Arriving in Tel Aviv after working in Jerusalem and the West Bank was, metaphorically, like the sun emerging from behind rain clouds. Not to over-dramatise but the atmosphere was so much lighter and easy-going. It was a pleasure to order a beer while taking in the vast Mediterranean vistas. Strolling oceanside boulevards was an exercise in normality. So much so that it’s easy to forget you’re in a bitterly polarised part of the world … and the history of Tel Aviv and Jaffa is the tragedy of Palestine and Israel in microcosm.
At the start of the 20th century, Palestine was still part of the Ottoman Empire, and Tel Aviv was little more than sand dunes and scrub. Further down the coast, Jaffa was a vibrant port city surrounded by fertile lands producing citrus fruits for export and a staging post for pilgrims travelling to Jerusalem. Jaffa had a mixed population of Muslims, Jews and Christians, with two Jewish neighbourhoods swelled by Zionist migration, mainly from Europe.
Only in 1909 did a small number of Jaffa’s Jewish community decide to found Tel Aviv as a Jewish suburb. Tel Aviv means ‘Spring Hill’ and is famously named after a novel by the ‘father’ of political Zionism, Theodor Herzl, who had died only a few years before. In stark contrast to the ancient Arab city of Jaffa, Tel Aviv was built as a European-style suburb with wide streets and parks. Amidst the modern-day highrises, these original streets still feel special.
The communities of Jaffa and Tel Aviv seemed to rub along well enough until the First World War defeat of the Ottoman Empire and the British Mandate. To Arabs, the Mandate was a betrayal of British promises to support Arab independence as reward for fighting against the Ottomans. This was further complicated by the Balfour Declaration promising British support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine. It wasn’t long before these tensions exploded into conflict.
Regardless of Arab opposition, the influx of Jewish investment and migration only increased during the Mandate, Tel Aviv was a boom town. The 1920s saw a series of violent incidents, including anti-Jewish riots in Jaffa, and many of the city’s Jewish residents moved to Tel Aviv. Communities that once lived side-by-side became almost wholly separated during the 1936-39 Arab Revolt against British rule and Jewish migration.
In the post-Second World War partition of Palestine, Jaffa was meant to remain an Arab enclave within Israel. A few days prior to Israel declaring independence in 1948, Jaffa’s 65,000-strong Arab population fled the city as Jewish military forces took control of it. The city was re-populated by Jewish settlers. Knowing this background, it’s hard not to feel uneasy while having lunch at one of the waterfront restaurants in Jaffa’s picturesque harbour.
Jaffa is a relaxed and attractive place with an old town filled with narrow, atmospheric streets and occasional glimpses of the ocean. Today, these streets seem to be the preserve of artists, which lends it something of a bohemian feel. This is doubly so at the harbour, where you can enjoy delicious local food and sip chilled white wine against the fierce heat while watching people fishing.
I’d arrived in Tel Aviv in the afternoon and spent a little time wandering its streets before making my way to the old port, now a trendy area of bars and restaurants. I hadn’t expected it, but across the waters of the Eastern mediterranean I witnessed one of the most intense sunsets I’ve ever seen. It was as if the entire sky was on fire. The next day I visited Jaffa and on my walk back along the beach I would witness another blockbuster sunset. Utterly stunning.