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Zion Gate-The Battle over Early Zionist Symbols: Between Zion and Zionism, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv-Jaffa

Dr. Michal Oren
| 13/12/2013

“I am the gate for whom your holy city is named: Zion”
(Yitzchak Navon, The Six Days and the Seven Gates)

The coupling of the words Zion and Zionism reflects the aspiration to connect the bond between the Jewish People, past and present, and the Land of Israel (poetically referred to as ‘Zion’) to its modern national future as promised by the Zionist idea. This connection was already fixed during the development of nationalist thought in the days of Hibat Zion (‘Love of Zion’), in literary and publicist writings, but gained strength with the rise of the Zionist idea, which transformed the yearning to grace the earth of the Holy Land (Zion) into the establishment of a modern, sovereign national state (Zionism), and later the Zion Gate.

The coupling of the cities Jaffa – and later, Tel Aviv – with Jerusalem can be regarded as a metonym for the duo Zion and Zionism. Jaffa became more and more modernized and the center of the rejuvenated national experience; Tel Aviv in turn assumed the role of national and Zionist center; both cities contrasted with the Holy City and center of tradition, Zion (Jerusalem).

The site and term ‘Zion Gate’ reflects this tension in an interesting way. The physical gate in the wall surrounding Jerusalem refers to the nearby Mount Zion (Also called David’s Gate, named for David’s grave nearby and also called Jews’ Gate in times when it served the nearby Jewish quarter. For generations, Jews held the key to the gate, and from this gate they exited as refugees in 1948 after the aborted attempt by the Palmach to reach them by capturing the post at the Gate (May 17-18, 1948). The fable by Yitzchak Navon, which describes the gates competing to merit the entrance of the soldiers in the Six Day War, squelches the charge by Zion Gate: “[…] Wasn’t it I alone who, in the War of Independence, opened to admit the young men of Israel to Your holy city?”). However, because ‘Zion’ refers not only to Jerusalem but to the entire Land of Israel, the “gate” could also be referred to as the entrance to the Holy Land, i.e., Jaffa, and later Tel Aviv ports. This hidden connotation of the term ‘Zion Gate’ hints at the rivalry between the two cities, Jerusalem and Jaffa (later Tel Aviv), which signify respectively Judaism (Zion) and Zionism.

Land of Zion and Jerusalem
The name ‘Zion’ first appears in the Bible in connection with a Jebusite fort: “David took the stronghold of Zion; the same is the city of David” (Samuel II, 5:7). But Zion, in Jewish consciousness, became equated with Jerusalem and its holiness, especially the Temple mountain: “…on Mount Zion the abode of Your Glory and Jerusalem the city of Your Holiness” (from the blessing recited after eating). The mountain is not the Jebusite fort but the Temple place, the hub of the world, as stated in the Book of Jubilees: “Mount Zion is the umbilicus of the earth.” Moreover, Zion, as it represents Jerusalem and the holy place, is a metonym for the Land of Israel and the people of Israel. So did Menachem Ussishkin declare in his speech to the Zionist Congress in 1913, stressing the importance of situating the Zionist intellectual stronghold – the Hebrew University – in Jerusalem:

“2,500 years ago, our national Temple of God that sat upon Mount Moriah was destroyed. We come now full of faith and hope to build a new national shrine, the seat of wisdom and science, upon Mount Zion […].”

From the place of sacrifice on Mount Moriah, the name Zion was conveyed to the shrine of wisdom on ‘Mount Zion,’ although actually located on Mount Scopus.

Zion and Zionism
Another “Hall of Wisdom”, named Sha’ar Zion (Zion Gate), was established in Jaffa in 1886 to host a national library (Bet Akad Sefarim). It was founded by brothers Elazar and Shimon Rokach through the Ezrat Yisrael Association, which also established the Neve Zedek neighborhood. In 1891, the Library received aid from the Odessa Committee (Hovevei Zion – Lovers of Zion), from theSha’ar Zion Bureau of B’nai Brith (whose first president was Shimon Rokach), and from B’nei Moshe. The Library was the national home of books, for the People of the Book, and housed the literature of Hibat Zion. Ze’ev Tiomkin, Chair of the Odessa Committee, spoke at the Library’s dedication, expressing his hope that the place would serve as food for the soul for “our colonist, laborer brothers.” Its entrance, ‘Zion Gate,’ was the doorway to the national treasures, but it was the Jerusalem library, founded shortly afterwards, that came to be known as the National Home of Books. The Jaffa library moved from house to house in Jaffa and Tel Aviv before it finally came to its permanent home, Sha’ar Zion – Bet Ariella, today the largest municipal library in the country.

In 1890, Ezrat Yisrael founded a hospital called Sha’ar Zion, located on the coast north of Jaffa (known today as the Charles Clore Park). This hospital represented one of the bitterest conflicts in Jaffa’s Jewish community in the late 19th century, between the old and the new Yishuv. It operated until the expulsion of Jews from Jaffa in 1917 and in 1948 the building was destroyed.

