebrew Labor, which further encouraged segregation between Jews and Arabs in all aspects of daily life, from education and culture to economic activity and trade. In addition to this, there was a vast cultural divide between the Arabs of Jaffa and the Jews who immigrated to the Holy Land at that time. These Jewish immigrants did not speak Arabic, nor did they have an understanding of Eastern culture.

Despite growing tensions between Arabs and Jews, there were those who did not want to live outside the Arab neighborhoods of Jaffa and more importantly, wanted to take advantage of what Jaffa, as an international port city, could offer in terms of commerce and trade. They felt that it was unwise to relinquish Jewish political and economic power in this city.

Sowing the seeds

A few months after the riots, in August 1921, a group of local Jewish merchants purchased land south of the railway tracks and near the German Templar neighborhood of Walhalla (Sheikh Ali’s lands), and construction began on the “New Commercial Center” neighborhood shortly afterward. This new neighborhood differed from other Tel Aviv neighborhoods not only in the height of the houses and their proximity to each other, but contrary to contemporary planning policies which banned trade in residential areas, it included businesses, shops and offices, and not only residential buildings.  (In Ahuzat Beit, a neighborhood inspired by the ‘garden city’ concept, businesses and commerce were prohibited.  ​​Only a few shops were allowed on the outskirts, and most Jewish businesses were located in Jaffa. Other neighborhoods established on the heels of Ahuzat Bayit also implemented this strict ban on commercial activity in residential areas.)

The land for the New Commercial Center neighborhood was purchased very soon after the riots; therefore, many scholars believe that the two events are connected.  Historical documents contain indications that the riots caused Jews to rethink their connection and dependence on Jaffa as the main center of trade. In his biography on the life of Aharon Chelouche (one of the founders of Neve Zedek), Zvi Avraham Pomeruk states, “The idea was born following the abandonment of Arab Jaffa.”

However, the riots of 1921 were not the first violent clashes between Jews and Arabs in the Yishuv. These events were preceded by other attacks against Jews in the Galilee, Jerusalem and even in Jaffa. Was Jewish sentiment toward Jaffa the only reason for the relocation of Jewish businesses from Jaffa to Tel Aviv?

From vision to reality

Menachem Gilutz, one of the founders of Ahuzat Bayit, played a key role in the establishment of the New Commercial Center. A member of the Tel Aviv Committee, he first heard about the possibility of purchasing the Sheikh Ali lands in 1920 and pushed for the establishment of a separate commercial center.  He believed it was important to have a separate Jewish commercial center closer to Tel Aviv.

Though there was initial opposition to his idea, he did not give up.  On January 10, 1921, several months before the riots, he convened a group of Jewish business owners at his home; this group decided to establish the New Commercial Center Company and purchase the Sheikh Ali lands. Although not everyone present at that meeting agreed with the plan, many of these objectors changed their mind and came on board after the Arab riots of May 1921.

Each member paid a small down payment. The Tel Aviv Committee agreed to act as an intermediary between the landowner and the purchasers and help facilitate the purchase of the land on behalf of the merchants. Negotiations lasted several months, and a contract of sale was signed in August 1921. Sheikh Ali’s lands included 49 dunams divided into 151 plots of 185 square meters. Later, this area expanded to several hundred dunams with the purchase of additional tracts of land to the north (30 dunams in Pardes Malek and additional land owned by Shmuel Moyal, a wealthy Jewish landowner, east of this plot) as well as Pardes Reliani and Pardes Jibali to the southeast. The houses were connected to each other, with common walls, facing the street with a backyard; 50% of the lot was used for construction (compared with 30% in the rest of Tel Aviv).

In his memoirs, Gilutz explains that establishment of the neighborhood was motivated by economic motives and Zionist principles as well as urban planning considerations. Quoting Deuteronomy 11:24: ‘Every place where you set your foot will be yours,’ Gilutz comments, ‘’For this to happen, you have to take action… Many did not believe it was possible to leave Jaffa, the big city with its port and international commerce, and establish a commercial center near the small neighborhood of Tel Aviv. Men of faith and courage were needed to see that everything that was being built in Eretz Yisrael was part of the national mission.’’

From an economical point of view, most of the Jewish businesses were located on Bustros Street (now Raziel Street), and the Arab-Christian landowners demanded high rental fees. Although Sheikh Ali’s lands were close to Tel Aviv, they were not within its formal boundaries and therefore Tel Aviv regulations regarding the prohibition of trade in residential neighborhoods were not applicable. Security-wise, the purchase of Sheikh Ali’s lands south of the railroad would enable a connection to Jewish neighborhoods that had already been built south of Jaffa — such as the isolated neighborhood of Bayit VaGan (now Bat Yam)– by bypassing Arab Jaffa on its eastern side.

