The cynics will claim, with a certain degree of justice, that it's only the senility of a 100-year-old woman. We happen to be talking about a city, quite a large one in fact: Tel Aviv. On the other hand, even when she was young, she was like a wayward girl with memory problems who preferred images, rhythm and a turbulent nightlife. In fact, that's what her many fathers wanted and dreamed of, but she continued with her own race, and over the years the race continued on its own, like a runner propelled by inertia.
Tel Aviv was so busy and preoccupied with her own problems over the years that she forgot her great-grandfather. Had she been from a traditional Jewish family, the price for such forgetting would have been dispossession - but the city continues without stopping.
While her great-grandfather, Jacobus Kann, was forgotten in collective memory, Tel Aviv established herself, suffocating on smoke and soot, and towing away cars whose drivers never found a decent parking place. That's what happens when one small neighborhood on sand dunes turns into a big city.
In the coming days, the Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality will launch its official festivities for the 100th anniversary of the first Hebrew city. They plan to exploit the excuse for a party to the hilt, as only the large and glittering cities of the world know how to celebrate: A thousand artists, singers, dancers and actors will perform at the opening ceremony. The municipality's Web site also promises a simultaneous mass sing-along, from Jaffa in the south to Ramat Aviv in the north.
Jacobus Kann's grandchildren hope that now, in her old age, the city will deign to appreciate and commemorate their grandfather, who made the construction of its first houses possible. In the past they tried to receive such recognition, were turned away without an explanation and remained bitter for decades.
"Apparently that's how it is when you don't have connections in the municipality. After everything he did, there isn't even a street named after him? Not even an alley?" said Itamar Arbel, 82, a grandson of Kann. He and his sister, Hannah Reis of Haifa, heard stories from their mother about the man whom the Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality is taking too long to discover.
Kann was a Dutch Jewish banker, born in 1872 in The Hague to a family of bankers who founded and ran a major bank, Lissa and Kann. Clients included the Dutch royal family.
Jacobus decided to follow in the footsteps of his father, Moritz, studied accounting and bookkeeping and joined the family business. When he was 19 his father died and he took control of the bank. "He was totally secular in his behavior, not to say assimilated," says Arbel.
Kann was exposed to the Zionist idea after a Jewish officer in the French army, Alfred Dreyfus, was accused of spying for the Germans. In 1897, three years after the affair erupted, Kann, already a young man of 25, found himself observing the First Zionist Congress in Basel. "The Dreyfus affair and the pogroms in Eastern Europe distressed him greatly, and he was very interested in these events, in part because he was Jewish. It was important for him to understand the idea that aroused so many Jews in Europe at the time, and he traveled to Basel in order to hear," says his grandson.
Kann listened to Herzl and quickly concluded that the Zionist idea needed a strong banking foundation. "Herzl did not have a banker and the Rothschilds treated his idea as an adventure," says Arbel. "Jewish families of money and means from Germany, Britain and France did not believe in this dream, and therefore my grandfather turned to [Herz] during one of the recesses at the congress, introduced himself as a banker and became very friendly with him and with David Wolffsohn, a wealthy merchant who later became the president of the World Zionist Organization."
The friendship later led Kann to the top of the Zionist leadership of those days, first as a member of the Zionist General Council (then called the Greater Actions Committee) and later as one of the three-member Zionist Executive (the Smaller Actions Committee). He and Wolffsohn established the banking institution known as the Jewish Colonial Trust in order to finance the Zionist idea, enlist the necessary resources, cover Herzl's many trips and pay the Turks, who ruled the country at the time. "Everything cost a lot of money. Herzl wasted his entire dowry paying for trips abroad. He earned a salary as a journalist but was always under the threat of dismissal," recounts Kann's grandson.
In 1902, as part of that financial activity, the Anglo-Palestine bank was founded. It eventually became Bank Leumi.
During the first decade of the 19th century, when bourgeois immigrants began to arrive in the country, several dozen decided to unite as the Ahuzat Bayit association, to buy the lands of Kerem Djebali, not far from Arab Jaffa, and build a Jewish neighborhood. The Turkish government prohibited its Jewish subjects from purchasing land and Kann, completely believing in Herzl's idea, rolled up his sleeves and carried out a "circuitous deal." As a Dutch citizen he purchased the first 60 plots in Ahuzat Bayit in the name of the Jewish settlers, and registered them in his own name.
"My grandfather, with Wolffsohn and Otto Warburg, were practical," says Arbel. "They established facts on the ground and built Tel Aviv slowly, dunam after dunam, northward. Everything was sand and dunes. My grandfather was the one who enabled the start of construction of the first Hebrew city in Tel Aviv, for those immigrants who didn't want to live in Jaffa, next to the Arabs."
He later served as the first Dutch consul in Jerusalem and aspired to reach an agreement with the Turks ensuring the Jews in Palestine autonomy and a regular army. The Turks were not enthusiastic, and the idea was shelved.
In the late 1920s the Kanns returned to The Hague, because the Israeli climate was hard on Jacobus's wife, Anna. Their end was tragic: When Holland was occupied by the Nazis, Kann's family bank was closed and he began to wander, seeking refuge with his wife. They were caught by the Nazis and sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp in Czechoslovakia, where he died of an intestinal disease in October 1944. "That was at the end of the war, when the Allied forces were already on the Dutch-Belgian border," says the grandson. Seven months later, Anna died too.
In an absurd twist, it was the Jerusalem municipality that found Jacobus Kann worthy of commemoration: About a decade ago it named a square in Kiryat Hayovel after him. This week, the Jerusalem municipality could not find the minutes of the Municipal Naming Committee that decided on this commemoration, or the considerations of the decision-makers. Perhaps they need a somewhat more efficient archive, but in Tel Aviv things are not much better, because there they didn't even know who Jacobus Kann was at first.
A few weeks ago Haviva Avi-Gai, a member of the Tel Aviv-Jaffa city council, was elected to a second term as chairwoman of the Municipal Naming Committee. She did not know who Kann was, and therefore could not explain why the entire White City does not have a single small white sign bearing his name. She says she has authored three Tel Aviv street guides, and doesn't recall Kann was one of the city's founders. However, at the end of a thorough investigation, Avi-Gai discovered that the municipality had been asked to commemorate the Dutch Jew, but these requests were turned down over "a shortage of details."
"I told his entire life story to the municipality, and not only me," recounts Arbel. "My late father did so too. There are so many ways to commemorate a person - it can be with a square, an alley, a small park or a statue - but the municipality continued to ignore us. For years I applied to the municipality, along with the Dutch community in Israel, and they sent us away empty-handed."
And yet - perhaps this story will have a somewhat better ending than Kann's bitter story, and the Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality will repair an historic injustice against the man. "Jacobus Kann was a pipeline enabling the acquisition of the first lands in Tel Aviv. The subject has been placed on the desk of the naming committee, and I will work to commemorate him on the city's 100th anniversary," promised Avi-Gai at the end of her investigation.
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