Meir Dizengoff (1861-1936)
Meir Dizengoff was born in the Bessarabian village of Akimovici. Until the age of fifteen he studied in a heder and with private tutors. He graduated from a gymnasium in Kishinev and enlisted in the Russian army in 1882, serving as the editor of a military newspaper in Zhitomir. After completing his military service he moved to Odessa and became active in the Narodnaya Volya (The People’s Will). Due to his activity in the organization the authorities arrested him in 1885 and he spent eight months in prison. During his time in prison he came to the conclusion that the redemption of the Jewish people could be achieved only in its ancient homeland.
After his release from prison he joined the Zionist movement and set up a branch of Hovevei Zion (Lovers of Zion – the forerunners and foundation-builders of modern Zionism) in Kishinev, after meeting Pinsker and Lillienblum. In 1887 he went to Paris where he studied chemical engineering in the Sorbonne; he also studied glassmaking at a university in Lyon, where he became close to Edmond de Rothschild. In 1892 he came to Palestine for the first time on a mission of Baron Rothschild, and set up a glass bottle factory in Tantura (today Nachsholim), designed for the the Rishon Lezion and Zichron Yaakov wineries. A year later he went to Alexandria where he married Zina-Chaya nee Brenner, his childhood sweetheart.
Attempts to turn the Tantura sand into glass failed and the factory closed down in 1894. Dizengoff returned to Odessa where he directed a glass factory owned by Belgians. During this period he returned to spirited Zionist activities: he attended the 5th and 6th Zionist Congresses and opposed the Uganda Plan. In Odessa he met with leading intellectuals involved in the revival Hebrew culture, such as Achad Haam, Mendele Mocher Sefarim, Shimon Dubnov, Bialik and Druyahov.
In 1904 he founded the Geulah Company for the acquisition of land in Palestine and began distributing its shares in Russia. On 16 September 1905 Dizengoff came to Palestine as the head of the Geulah Company and continued in this capacity until 1913.
In 1906 he was among the founders of The Association of Builders of Jaffa, together with Akiva Arieh Weiss, Yehezkel Sochovolsky Danin, Yitzhak Hayutman and David Smilansky. The association’s objective was to build a new and modern Jewish neighborhood outside the walls of Jaffa, which would later be called Ahuzat Bayit. In 1911 Dizengoff was elected head of the committee, a role he held until he was elected first mayor of Tel-Aviv in 1921.
Along with his public work he founded a commercial company in Jaffa together with Meir Arison for import and export and shipping, called M. Dizengoff and Co. During the 1917 Ottoman exile from Tel-Aviv Dizengoff went to Haifa and later to Damascus, as head of the emigration committee and of the Reish Galuta exiles. Together with Arthur Rupin, who had been exiled in Constantinople, he directed the aid for the Jewish Yishuv in Palestine, which included the provision of food, medical assistance, and living quarters. In late 1918 he returned to Tel Aviv and was reelected head of the committee. He was a member of the provisional committee of the Jews of Palestine and a member of the first national committee. In 1919 he established the Citizens Federation. Between his two terms of office as mayor, he was elected deputy mayor of Jaffa (1925 - 1927) and director of the Jewish Agency’s department of commerce and industry. In 1927 he was appointed consul of Belgium in Palestine.
Dizengoff devoted a great deal of thought and effort to the financial development of Tel-Aviv; he was the leading spirit in founding the Tel-Aviv port which he devised in the early 1920s; the port opened in 1936. He founded the Society for the Development of Tel-Aviv that purchased the land for the exhibition grounds in north Tel-Aviv, on which the Levant Fair complex was built. In the last years of his life he began to promote the building of an airport in Tel-Aviv, which was completed by his successor, Israel Rokach.
Tel-Aviv commemorated Meir Dizengoff in his lifetime: in 1934, in the course of the city’s 25th jubilee, a street was named after him, and on his 75th birthday an art prize was named after him. On the occasion of his 70th birthday a decision was taken to set up a park on his name (Gan Meir), however planting was postponed until after his death. Several days before he died the residents of the new neighborhood in the eastern part of the city moved into their homes and named the neighborhood Kiryat Meir. The main square of the city, the Zina Dizengoff Square, was named after his wife.
Dizengoff died as a result of an illness on 23 September, 1936. The entire Jewish Yishuv in Palestine mourned him, and the municipality council declared three days of mourning.
Dizengoff’s great importance was in his ability to outline an overall urban vision for Jaffa’s neighborhood, the main thrust of which was the establishment of an autonomous Jewish area not connected to Jaffa, and at the same time would not ignore its presence. In his view, Tel-Aviv was not limited to the municipal area of jurisdiction, but was a financial metropolitan in the center of which was a financial focal point.