By Carol Rushton
Modern Israeli history since the late 19th century is filled with many different personalities and colorful characters. One of these was Meir Dizengoff, the first mayor of Tel Aviv.
Meir Dizengoff was born in Russia in 1861. When he was old enough, he joined the Russian military and served for two years. Young and idealistic, Dizengoff afterward became involved in a revolutionary group, The People’s Will, not exactly popular with the czarist government. After a brief stint in prison for his activist activities, Dizengoff eventually decided to channel his energies into the Zionist movement that was beginning to take off in the late 19th century. He became a devoted follower of Theodore Herzl, although he disagreed with Herzl’s proposal to establish a Jewish state in Uganda.
Dizengoff came to pre-state Israel in 1892 to start a glass factory for Baron Edmond de Rothschild, the idea being that the bottles would be used by local wineries. Although the glass factory failed (the sand in the area was unfit for making glass) and Dizengoff subsequently returned to Russia, the lessons he learned and the contacts he made would not be wasted.
Dizengoff became involved in the World Zionist Congresses being held by Herzl at that time. Dizengoff could not stay away from Israel and was one of the driving forces in establishing a homeland for the Jews on their ancient lands. He founded two companies to help Jews in Israel. The Geulah Company acquired land in the Holy Land for Jews in the Diaspora to purchase; Ahuzat Bayit bought land in northern Israel to help start Jewish communities outside of the Jaffa area, the beginnings of the city of Tel Aviv.
Dizengoff returned with his family to Israel in 1905 to stay and became a very successful businessman. He eventually became involved in local politics and was elected the first mayor of the new city of Tel Aviv in 1921, a post he held except for about 3 years until the end of his life in 1936. After a series of Arab riots, he insisted that pre-state Israel government offices should be located in Tel Aviv and saw that the city had its own port separate from the one at Jaffa.
Dizengoff was also a visionary. When Tel Aviv was just a bunch of sand, he would grab anyone he could get to listen and tell them that one day that lonely, empty stretch of beach would someday be filled with beautiful, first-class hotels circling around it as far as the eye could see, where tourists from all over the world would come to stay at them and play on the beaches. Most people probably thought Dizengoff was crazy. But when tourists come to Israel today, many of them arrive at the Ben Gurion Airport, which Dizengoff insisted be built, and spend their first night at one of the hotels Dizengoff could see in his mind’s eye.
Dizengoff was not only a dreamer who did everything within his power to make sure his dreams came true, he was a force to be reckoned with. If it had not been for him, Tel Aviv would not exist today. The city did not forget Dizengoff’s great contribution. Meir Park, Dizengoff Square, and Dizengoff Street were all named after Dizengoff and his wife. A statue of Dizengoff riding his horse stands on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv.
Dizengoff could not stop from being at the center of the history of Israel, even after his death. When his beloved wife Zina died in 1930, he donated their house to the city which turned it into an art museum. David Ben Gurion announced the creation of the modern State of Israel on May 14, 1948 from the Dizengoffs’ former house. It is now known as Independence Hall.