Photograph: New Immigrants Arrive at the Port of Tel Aviv, 1938 Photograph by Zoltan Kluger, reproduced with the permission of the Government Press Office Israel

‘Political Balance’ or ‘Natural Growth’? The British Mandate, Meir Dizengoff, and the Struggle over Tel Aviv Port in the 1920s and 1930s

On 24 February 1938, a crowd of 30,000 onlookers gathered in the rain awaiting the official opening of Tel Aviv port to passenger traffic. Due to bad weather conditions, however, the ceremony had been moved inside a ‘gaily decorated warehouse’ on the shore of the Mediterranean in the north of the ‘first Hebrew city’. To make matters worse, the rough seas prevented the landing of passengers at Tel Aviv port on that day, and the SS Har Tsiyon had to be redirected to Haifa.1

Yet such adverse conditions did little to dampen the Tel Avivians’ celebratory mood. The city’s port had been a project long in the making, and it held great significance not only for Tel Aviv, but for the Zionist project as a whole. Although long disregarded by a historiography focused on the Zionist ‘return to the land’, visions and schemes of a maritime revival—as part of national self-fulfilment and realization—were an integral part of Zionist thought.

Fig. 1: Opening Ceremony of Tel Aviv Port, 1938
Photograph by Zoltan Kluger, reproduced with the permission of the Government Press Office Israel

Tel Aviv’s founders and leaders, in particular, developed their very own maritime approach for the city. In 1912, only three years after Tel Aviv had been founded as a Jewish suburb of its ancient Ottoman–Arab mother city of Jaffa, the German Zionist Arthur Ruppin, who headed the Zionist Organization’s Palestine Office in Jaffa, decided to invest large sums of (at the time scarce) national capital into purchasing the land between the suburb and the seashore from its Arab owners. To Ruppin, it was clear that ‘whether Tel Aviv would be able to expand up to the shore’ amounted to an existential question for the city.2 During the 1920s and 1930s, the seashore began to play an increasingly important role in the urban history and identity of Tel Aviv, with interest in Jewish commercial fishing, shipping companies, and sailing associations growing rapidly. Ripe with references to Biblical times, such as to the ancient Israelite tribe of Zebulon, which was engaged in maritime trade in the Mediterranean, the Zionist turn to the tradition of Jewish seafaring was based in a growing understanding that the sea was essential for Zionist pioneering and the goal of establishing a ‘Jewish hold on Israel’s spaces as a sovereign state’.3

The opening of Tel Aviv port was the successful culmination of these Zionist maritime dreams: ‘Apart from its purely economic importance, the Tel Aviv port had an even deeper significance for the Jewish people’, as David Remez, the director of the ‘Marine Trust’ (Otsar Mif‘alei ha-Yam), which was responsible for running the port, noted in 1938. ‘It marked an important stage in the national regeneration by intensifying interest in Jewish seafaring . . . A new national ‘Back to the Sea’ movement had now come into being.’4 To contemporaries, Tel Aviv port, with its immigration office carrying the lofty name ‘Gate to Zion’ (Sha‘ar Tsiyon), symbolized nothing less than ‘a seminal step on the road to national sovereignty.’5

Beyond playing an important and fascinating part in the history of the Zionist movement and its nation-building project in Palestine, however, the opening of Tel Aviv port, I argue, also needs to be contextualized within the history of intensifying Arab–Jewish economic and national separatism, rivalry, and conflict. The land purchases that enabled the building of Tel Aviv and its expansion toward the shore were, as Mark LeVine has traced in detail, themselves already accompanied by rising Arab–Jewish tensions.6 A more complete account of the history of Tel Aviv port, however, needs to embed it not only within the story of the Arab–Jewish conflict over land, but more importantly within the history of Arab–Jewish and British negotiations over Palestinian infrastructure, economic development, and international trade. As opposed to the contested process of land acquisition, especially in the rural sector, the historiography often tends to regard the more urban and private entrepreneurial spheres of commerce and trade as arenas of peaceful Arab–Jewish cooperation.7

My brief history of the founding Tel Aviv port, based on articles in the contemporary English, Hebrew, and Arabic press as well as British and Israeli archives, complicates this binary view by showcasing the complex interplay between economic interest, Zionist and Palestinian nationalist ideology, British imperial policy, and emerging violent conflict. Leaving symbolism aside, from the very beginning the most important motivations behind Tel Aviv’s pursuit of its own port were economic and strategic. The much older port of Jaffa was small, difficult to access from both land and sea, and lacked the basic facilities needed to cope with increasing volumes of trade and passengers. The port’s deplorable conditions had long concerned local traders both Jewish and Arab, and attempts had already been made to expand it during the late Ottoman period.8 The issue of the port’s renovation had been one of the first on the agenda after the British occupation of Palestine, when a joint Arab–Jewish chamber of commerce was founded in Jaffa under the auspices of the British authorities.9

