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Meir Dizengoff was born in 1861 in the village of Ekimovtsy near Orhei, Bessarabia. In 1878, his family moved to Kishinev, where he graduated from high school and studied at the polytechnic school. In 1882, he volunteered in the Imperial Russian Army, serving in Zhitomir (now in the northwestern Ukraine) until 1884. There he first met Zina Brenner, whom he married in the early 1890s. After his military service, Dizengoff remained in Odessa, where he became involved in the Narodnaya Volya underground. In 1885, he was arrested for insurgency. In Odessa, he met Leon Pinsker, Ahad Ha’am and others, and joined the Hovevei Zion movement. Upon his release from prison, Dizengoff returned to Kishinev and founded the Bessarabian branch of Hovevei Zion, which he represented at the 1887 conference. He left Kishinev in 1889 to study in Paris.
While studying chemical engineering at the University of Paris, he met Edmond James de Rothschild, who sent him to Ottoman-ruled Palestine to establish a glass factory which would supply bottles for Rothschild's wineries. Dizengoff opened the factory in Tantura in 1882, but it proved unsuccessful due to impurities in the sand, and Dizengoff soon returned to Kishinev. There he met Theodor Herzl and became his ardent follower, despite having been strongly opposed to the British Uganda Program promoted by Herzl at the Sixth Zionist Congress.
In 1905, spurred by his Zionist beliefs, Dizengoff returned to Palestine and settled in Jaffa. He established the Geulah company, which bought up land in Palestine from Arabs, and became involved in the import business, especially machinery and automobiles to replace the horse-drawn carriages that had served as the primary transportation from Jaffa port to Jerusalem and other towns. He also co-founded a boat company that bore his name, and served as the Belgian consul. When Dizengoff learned that residents were organizing to build a new neighborhood, Tel Aviv, he formed a partnership with the Ahuzat Bayit company and bought land on the outskirts of Jaffa, which was parceled out to the early settlers by lot.
Mayor of Tel Aviv
Dizengoff became head of the town planning in 1911, a position that he held until 1922. When Tel Aviv was recognized as a city, Dizengoff was elected mayor. He remained in office until his death, apart from a three-year hiatus in 1925-1928. During World War I, the Ottomans drove out a large part of the population and Dizengoff was the liaison between the exiles and the Ottoman authorities. In this position he dealt with aid sent to the exiles of Tel Aviv and received the nickname Reish Galuta. He widely circulated and publicised the plight of the exiles, mainly via newspapers, and succeeded in convincing the rulers to agree to a regular supply of food and provisions to the exiles. In 1917, after having received funding from Nili, Dizengoff refused not only to provide funds to free Nili member Yosef Lishansky, but even funds to provide the succor that Dizengoff provided other prisoners and even anti-Zionists, despite having received the money from Nili.
Many committees and associations came into being during Dizengoff's term as mayor. One was the Yerid HaMizrah ("Orient Fair") committee, founded in 1932, which organized its first fair that year. Initially, the fair was held in the south of the city, but after its great success, a fairground with designated buildings was built in north Tel Aviv. A large international fair was held in 1934, followed by a second fair two years later.
Dizengoff was consequently involved with the development of the city, and encouraged its rapid expansion—carrying out daily inspections, and paying attention to details such as entertainment. He was always present at the head of the Adloyada, the annual Purim carnival. After his wife's death, he donated his house to the city of Tel Aviv, for use as an art museum, and he influenced many important artists to donate their work to improve the museum.
In 1936, with the outbreak of the Arab revolt, the Arabs closed the port of Jaffa with the intention of halting the rapid expansion of Jewish settlements in Palestine. Dizengoff pressured the government to give him permission to open a port in his new city of Tel Aviv, and before his death he managed to dedicate the first pier of Tel Aviv's new port. His dedication began with the words: "Ladies and gentlemen, I can still remember the day when Tel Aviv had no port". He died on the September 23, 1936.
In 1930, after the death of his wife, Dizengoff donated his house to his beloved city of Tel Aviv and requested that it be turned into a museum. The house underwent extensive renovations and became the Tel Aviv Museum of Art in 1932. The museum moved to its current location in 1971. On 14 May 1948, David Ben-Gurion declared the independence of the State of Israel at the Dizengoff residence. The building is now a history museum and known as Independence Hall.
Meir Park and Dizengoff street are named after him. His name also lives on in Israeli slang: It was used as a verb—lehizdangeff—which means "to walk down Dizengoff," i.e., go out on the town. Dizengoff Square, featuring a sculpture by Yaacov Agam, is named after his wife, Zina.
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