Shlomo Lahat in 1972.
(photo credit: PR)
Legendary Tel Aviv mayor Shlomo Lahat died on Wednesday morning at the age of 86 at Ichilov Hospital, where he had been treated for a serious lung infection. In recent years the once dynamic Lahat had suffered from Alzheimer’s disease.
A retired major-general in the Israel Defense Forces and former head of its Manpower Directorate, the Berlin-born Lahat, whose family left Germany in 1933, the year in which the Nazi Party rose to power, was elected as the eighth mayor of Tel Aviv in 1974, only months after leaving the army. He remained in office for 19 years, completely transforming a sleepy city into a vibrant metropolis.
After joining the Hagana at age 17, Lahat progressed to the IDF following the establishment of the state and fought in the War of Independence, the Sinai Campaign, the Six Day War and the War of Attrition, serving as a tank commander in the latter two of those wars.
Known by the affectionate sobriquet of Chich, Lahat supported the establishment and growth of cultural institutions and organizations in Tel Aviv, and almost religiously attended premiere performances at the city’s theaters and concert halls, and openings of exhibitions at museums and art galleries. He also coined the phrase ‘the city that never stops,’ which has remained integral to the image of Tel Aviv.
A lawyer by training, and a witty raconteur with an endless fund of jokes and anecdotes that he could tell in Hebrew, English, German and Yiddish, Lahat was the backbone of support for the establishment of the Yiddishpiel theater, and continued to be supportive and attend performances long after he was out of office. He also backed the opening of the Tel Aviv Cinematheque and the construction of the Opera Tower, and initiated a modernization process that included the city’s beachside promenade and several dilapidated neighborhoods.
Politically affiliated with the Likud and for many years a hard-line right-winger, Lahat switched allegiance to former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and persuaded him to attend the 1995 peace rally at the conclusion of which Rabin was assassinated.
Lahat blamed himself for Rabin’s death and could never forgive himself for having talked the reluctant prime minister into an event that proved to be his last.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu expressed sorrow at Lahat’s death, saying the former mayor was “a central element in turning the city of Tel Aviv into what it is today – lively, cultured and a symbol of tolerance.”
“When you say Chich, you say Tel Aviv,” Netanyahu added.
President Reuven Rivlin called Lahat “the Herod of Tel Aviv,” referring to his great influence on the building up of the city, and added that under Lahat’s stewardship, Tel Aviv had flourished in all directions.
“He was one of the most outstanding builders of the city and the architect of its color, its pluralism and its image as a city of culture,” Rivlin said.
Rivlin also lauded Lahat’s leadership abilities, as a military commander, in civilian life and in politics. Rivlin characterized Lahat as a decent human being whose presence in Israeli society will be sorely missed.
Former president Shimon Peres eulogized Lahat as a commander and a leader who for many years fought to preserve Israel’s security and to build up Tel Aviv,and particularly praised for the social welfare system that Lahat established.
Current Mayor Ron Huldai said that Lahat had turned Tel Aviv into an enviable city and a place of inspiration, particularly because of the attention that he paid to education and culture.
Former Tel Aviv mayor Roni Milo credited Lahat with breathing a new spirit into Tel Aviv-Jaffa, and turning it into the nation’s cultural and commercial centers.
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog (Labor) commended Lahat for dedicating most of his life to public service and said he was a visionary with great talent and love for his work.
Lahat was “part of the generation that always put the ‘us’ over the ‘me’ and that is how he behaved when he joined the Hagana, in his various jobs in the IDF and his two decades full of work as mayor of Tel Aviv,” Herzog said.
According to the Labor leader, Lahat’s transformation of Tel Aviv turned all of Israel into a developed, Western country.
Lahat is survived by his wife, Ziva, their two children and several grandchildren.
His son Dan Lahat followed him into municipal politics and is a member of the Tel Aviv City Council.