As mentioned above, there were those who were against this initiative. They argued that Jaffa was an important city, economically and politically, and it would be a mistake to abandon it to Arab hands. They felt that a Jewish presence in Jaffa was important.  Moreover, they claimed that trade should be conducted in an international environment, such as the port city of Jaffa and close to Christian and Arab neighborhoods, and Tel Aviv should be preserved as a garden city, for residence and relaxation, in accordance with the vision of its founders.

Another development that perhaps accelerated the relocation of Jewish commercial life from Jaffa to Tel Aviv was the establishment of the Tel Aviv Township in June 1921 by the new British mandate government. This step enabled the Jews to manage the affairs of their city autonomously. Soon after, the Jewish neighborhoods that were established south of Jaffa until 1906 became part of the Tel Aviv Township.

Tel Aviv grows and thrives.

Tel Aviv’s commercial and business area was developed according to standards acceptable in business areas in other cities around the world. The center of Jewish trade and commercial activity in the region moved from Jaffa to Tel Aviv, specifically along Herzl Street, which was Ahuzat Bayit’s original ‘main street.’ With time, residences along Herzl Street were taken over by offices, or demolished and rebuilt as office buildings. A second floor was added to some buildings and ground floors were converted into shops. A similar process began in Nahalat Binyamin, which also became a main business street.

Allenby Street gradually became the undisputed center of business. Herzl Street was still a place of commerce but at the end of a working day, residents flocked to Allenby Street. The Carmel Market was established; stores were concentrated on Herzl, Nahalat Binyamin and Allenby streets (from the seafront to Montefiore Street). From that point, up to Hamoshavot Square, businesses were still prohibited well into the 1930s. Other, quieter parts of the city were residential in nature; with elegant houses built on the east side of Allenby Street, on Rothschild Blvd. and on Nachmani and Montefiore streets. More modest neighborhoods, of teachers and clerks, were established on the northern side of the city.

The establishment of the New Commercial Center brought with it further development. Just south of this neighborhood the neighborhood of Florentin was established in 1927. The neighborhood of Neve Sha’anan was established shortly afterwards on lands east of the New Commercial Center. The basis for this neighborhood was the construction of small homesteads on which fruit and vegetables could be grown and sold at the markets in Tel Aviv. One such modern market “Shuk Ha’aliya”, where the goods were sold indoors in a sanitary fashion, was built adjacent to the two neighborhoods of the New Commercial Center and Neve Sha’anan. Jaffa-Tel Aviv Road  which led down to Jaffa from the Jewish agricultural settlements such as  Petah Tikva and Rishon LeZion, became a major bus route.

Tel Aviv absorbed 50% of the immigrants of the Fourth Aliyah. After the riots of 1921, immigrants preferred to come to Tel Aviv rather than settle in Jaffa and its environs. These immigrants were city-dwellers, artisans and merchants, mostly from Poland, who were not interested in becoming farmers.  In 1919, on the eve of the Third Aliyah the population of Tel Aviv was only 1,940, but by 1923, it had grown to 15,554.  By 1936 there were 150,000 residents in Tel Aviv, making it the largest city in Eretz Yisrael at that time.

During this period, the number of factories in the city increased, as did trade. The number of stores increased from 691 in 1924 to 939 in 1925, and Tel Aviv was responsible for over 70% of the retail trade of the entire country. By 1925 there were eighteen bank branches in the city. The construction industry prospered too: investments in this sector in Tel Aviv tripled between 1924-1925.

The riots of May 1921 against the Jews took place at a time when the Jews did not govern Eretz Yisrael. They were dependent on the good will of the British– the lords of the land at that time. Before that, Jews were at the mercy of the Ottomans who upheld an antiquated, feudal regime. Both these regimes, as well as the Arab population, created many hurdles for the Jews who were committed to building a national homeland.  The buildings and neighborhoods of those times tell a story of great sacrifice and admirable courage. It is therefore imperative that they be preserved and their legacy be passed on to future generations.

All pictures by Nicole Levin

About the Author
Nicole is one of very few real estate lawyers in Israel who specializes in the restoration and preservation of historic buildings. For over thirty years, she has supported clients in Israel and abroad in complex real estate projects that include property transactions of all types; development and planning; investment and tax issues; and project management. Her expertise in historic restoration enables her to advise entrepreneurs and investors in all aspects of conservation and preservation, such as legislation, economic incentives, modern building preservation technologies, and legal processes and documentation. She has an LL. B from Bar Ilan University and passed the Israeli bar exam in 1983. In addition, she earned a B.A. in Conservation Studies from the Western Galilee College in Akko and an M.A. in Preservation and Development of Landscape and Cultural Assets from the Bar Ilan University.
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