In 1921, a commission was founded to inquire into possible improvements at Jaffa port. Its members included British officials, the mayors of Tel Aviv and Jaffa, and local Arab and Jewish merchants.10 In the same year, however, the so-called ‘Jaffa riots’ broke out—one of the first instances of violent Arab–Jewish confrontation that left forty-eight Arabs and forty-seven Jews dead.11 During and in the aftermath of the riots, the Arab boatmen working at Jaffa port refused to let Jewish immigrants disembark, and Jaffa’s chamber of commerce split along Arab–Jewish lines after its Arab members founded the separate ‘National Chamber of Commerce’ (Ghurfat al-Tijāra al-Waṭanīyya), leaving the ‘Chamber of Commerce, Jaffa & District’, later renamed ‘Chamber of Commerce of Tel-Aviv and Jaffa’ (Lishkat ha-Misḥar Tel-Aviv ve-Yafo) to be purely Jewish.12

From this point on, Tel Aviv’s town committee and especially the township’s mayor, Meir Dizengoff, began to lobby the British authorities for a separate jetty in Tel Aviv. While the joint British, Arab, and Jewish Port Commission continued to function throughout the following years, looking for ways to improve Jaffa port, its efforts were in part frustrated by the British decision to construct the country’s main deep-water port in Haifa instead of Jaffa.13 Dizengoff had been successful in putting the question of a separate jetty in Tel Aviv on the Port Commission’s agenda as a third issue, to which ‘special reference’ would be made besides Jaffa port’s improvement and the possible diversion of the country’s main railway line to pass through Jaffa and Tel Aviv.14 Throughout the Commission’s meetings over the following months and years, however, he struggled to convince this body of the jetty’s necessity. In response to a memorandum sent by Dizengoff in 1924, the Mandate authorities stated that if improvements were made to Jaffa port, the construction of an additional jetty in Tel Aviv would be unnecessary and indeed economically unsound.15 Later that year, Dizengoff bypassed the local British authorities, travelling to London and obtaining general support for the township’s construction project from the Colonial Office.16

Dizengoff’s correspondence with the Mandate authorities reveals much of the dynamic within the British–Arab–Jewish Port Commission. On the one hand, the British were convinced that a port in Tel Aviv would not be economically viable. According to their own colonial development scheme, they focused their financial and administrative efforts on expanding Haifa port, while the costs of improving Jaffa port were in large part to be borne by the Jaffa and Tel Aviv municipalities. This was one reason why Mandate officials like Assistant District Governor Major Campbell promoted Arab–Jewish cooperation in port matters. On the other hand, Arab public opinion was clearly in favour of expanding and improving Jaffa port and opposed the construction of a separate landing place within the boundaries of Tel Aviv.17

Conscious of Arab public opinion and local and national tensions, the British were thus also committed to what Dizengoff called ‘political balance’ —a sentiment that in his view stunted Tel Aviv’s ‘natural growth’. The majority of imports and exports handled at Jaffa port, he emphasized time and again, were in Jewish and not in Arab hands, and the rapidly growing city of Tel Aviv was in dire need of large-scale imports of building material.18 Accordingly, the British decision to develop Haifa instead of Jaffa port was seen by merchants in Jaffa–Tel Aviv as a threat to the existence and status of their city.19 Ultimately, the British began renovation works at Jaffa port only in 1933, when it had become necessary to divert shipments to Haifa due to Jaffa port’s dismal landing conditions.20 The project was left unfinished, however, when in 1936 the ‘Arab Revolt’ broke out, and the general strike by Jaffa’s Arab workers stopped operations at Jaffa port for months. Now, Meir Dizengoff argued, ‘dependence on Jaffa was “unthinkable” to the Jews of Tel Aviv, and both civic pride and reasons of security prescribed the development of a purely Jewish port.’21 In the wake of the ‘Revolt’, the British government indeed gave the Tel Aviv municipality permission to construct its own harbour, and in 1938 Tel Aviv port was ready to unload both cargo and passengers.


Fig. 2: A Jewish Sailor on Board the S/S ‘Tel Aviv’
Photograph by Zoltan Kluger, reproduced with the permission of the Government Press Office Israel

Until 1936, a vision of a shared Arab–Jewish port in Jaffa had continued to exist, with the Jewish chamber of commerce supporting both the plan for Jaffa port’s renovations and for a Tel Aviv jetty. In the case of the former, the Jewish and Arab chambers of commerce had at times still joined forces to convince the Mandate authorities that greater improvements should be made to a shared Arab–Jewish Jaffa port, bringing it on par with Haifa’s new industrial harbour. In their aftermath, however, the Jewish chamber of commerce began to direct all its efforts towards Tel Aviv port.22 An overwhelming desire for security via separation and seclusion, as expressed by Meir Dizengoff, took a hold of Jaffa–Tel Aviv’s Jewish population at the time. This was also illustrated by the demands of Jewish neighbourhoods thus far under Jaffa’s jurisdiction to be annexed to Tel Aviv’s municipality.23

