Between Tel Aviv and Jaffa: On the creation of a city

In 1909, Tel Aviv’s founders sought to create a space that was “modern, Jewish … [and] European” and prohibited the sale of property to non-Jews.

Tel Aviv is depicted in Zionist poetry, art, journalism and literature as having emerged like a “reed inserted into a sea of sand”; any connection to Jaffa and the surrounding Arab environment was ignored.

So powerful has this imagery of being born “out of the sands” remained that when it celebrated Israel’s 50th anniversary, the Economist described Tel Aviv as “having hardly any Arabs … it was built by Jews, for Jews, on top of sand dunes, not on top of anybody else’s home”.

The reality was quite different. While founded on a sandy region near the seashore, Tel Aviv was deeply connected to Jaffa, which had its own, growing Jewish community that had reached over 30,000 by the 1940s.

The new neighbourhood was also part of a complex ecosystem that included citrus orchards and farms, Jaffa and its famous port, mills, bedouin encampments, and six Palestinian villages.

The remnants of one village, Summel, are still visible along Ibn Givrol Street, not far from where Yitzhak Rabin, the former Israeli prime minister, was murdered. The former home of the sheikh of the Palestinian village of Sheikh Muwannis has long been used as the faculty club of Tel Aviv University.

Despite its image of diversity and vibrancy, Tel Aviv has long been a site of significant inter-communal violence. The first major Jewish-Palestinian riots erupted along the border between the two towns in 1921, as did the Arab Revolt of 1936-39.

Crucial for the situation in the Occupied Territories today, during this period Tel Aviv’s leadership developed strategies for gaining control over Palestinian land.

They created new administrative boundaries, using town planning and architecture to separate communities and further weaken Palestinians’ hold on the land that are now staples of Israeli policies across the Green Line.

In the four decades after 1948, when 70,000 Palestinian Arabs were forced to flee Jaffa and not allowed to return, the once grand town became a backwater, while Tel Aviv grew into one of the premiere ‘world cities’.

In the 1980s, Jaffa was rediscovered as a funky and authentic place to live, and a process of gentrification began that has seen much of the remaining Palestinian Arab population priced out of their homes through a combination of state policy and market forces.


Mark Levine is a professor of history at the University of California, Irvine and author, most recently, of Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance, and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam (Random House 2008) and Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine Since 1989 (Zed Books, 2009). He lived in Tel Aviv for a number of years in the 1990s.


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