Death on Dizengoff. It sounds like the title of a novel by Agatha Christie, something she might have written at some point between Murder in Mesopotamia and Death on the Nile. It is, however, the theme of a compelling and dramatic new walking tour that chronicles the history of terrorist attacks in one very small area in Tel Aviv.
Walking tours have become kind of a “thing” in Tel Aviv over the past several years. Most of them occur regularly, some just once in a while, and others by appointment with the tour guide. Almost all of them are free; you just show up at the advertised starting place and time, and off you go. There are many kinds: walking tours of the White City celebrating Bauhaus architecture; culinary walking tours, general, specific, vegetarian and vegan; nightlife walking tours; barhopping tours; Old City and flea market tours of Jaffa; graffiti tours of Florentine; not to mention walking tours of Neve Tzedek, Neve Shanan and, of course, the Carmel Market.
There are now even late-night walking tours of Tel Aviv’s gargantuan Central Bus Station – from its 7th floor top down to its dark, spooky passages below ground.
“Tragic Tel Aviv,” however, goes straight to the gut as it takes us on a tour of no fewer than six sites of terrorist attacks on a one-km. stretch of Dizengoff Street. The extensively researched tour is led by Yaakov Levi, a 45-year-old husband and father of two children, ages three and five. Originally from Toronto, Canada, this former investment and mortgage specialist is now semi-retired, writing comic books – and now leading these tours.
Why a tour of terrorist attack sites? Levi explains, “I lived in Jerusalem during the ‘90s. I have three friends who were wounded.
My roommate was at one attack that he survived. An Arab dropped a brick on my head one time that just missed me. I saw the aftermath of the Bus 18 Jerusalem bombing. And when I say ‘aftermath,’ I mean I was there right away. I saw the blood and the guts. I was traumatized, and this stuff never left me. And I always think about these people, the pain that they go through. And I feel that everyone should share a bit of that pain, that these people should not be forgotten.
“And the final impetus of this tour, the reason I’m doing this, is that I was sitting at Landwer Café on Dizengoff Street with a friend, right next to the Number 5 bus memorial. No one noticed! My friend didn’t notice, the people who overheard us talking didn’t notice, and the memorial was right there, close up. But people don’t notice these things. The lives and deaths of these victims are being ignored and forgotten.”
Levi is determined to rectify this situation with his Tragic Tel Aviv tours, which he began conducting a scant few weeks ago. Each tour takes about an hour, or maybe a bit more, as Levi’s recounting of each attack is lengthy and detailed. The sites are not in chronological order, and they span a wide time-frame, ranging from as far back as 1940 to as recently as 2016.
The tour begins at Mikhoels Square, at the corner of King George Street and Ben Tsiyon Boulevard. Here we find the memorial of what Levi calls “the biggest civilian casualty terror attack in the history of Tel Aviv,” on September 9, 1940. Mussolini’s Fascist Italy had recently allied with the Germans in WWII, and this, “Mandate Palestine,” was a British territory. The Italian Air Force came to bomb the oil refineries in Haifa, which is where the British got their oil from for their navy. Britain’s Royal Air Force chased them away, so the Italians unloaded their cargo of 75 bombs over downtown Tel Aviv.
THE MEMORIAL is more or less at “ground zero,” Levi says, where 130 Jews and seven were Arabs killed, along with one unknown Australian soldier. The planes came, bombed, and returned to their base in Greece, and reported it as a successful bombing of Jaffa Port. “They didn’t want to say, ‘We bombed a bunch of kids.’ They wanted to sound heroic.” The youngest victim was a 10-month-old baby asleep in his crib.
“I’ll tell you something interesting,” Levi says. “This set a precedent for Tel Aviv. Within an hour of the bombing, cafés – with all their windows smashed to pieces – were open again for business.”
Levi brings a large green binder along with him on the tour, which holds his notes, pictures of the sites taken in the more or less immediate aftermath of each attack, along with the names and as many portrait photos of the victims as he has been able to find. These are understandably somewhat limited for the older attack sites, but almost complete for the sites of more recent attacks.
Levi’s research materials illuminate the tour’s second stop just a short distance away at the Dizengoff Mall, the site of an attack on Purim Eve, 1996. Three different terrorist attacks throughout Israel had occurred in the week preceding, leaving 47 people dead. People were in shock, thinking that they should perhaps avoid public places, especially with their children.
“But the mayor of Tel Aviv said that despite the fear, we will celebrate Purim and call the event ‘Dizengoff Laughs.’ The police and soldiers were here en masse. They made the place seem real safe. So everyone came out. An Israeli Arab drove a terrorist in from Gaza with a bomb, and dropped him off here. The terrorist decided that he wasn’t going to get by the security people into the mall, so he blew himself up right here in the street,” says Levi as we stand facing the mall at the corner of Dizengoff and King George. “Thirteen people were killed. Not only was this the fourth terror attack in nine days – and he targeted a lot of children – this in the heart of Tel Aviv.” For the sake of some bitter irony, Levi notes that there were hearts on the movie theater sign back then, which were broken to pieces by the bomb.
Levi speaks with passion at each attack site. At Dizengoff 111 he says, “There’s nothing there now that was there then, but there was a minimarket here, and an Egyptian airplane bombed it, killing the manager. June 9, 1948. From the moment Israel declared its independence, the Egyptians began a two-month bombing campaign, strictly killing civilians. They killed 150 people, bombing Tel Aviv. All civilians.”
At the Rav Chen Cinema at Dizengoff Circle, Levi tells us, “A cold Hanukkah night. December 13, 1974. A terrorist came in, sat in the back, and started to toss grenades into the audience halfway through the film. Two people were killed, a young Israeli woman and her date. They went to the movie together and never came out.” Levi’s story of this attack is a detailed story of a now almost unbelievable lapse of security, from the terrorist’s arrival to Israel to his entry to the movie theater. “But, with typical Tel Aviv resilience, 48 hours after the attack, a movie was screening here again, with then-mayor Shlomo Lahat in attendance.”
Other stops chronicle incidents like the October 19, 1994, bombing of Bus 5, killing 22, and the New Years’ Day 2016 shooting of the manager and a customer at the Simta Bar at 122 Dizengoff Street, during a Friday afternoon birthday party. As with all of the other sites along the way, Levi’s description of these grim events seem as fresh and dramatic as though they happened only yesterday.Yaakov Levi offers his Tragic Tel Aviv tours to individuals or groups of any size. For further information or to arrange a tour, visit tragictelaviv.com.
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