The story of the Jaffa and Tel Aviv ports is thus deeply embedded in the larger histories of British Mandate policies in Palestine, the evolving conflict, and especially the process of separating the Arab and Jewish economic spheres. It is an important contribution to a historiography that has traditionally been predominantly concerned with Arab–Jewish rivalry and conflict in the fields of territory, production, and labour—and that, in turn, often interprets the spheres of trade and commerce as arenas of Arab–Jewish cooperation, motivated by the economic interests of private entrepreneurs who refuse to be engulfed by the rigid boundaries of national conflict.

A crucial infrastructure located at the interface between British policy imperial policy, national ideology, and the private economy, the history of Jaffa port and the failure to develop it as a shared Arab–Jewish infrastructure illustrate the limitations of such a binary view. While it was in the interest of Arab and Jewish traders to modernize Jaffa port, national conflict and the British authorities’ unwillingness to invest in the project ultimately favoured commercial and economic separatism—as well as the dominance of Tel Aviv, whose ‘natural growth’ was much faster than that of Arab Jaffa due to foreign capital imports. 

Alongside other episodes in the urban histories of Jaffa and Tel Aviv that are explored in more detail in my PhD project, entitled ‘“The City that Gave Birth to the State”: Imperialism, Globalization, and Nation-State Formation in Jaffa and Tel Aviv, 1908–1948’, the national competition for those urban infrastructures that enable global trade allows us to showcase the interconnected histories of urban development, nationalization, and globalization in Palestine–Israel.


Featured Image: New Immigrants Arrive at the Port of Tel Aviv, 1938. Photograph by Zoltan Kluger, reproduced with the permission of the Government Press Office Israel