Zion Gate: A Gateway to Redemption
Jaffa was known as ‘Zion Gate’ because of its port, which served as a gateway for aliya to the Land and in particular to Jerusalem. As Jaffa began to develop in the mid-19th century, even though its population was clearly Arab, it became the second most important city for the Jews, especially those with an economic bent. Jerusalem became superfluous for some of the new immigrants, who made first Jaffa and later Tel Aviv their home and place of business. Others, motivated by ideology (Zionist or socialist), made their way to agricultural settlements. Many olim did not even visit Jerusalem, or did so only after many years. Ingrained in their consciousness was the diaspora perspective on Jerusalem – “Next year in Jerusalem” – while the need for the tangible Jerusalem was uncertain.

S.Y. Agnon wrote the following about the new arrival at the Jaffa docks of Isaac Kumer, the hero of Tmol Shilshom (“Only Yesterday”):

“Isaac Kumer stood there on the soil of the Land of Israel he had all his life yearned to see. Beneath his feet are the rocks of the Land of Israel and above his head blazes the sun of the Land of Israel and the houses of Jaffa rise up from the sea […] An hour or two ago, he was drinking the air of other lands, and now he is drinking the air of the Land of Israel.”

And to his wife Esther he wrote:

“As I said, I wish to return to Jerusalem…even though life is harder there… In Tel Aviv I could find a comfortable place to live. But my heart is so drawn to Jerusalem. But to tell the truth, in Jerusalem I cry a lot and I often go to the holy places, and in no other place do I feel that beautiful, holy, pure feeling that uplifts my heart…” (December 10, 1924)

Moshe Leib Lilienblum expressed more strongly the estrangement between the two cities:

“We have no need of Jerusalem and nothing will be lacking if it remains forever in alien hands.”

Port of Oranges
Jaffa’s ‘Zion Gate’ was privileged to be the point of export of a symbol of Zionism – the orange. Although it was the British who attached the ‘Jaffa’ label to oranges from all over the Land, whether produced by Jews or Arabs, the term was appropriated by the Zionist movement and used also for oranges exported from the newer Tel Aviv port (and later the port of Ashdod). The Tel Aviv port was built in 1936, at the start of the Arab strike which was followed by three years of violence. It replaced the Jaffa port as the main point of entry to the Zionist Land of Israel, creating a total separation between the Jewish and Arab markets.

Zion Gate Moved to Tel Aviv
In 1938 a passenger terminal was dedicated at the Tel Aviv port, called, inevitably, ‘Zion Gate’! At the dedication ceremony, then mayor of Tel Aviv, Yisrael Rokach said:

“For many years, Jaffa was called ‘Jaffa – Zion Gate’ by the pioneers and settlers of the Land. From this day hence, Tel Aviv shall be called ‘Tel Aviv – Zion Gate,’ through which redemption shall pass.”

And the Head of the Jewish Agency’s political department, Moshe Shertok (later Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett), declared:

“…Today we witness the realization of the dream of Tel Aviv’s founders, who established an emblem for their city: a gateway for aliya and a lighthouse for the diaspora.”

Tel Aviv’s pride in the first Hebrew port – a Zionist symbol of what was perceived to be the Zionist city – found expression in a placard calling for goods to be imported only through the Tel Aviv port:

This is the symbol of the Tel Aviv port.
Goods bearing this stamp
were unloaded in the Tel Aviv port.

Buy only goods bearing this stamp.
Preserve our important asset –
the first Hebrew port.

The role of gateway to redemption was thus transferred from the Zion Gate of Jerusalem, to the Zion Gate of Jaffa port, and finally to the Zion gate of the Tel Aviv port, taking on new meaning as “a lighthouse for the diaspora”. Thus did Tel Aviv brand itself as the quintessential Zionist city. The street leading towards the port was named ‘Zion Gate’ and as time passed, Tel Aviv tried to challenge Jerusalem’s ownership of symbols, chief among them the resting place of Herzl. The rationale for placing Herzl’s grave on the Tel Aviv coast was that the pantheon to be established at his grave would serve as the lighthouse pointing the way to the Land of Israel and its gateway, similar to the Statue of Liberty in New York. The preliminary founders of Tel Aviv, before it became a city, took pains to note: “Just as New York symbolizes the main gateway to America, we must improve our city so that in the fullness of time it will become the New York of Israel”. New York is not only the gateway to the “promised land”, but a longed-for ideal, as described by Motl Ben Peysi the cantor’s son, invented by Sholem Aleichem:

“The lights shone and the heart was joyful. So did the Jews surely feel at the splitting of the sea. Greetings, Columbus! Bless you, Land of Freedom! You, the precious land of happiness!”

Tel Aviv, though not New York, aspired to become the Zion Gate and heart of the Land of Zion, and to assume the aura of redemption inspired by the original Zion Gate in Jerusalem. In the past, Jaffa’s importance lay in its being a port of entry into the Land on the way to Jerusalem, the site of the redemption to come. With the rise of nationalism and modernity, Jaffa became important in its own right. The city embodied the shift from Zion (Holy Land, tradition, the past) to Zionism (nationalism, modernity and secularism). A place in the heart was reserved for Jerusalem, which gave Zionism its chief symbol (Zion), but in doing so conceded the symbol of the Zion Gate to Jaffa, and later, Tel Aviv.

Dr. Michal Oren is a senior lecturer in Land of Israel Studies at the Schechter Institute and an expert in the modern history of Israel’s first “Hebrew” city: Tel Aviv-Jaffa.

English translation by Penina Goldshmidt.

Image by: Zeev Radoven, KKL’s Photos Archive

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