Bookstore Glossary Library Links News Publications Timeline Virtual Israel Experience
Anti-Semitism Biography History Holocaust Israel Israel Education Myths & Facts Politics Religion Travel US & Israel Vital Stats Women
donate subscribe Contact About Home

Hebrew University of Jerusalem

The first university established in Israel. The establishment of an institute of higher learning in Ereẓ Israel was first proposed by Hermann *Schapira in 1884 at the Kattowitz Conference of the Ḥovevei Zion, and again at the first Zionist Congress in 1897. A few years later, a group of young Zionists were inspired by Chaim *Weizmann, then a teacher at the University of Geneva, to make the foundation of such an institution a primary aim of the Zionist movement. The group, which included Martin *Buber and Berthold *Feiwel, brought the question before the Congress of 1901, and Herzl submitted a petition to the Ottoman sultan for permission to establish a university in Jerusalem.

The Congress of 1913 appointed a committee, including Weizmann and Judah L. *Magnes of America, to execute the project, but the outbreak of World War I prevented action. While the war with the Turks was still being waged, Weizmann, who had come to Ereẓ Israel as head of the *Zionist Commission after the issue of the *Balfour Declaration, initiated the establishment of the university. On July 24, 1918, 12 foundation stones of the university were laid on Mount Scopus, north of the Old City of Jerusalem. This site, incomparable in beauty and impressiveness, had been acquired before the war by Isaac *Goldberg from the estate of an English lawyer, Sir John Gray-Hill. The view commanded on one side the Holy City and Bethlehem, and on the other the rugged landscape of the Wilderness of Judea, the Jordan Valley, the Dead Sea, and the Mountains of Moab. Weizmann, the only speaker at the ceremony, concluded: "Here, out of the misery and the desolation of war, is being created the first germ of a new life.… In this university we have gone beyond restoration; we are creating during the war something which is to serve as symbol of a better future. In the university the wandering soul of Israel will reach its haven."

There was an interval of seven years before any faculty of the university could be opened. The first lecture was given in 1923 by Albert *Einstein on his theory of relativity, and he spoke the first sentences in Hebrew, which was to be the language of teaching. He was dedicated to the university, and had accompanied Weizmann to the United States in 1921 to apprise American Jewry of its significance. It was decided that, before undergraduate teaching was initiated, work should be in postgraduate studies and scientific research. Three tiny institutes of research were opened, in Jewish studies, chemistry, and microbiology. The university was to develop in two directions: on the one hand, it should be the center where the Hebrew tradition would be molded in its original language and in the light of general humanities; on the other, it should be a center of research in the natural and medical sciences, which would help the regeneration of the land. The former development was the work of Magnes, who settled in Jerusalem in 1923, and devoted himself to bringing the university into being. Weizmann and committees in England and the United States launched the effort for scientific research. The university was opened on April 1, 1925, by Arthur *Balfour, at an impressive ceremony attended by the High Commissioner, Sir Herbert *Samuel, General Allenby, Chaim Weizmann, Ḥ.N. *Bialik, *Aḥad Ha-Am, and Chief Rabbi *Kook.

The university did not at that time receive any grant from the Government of Palestine; it was the financial responsibility of the Jews of the world. The supreme governing body included Jews eminent in public or academic life in many countries. Weizmann was chairman of the board, and Magnes chancellor – later president. The university grew quickly. Following the inauguration, new institutions were added: Jewish studies (1924); Oriental studies (1926); mathematics (1927); general humanities (1928): philosophy and history, geography and archaeology, classical literature, English, and other languages; physics (1930); and biological sciences (1931). Demand grew for regular courses of postgraduate studies, leading to a Master's degree. Two faculties were constituted: humanities, and science and mathematics. The first degrees were awarded in 1931. At this stage, however, the authorities were opposed to the opening of professional schools for doctors or lawyers: learning should be acquired for its own sake, and research was the main objective. About half the students were from Palestine, and half from abroad. Some of the teachers now appointed were graduates of the university.

The Nazi persecution of Jews in Germany and their exclusion from institutions of higher learning gave fresh importance to the Hebrew University. It could take its part in the battle for academic freedom, and be a principal place in which exiled scholars and scientists could find a haven. Hebrew remained the language of instruction, and was rapidly adapted to the needs of modern learning and science. Vocabulary, based on biblical and rabbinical Hebrew, multiplied. The library, which was also the Jewish National *Library, grew to half a million books, housed in the principal building on Mount Scopus and containing one of the most valuable collections of Hebraica and Judaica. Before the outbreak of World War II, medical research was developed in laboratories attached to the university hospital, itself a gift of the *Hadassah Women's Zionist Organization. The hospital and medical center did valuable work for the Allies and the civilian population of the Middle East throughout the war. A school of agriculture at Rehovot was added in 1940. At the end of the war, plans were made for large extensions, and new buildings were started on Mount Scopus.

The years between 1945 and 1948 were troubled. Both Jews and Arabs were in revolt and university progress was halted. The outbreak of riots and fighting at the end of November 1947, which followed the United Nations decision to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab states, caused temporary suspension of academic work. Teachers and students were engaged in the defense of the National Home; and, in April 1948, an Arab mob attack which murdered a convoy of doctors, nurses, and students to Scopus compelled the evacuation of the Hadassah Hospital and Medical Center, in order to avoid further losses and bloodshed. The fighting during and after the War of Independence involved the university. The buildings were held against Arab attacks, but grave damage was done. During the first cease-fire, the United Nations mediator contrived to obtain agreement for demilitarization of Mount Scopus and The Mount of Olives. The university buildings were to remain an Israel enclave, surrounded by Arab land, and were occupied by a small body of Jewish police and caretakers.