  1. ‘New “Gateway to Zion” Inaugurated’, Palestine Post, 24 Feb. 1938, 1; ‘Tel Aviv—Sha‘ar Tsyion, Derekh Ba Ya‘avru ha-Ge‘ulim’, ha-Arets, 24 Feb. 1938, 1. []
  2. Arthur Ruppin, Briefe, Tagebücher, Erinnerungen, ed. Schlomo Krolik (Königstein, 1985), 220. See also Joachim Schlör, ‘Tel Aviv: (With Its) Back to the Sea?’, Journal of Modern Jewish Studies, 8/2 (2009), 215–35. []
  3. Kobi Cohen-Hattab, Zionism’s Maritime Revolution: The Yishuv’s Hold on the Land of Israel’s Sea and Shores, 1917–1948 (Berlin, 2019), 4, 74–104; Maoz Azaryahu and Arnon Golan, ‘Contested Beachscapes: Planning and Debating Tel Aviv’s Seashore in the 1930s’, Urban History, 34/2 (2007), 278–95; Franziska Weinmann, ‘Negotiating a Jewish Maritime Approach in Tel Aviv’s Urban Laboratory’, Jewish Culture and History, 23/4 (2022), 350–66. The Zevulun Seafarers’ Association, focusing on maritime sports, was founded in 1930. See Cohen-Hattab, Zionism’s Maritime Revolution, 98-104, 186-9. It also engaged in educating the public in the history of Jewish seafaring, publishing volumes such as M. Gelbart, Jews and Seafaring. A Historical Study (Tel Aviv, 1940). []
  4. ‘Jewish Maritime Revival: Tel Aviv Port, Marine School and Shipping. Interview with Mr. D. Remez’, Palestine and Near East Economic Magazine, 4 (Apr. 1938), 142. []
  5. Cohen-Hattab, Zionism’s Maritime Revolution, 137. See also Björn Siegel, ‘Open the Gate: German Jews, the Foundation of Tel Aviv Port, and the Imagined Power of the Sea in 1936’, Leo Baeck Institute Year Book, 66 (2021), 6–24. []
  6. Mark LeVine, Overthrowing Geography: Jaffa, Tel Aviv, and the Struggle for Palestine 1880–1948 (Berkeley, CA, 2005), 63-72. []
  7. E.g. Tamir Goren, ‘Developing Jaffa’s Port, 1920–1936’, Israel Affairs, 22/1 (2016), 172–88; Mustafa Kabha and Nahum Karlinsky, The Lost Orchard: The Palestinian–Arab Citrus Industry, 1850–1950 (Syracuse, NY, 2021); and Gershon Shafir, ‘Capitalist Binationalism in Mandatory Palestine’, International Journal of Middle East Studies, 43 (2011), 611–33. See also the work of Ronen Shamir, Current Flow: The Electrification of Palestine (Stanford, CA, 2013); Ronen Shamir, ‘Contested Infrastructures: The Case of British-Mandate Palestine’, Settler Colonial Studies, 13/1 (2023), 30–50 []
  8. Youssef al-Isa, ‘Du‘ā’ Dustūrī’, Anon., Filastin, 24 Jul. 1911, 1; Anon., ‘Ila Ruhi al-Khalidi,’ Filastin,27 Dec. 1911, 3; Anon., ‘Ila Hafiz Bey Sa‘id’, Filastin, 2 Jan. 1912, 3; Anon., ‘Marfā’ Yāfā’, Filastin, 18 May 1912, 3; Anon., ‘Marfā’ Yāfā’, Filastin, 1 Jun. 1912, 3. []
  9. Dan Mirkin and Haim Goren, ‘Yafo—Namal Lelo Namal: Le-Kishalonan shel ha-Tokhniyot min ha-Me’a ha-19 le-Hakamat Namal Moderni ‘Amok Mayim be-Yafo’, Cathedra: For the History of Eretz Israel and Its Yishuv, 143 (2012), 13–152; see also Dan Giladi, ‘Reshita shel Lishkat ha-Mishar Yafo ve-ha-Mahuz’, Economic Quarterly, 126 (1985), 286–94. []
  10. Tel Aviv Municipal Archive (TAMA), Record Group 03: General Management 1923–1926, file 102B, Commission of Enquiry Ordinance, Order, 1921. []
  11. Palestine Disturbances in May, 1921: Reports of the Commission of Inquiry with Correspondence Relating Thereto (London, 1921). []
  12. Giladi, ‘Reshita’; No Anon., ‘Ghurfat al-Tijaāra al-Waṭaniīyya’, Filastin, 11 Aug. 1922, 3. []
  13. See Samuel Tolkowsky, ‘Haifa or Jaffa; Where is the First Palestinian Port to Be Built?’, Bulletin of the Palestine Economic Society, 1/2 (1922), 18–26. []
  14. Commission of Enquiry Ordinance, Order, 1921. []
  15. TAMA, Record Group 03: General Management 1923–1926, file 102A, Memorandum on the Construction of a Jetty at Tel Aviv, 1 Jan. 1924; TAMA, Record Group 03: General Management 1923–1926, file 102A, Chief Secretary Gilbert Clayton to Meir Dizengoff, 20 May 1924. []
  16. The National Archives, Kew, 733: Colonial Office: Palestine Original Correspondence, 85: Individuals, C–L., 12: Folios 230–240, Folio 239, Telegram from the Secretary of State for the Colonies to the Officer Administering the Government of Palestine, 2 Aug. 1924 (Copy). []
  17. These press debates climaxed in 1933. See, for instance, Anon., ‘Al-Sihafa Adatu Harb: Al-Haq lil-Quwwa—Marfa’ fi Tel Aviv’, Filastin, 31 Jan. 1933, 1. []
  18. TAMA, Record Group 03: General Management 1923–1926, file 102B, Translation of a Letter by Meir Dizengoff to Major Campbell, undated. []
  19. ٍShu’un wa-‘Ibar’, Filastin, 2 Feb. 1925, 1; ‘Be-Lishkat ha-Mishar be-Yafo,’ Do’ar ha-Yom, 12 Mar. 1924, 3; Goren, ‘Developing Jaffa’s Port,’ 175. []
  20. Ibid., 181. []
  21. Report of the Palestine Royal Commission. Presented by the Secretary of State for the Colonies to the United Kingdom Parliament by Command of His Britannic Majesty (Jul. 1937) (London, 1937), 171. []
  22. Goren, ‘Developing Jaffa’s Port’; Anon., ‘Mr. Hoofien’s Address to the Tel Aviv Chamber of Commerce’, Palestine and Near East Economic Magazine, 7 (Jul. 1938), 296–7. []
  23. Tamir Goren, ‘The Jewish Neighborhoods of Jaffa and the Question of Annexation to Tel Aviv at the End of the British Mandate’, Middle Eastern Studies, 52/6 (2016), 917–37. []

OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
Felicitas Remer (June 17, 2024). ‘Political Balance’ or ‘Natural Growth’? The British Mandate, Meir Dizengoff, and the Struggle over Tel Aviv Port in the 1920s and 1930s. German Historical Institute London Blog. Retrieved July 18, 2024 from https://doi.org/10.58079/11u34


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Felicitas Remer

Felicitas Remer is a PhD candidate at Freie Universität Berlin. Working on her project ‘“The City That Gave Birth to the State”? Imperialism, Globalization, and Nation-State Formation in Jaffa and Tel Aviv, 1908–1948’, she has previously been a Doctoral Fellow at the Graduate School for Global Intellectual History in Berlin and is now a Leo Baeck Fellow.

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