This year marks the centennial of the city of Tel Aviv. In the spring of 1909, when Palestine was still under Ottoman rule, sixty-six Jewish families purchased lots in Karm al-Jabali, on the northern outskirts of the ancient port city of Jaffa near the Mediterranean coast amidst dunes, vineyards, and orchards. The Ahuzat Bayit (literally, Housing Property) “garden suburb” soon had its name changed to Tel Aviv, or Hill of Spring. This was a scriptural allusion – the prophet Ezekiel [3:15] mentions a place in Babylonia called Tel Aviv – that also possessed a contemporary political resonance: The Hebrew translation of the book Altneuland (Old/New Land), in which the Zionist leader Theodor Herzl outlined his utopian vision for the Holy Land, bore the title Tel Aviv.
On the eve of the First World War, the new town had two thousand residents. In November 1917, as British forces advanced through Palestine, the Foreign Secretary Lord Arthur Balfour issued his famous proclamation, “favour[ing] the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” (The Balfour declaration also stipulated that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”) Four years later, in 1921, Tel Aviv was officially recognized as an autonomous municipality, separate from neighboring Jaffa. Frictions between Arabs and Jews led to periods of unrest between the two world wars, culminating in the mass exodus of 70,000 Palestinian Arabs from Jaffa as a consequence of the 1948-1949 Arab-Israeli war.
“The First Hebrew City” – as Tel Aviv was labeled – grew rapidly during the 1920s and 1930s, becoming the economic and cultural hub of the Yishuv (the Jewish settlement) in Palestine and – after 1948 – the state of Israel. The combined influx of Jewish former residents of Jaffa and immigrants from abroad set off a boom in land speculation and construction. Tel Aviv derived its economic dynamism from its proximity to the agricultural hinterland of Jaffa (famous for its oranges) and from the ties that Jewish immigrants maintained with their (primarily) European countries of origin. A constant flow of immigration sustained the multilingual character of Tel Aviv during its formative decades, notwithstanding the exclusively Hebrew visage superimposed upon the cityscape by the municipality’s leadership.
Hebrew eventually prevailed as a modern spoken vernacular and language of state in the Yishuv – thanks in no small part to the political, cultural, and educational institutions that were set up by the founders of Tel Aviv. One of these was the Herzliah Gymnasium (named after Theodor Herzl), a secondary school that educated generations of pupils entirely in Hebrew. Founded in Jaffa in 1905, Herzliah relocated to Ahuzat Bayit soon after its establishment. The school, with its mélange of Art Nouveau, neo-Gothic, and Middle Eastern architectural motifs, was one of the city’s iconic landmarks until it was demolished in 1962 to make way for Tel Aviv’s first skyscraper, the Shalom Meir Tower.
Eliasaf Robinson, now a prominent antiquarian bookseller in Tel Aviv, grew up near the Herzliah Gymnasium. Its destruction impelled him, as an adolescent, to start gathering original documents and vintage ephemera, photographs, posters, maps, and books about his native city – before its historical legacy was consigned to oblivion. “Other kids played with marbles and trading cards,” he told a newspaper interviewer in January 2006. “I collected documents from the Tel Aviv municipality.” The very first item to enter his collection was a poster from 1914, announcing a ball at the Herzliah Gymnasium; this was a gift from Eliasaf’s father, Yehuda Robinson, head of the book business that Eliasaf eventually took over. Over a span of forty years the collection grew into a unique documentary resource on the nascent city of Tel Aviv, which today is the urban core of a metropolitan region with a population of three million inhabitants.
A few years ago, having concluded that the collection was both too valuable and too fragile to be stored in his private apartment near the Mediterranean seashore, Robinson offered it to the Stanford University Libraries. The Eliasaf Robinson Collection on Tel Aviv – as it is now known – was acquired in December 2005 and builds upon the library’s impressive strengths in the fields of Middle Eastern Studies, Jewish Studies, and Urban Studies. It comprises approximately 500 printed volumes (books and periodicals) and twenty linear feet of archival materials. Extensive portions of the collection have been digitized, and these materials are now accessible to researchers around the world. The Tel Aviv Collection promises to be one of the most sought-after resources in the Stanford University Libraries.
Zachary M. Baker
Reinhard Family Curator of Judaica and Hebraica Collections
Stanford University Libraries