The Israel-Jordan *Armistice Agreement, concluded in April 1949, included "an agreement in principle for restoration of the normal functioning of the cultural and humanitarian institutions on Mount Scopus, and free access thereto." An Arab-Jewish committee was to work out details. That, however, was not done, as Jordan refused to nominate representatives to the committee, and the enclave remained inaccessible to teachers and students.

In the summer of 1949 the university resumed its work in western Jerusalem, housed in a number of improvised and unsuitable buildings scattered over the town. The rooms for lectures were bare; there were no laboratories or equipment and very few books. At the same time, the creation of the State of Israel required intensified expansion of the university departments to provide the civil servants, teachers, doctors and lawyers, scientists and agronomists for building rapidly. The pre-faculty of medicine was transformed into a faculty (opened in 1949) for both undergraduate and postgraduate studies. A law faculty was opened in the same year, while the school of agriculture (later, renamed the Levi Eshkol Faculty of Agriculture) and the department of economic and social sciences also became faculties in 1952 and 1953 respectively, and the school of education was opened in 1952. An extensive new campus was dedicated at Givat Ram on a ridge of the Judean Hills in the west of the city. A department of business administration and a school of social work (1958/59) were added; the Institute of Oriental Studies (1926) was developed into a department of Asian and African studies (1962) and the Ben-Zvi Institute for research on the Jewish Communities in the Middle East (founded 1947) was affiliated. Other new departments were the Institute for Contemporary Jewry (1959/60), the institute for research in Jewish Law (1963), and the Library School. A bigger Hadassah University hospital (opened in 1961), a medical school for 500 students, and a dental school for 250 students were built on another site, at Ein Kerem on the outskirts of Jerusalem. Since 1929, the Hebrew University has had its own publishing house, the Magnes Press, which publishes significant work done at the university and produces two important series, Scripta Hierosolymitana and Textus, the latter devoted to Bible studies. The number of students rose from 1,000 in 1947/48 to 5,000 in 1958/59 and over 15,000 in 1969/70. During this period the academic staff increased from 200 to 1,430, many themselves graduates of the university. The National and University Library in 1970 contained 1¾ million books and numerous periodicals.

At Givat Ram, 150 acres of eroded limestone have been transformed into a new university campus with more than 50 buildings. This phoenix-like resurgence was made possible by the combined financial help of the state and of Jewish communities and individuals abroad. Government and Jewish Agency grants cover nearly two-thirds of the maintenance budget, and societies of friends of the university have given the funds for new buildings. The university has not, however, become a state institution. The government attaches no conditions to its contribution, has no administrative control, and nominates only a few lay members to the executive council. The university is open to all students without discrimination of sex, creed, color, or nationality. The number of students from abroad steadily mounted, and there was a large influx of Jewish students, most of them American, after the Six-Day War. In 1970, foreign students totaled 3,200, of whom some 1,200 came from the United States and some 50 were Asian or African. In addition, 205 were Arabs or Druze (45) including some from east Jerusalem and the Israel-held territories in Judea and Samaria.

The board of governors, meeting annually in Jerusalem, elects the president for a four-year term, approves the budget, and decides major issues of policy. Half the board consists of members resident in Israel. The control of the university is maintained by a senate, an academic body presided over by an elected rector, and an executive council, composed of a majority of lay members together with some academics. After Magnes, the presidents were: Selig *Brodetsky (1949–51), Benjamin *Mazar (1953–61), Giulio *Racah (acting; 1961–62), Eliahu *Elath (1962–68), and Avraham *Harman (from 1968). As a result of the Six-Day War, the university's original home on Mount Scopus was recovered, and the former building of the humanities faculty was put to immediate use. Studies were restarted in the Rosenbloom building, dormitories designed for 2,500 students, and a residential center for pre-academic studies opened. The original Hadassah-University hospital was rehabilitated and the Harry S. Truman Research Center, endowed by American Friends of the Hebrew University, has been erected on Scopus as part of the university. The faculty of law was transferred in 1969 to Mount Scopus. The university now has four campuses: Scopus, Givat Ram, and Ein Kerem in Jerusalem, and Reḥovot. It was invited to set the academic standards for the University College in Haifa, and, together with the Weizmann Institute of Science and the Haifa Technion, to do the same for the University of the Negev in Beersheba. In 1958, the Hebrew University opened branches of its law and social sciences faculties in Tel Aviv; but between 1966 and 1969 these were transferred to the University of Tel Aviv. The high quality of research done in Jewish Studies, the humanities and social sciences on one hand, and the natural, physical, and medical sciences on the other, has won encouragement and financial subsidies from U.S. government departments and private foundations in various countries, and has brought the Hebrew University worldwide recognition. It becomes more and more the university of the whole Jewish people.


N. Bentwich, Hebrew University of Jerusalem 19181960 (1961); L. Levenson, Vision and Fulfillment (1950); C. Weizmann, Trial and Error (1966), index; H. Parzen in JSS (July 1970), 187–213; Hebrew University, Calendar (1925–68), Scopusa periodical magazine (1946– ). Research Reports (1965–69), Report by the President (1953– ). WEBSITE:

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.