The fascinating history of cities is enriched by the legends surrounding them, not to mention curious urban legends. We all know that Rome wasn’t built in a day; rather, it was established by Romulus and Remus. Alexander the Great established Alexandria in a legendary ceremony, after consulting with the Oracle of Siwaa. Many cities are famous for legendary events that took place in their realms, for example, according to the Greek legend, Andromeda was saved from the sea monster by her future lover, Perseus, just off the coast of Jaffa.
Modern cities have inspired legends as well. It is often said that Tel Aviv sprung up from the sands, out of nothing. There are those who scoff at this claim, perhaps even attempt to prove that it is false; other believe it, literally.
Tel Aviv was officially founded in 1909. That year, in the month of April, a group of people stood on the sands, on the spot of the envisioned neighborhood, and drew lots for the various plots of land on which the houses would be constructed. According to the one story, a man who was walking by taunted them, saying that they were crazy to think that they would be successful in their endeavors. In fact, armed with a fervent vision and unwavering determination, they had already ensured their success for the years to come.
The idea to build the town began several years before, in 1906. A group of Jewish residents of Jaffa who were looking for a better and healthier way of life decided to come together to build a community nearby. They were mainly middle-class businessmen and professionals; many of them were new olim from Europe and some were born and bred in Jaffa or elsewhere in what was then called “Palestine.” After debates on the place and the character of the planned neighborhood, they chose a plot of land that was for sale about a half a kilometer from Jaffa.
Negotiations with the owners of this plot took several years. After the price was agreed, others came forth, including members of tribes in the region, claiming that the land was theirs. This was a common maneuver in Ottoman-ruled Palestine, where the system was so corrupt that every transaction had two prices. The first price was paid to the actual owners; the other price was the “baksheesh,’’ in other words, the bribes that needed to be paid to the various charlatans as well as Ottoman officials –both at the local and national level. These bribes ensured that the transaction would not be contested for years in the courts, and the new ownership rights would be registered by law in the land registry office. Unfortunately, corruption, blackmail and bribery were conventional business practices in Ottoman Palestine. After paying off all the swindlers and corrupted officials, the land was finally registered in the Land Registry. As Ottoman Law prohibited the purchase of lands in Palestine by anyone who was not an Ottoman citizen, the land was initially registered in the names of two Jewish Ottoman citizens, David Yellin and Dr. Mazeh, even though they were not members of the founding group.
This was not the end of their problems. The land was indeed full of sand, which needed to be cleared before houses could be built. After receiving exorbitant quotes, they gave the job to a group of Jewish men with wheelbarrows who did the work for a fraction of the price. The sand was cleared and dumped in an area that is Rothchild Boulevard today. Then they made lemonade out of the lemons: the new sandy area was turned into a boulevard with gardens in the middle, thereby solving the problem of where to put the town park.
Though they encountered many more problems down the road, the founders of Tel Aviv found creative ways to solve them. The Turkish government put many obstacles in their path when the required building permits for the neighborhood were sought. Overnight, the Turks built barracks at the edge of the plot of land, ostensibly preventing the building of the neighborhood because Ottoman law prohibited construction next to army barracks. The settlers purchased the barracks building and subsequently demolished it. Using new machinery from the factory of Leon Stein, they drilled for water and found it in abundance. Problems in financing were solved by a loan from the JNF. The list of obstacles and the creative solutions that followed is endless.
So, when a small group of people stood on the sands in April 1909, and drew lots for the allocation of the plots, they were already shaping the legends that were to evolve from the founding of Tel Aviv. Little did they know what lay ahead: the promising expansion of their little neighborhood; eviction and evacuation during World War l; the murderous Arab riots of 1921 and later, the bombing of Tel Aviv by the Italian air force during World War ll. Many challenges still awaited them.
Little did they know that they were laying the foundation for the first all-Hebrew city, that would become the largest city in pre-state Israel less than half a century later, surpassing Jerusalem, Haifa, and other cities. Little did they know that their little 4-5 block neighborhood would become the cultural, political, and business center of the land.
When I hear remarks to the extent that there were grape vines and not sand on the site where Tel Aviv was founded, I laugh (though, if you read the memoirs of some of the founders, there is some truth to this story). When I hear people say that Tel Aviv did not spring up from the sands but evolved from Jaffa, I say, “So what?” Yes, Jaffa, the ancient city, was there first. But in no way does that take away from the foresight, ingenuity, and immense accomplishment of Tel Aviv’s founders.
Let’s embrace the legends, not tear them down. Let’s allow them to transform and inspire us.
Avraham Suskin 1909 from https://www.kkl.org.il/profile/kkl-archives/kkl-archive/old-but-fascinating/achuzat-bait-tel-aviv/