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Higher Education in Israel: The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

(April 1, 1925)

The first university established in modern-day Israel, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem formally opened its doors on April 1, 1925. Dr. Chaim Weizmann, then President of the World Zionist Organization, presided over the event, which marked the achievement of a long-time goal of the Zionist movement.

To conclude his remarks, Weizmann said: "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."

Quick Growth
Trouble During Israel’s Independence
Expansion & Consolidation in the 1970s
Growing into the Future


The establishment of an institute of higher learning in Israel was first proposed by Hermann Schapira in 1884 at the Kattowitz Conference and again at the First Zionist Congress in 1897. A few years later, a group of young Zionists was 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 Theodor Herzl submitted a petition to the Ottoman sultan for permission to establish a university in Jerusalem.

From a Zionist perspective, it was necessary to create an institution that would allow Jews to study and make their own contribution to world scholarship. Under the leadership of the American rabbi Judah Magnes, the focus of the university was placed first on teaching, with the hope that quality research would later come from the newly qualified students.

Zionists’ plans were countered by a different proposal for a Palestine University. The suggestion was made by Colonel Ronald Storrs, the British Military Governor of Jerusalem. His vision of the new university was one which would include both a Hebrew and an Arabic department. Concerned that the Jewish character of the university would be affected, Chairman of the Zionist Executive Menahem Ussishkin rejected the idea.

On July 24, 1918, twelve foundation stones of the university were laid on Mount Scopus, north of the Old City of Jerusalem. This site 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 Judean Desert, the Jordan Valley, the Dead Sea, and the Mountains of Jordan.

Quick Growth

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. Einstein, who turned down the invitation to become Israel’s president, bequeathed his “manuscripts, copyrights, publication rights, royalties … and all other literary property and rights, of any and every kind or nature whatsoever” to Hebrew University.

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, Hayyim Nachman Bialik, Ahad Ha’am, and Chief Rabbi Abraham Isaac 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 were 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.

Trouble During Israel’s Independence

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 on April 13, 1948, an Arab mob ambushed a convoy of doctors, nurses, and students on Scopus, killing 78 people. The attack prompted the evacuation of the Hadassah Hospital and Medical Center.

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 an agreement for the 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 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. By 1970, The National and University Library 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.

Expansion & Consolidation in the 1970s

The decade of the 1970s was marked by expansion and consolidation. Prior to the Yom Kippur War of 1973, the university’s student enrollment climbed to a peak of some 18,000 at the height of a period of growth in tertiary education. At the same time, the academic staff was enriched by the immigration to Israel of many scholars from the Western world as well as from the U.S.S.R.

Concurrently, the rebuilding of the campus on Mount Scopus proceeded apace both with regard to premises to house the academic work of the university and student accommodation, in particular, that set aside for married students with young children.

Noteworthy in this period of expansion was the growth in the School for Overseas Students, where enrollment climbed to 1,000, with approximately another 1,000 attending the annual summer courses. The school offered courses varying in duration from one to four years, with teaching in English, French, Spanish, and Russian, in addition to Hebrew. It now played a key role in strengthening Israel’s ties with the younger generation of Diaspora Jewry.

A number of new research institutes came into being in response to fresh needs and possibilities; these were within the areas of Jewish studies, and those for the history and traditions of Jews in the Eastern and Western Diasporas, Slavic language and literature, international affairs, European studies, Soviet and East European research, Israeli society, economics and politics, energy resources; environmental sciences, lasers, marine sciences, agriculture, medicine, and dental medicine.

In line with the university’s policy of serving Israel’s needs for trained manpower, it also established, in conjunction with Hadassah, the Henrietta Szold-Hadassah-Hebrew University School of Nursing, the Hadassah-Hebrew University School of Occupational Therapy (both granting a bachelor’s degree) and the Hebrew University-Hadassah School of Community Medicine and Public Health, which gives a master’s degree. In 1975, the Institute of Advanced Studies was set up to provide a framework for the encouragement of scientific and scholarly leadership and the advancement of top-level research. The institute offers fellowships to Israeli and overseas scholars, initially in the areas of mathematics, Jewish studies, and economics.

The 1973 war was a turning point that marked profound changes within Israel, including severe cuts in public spending for tertiary education, and they affected the Hebrew University, where the stress was on consolidating the growth of past years. The Mount Scopus campus became a residential university city, providing accommodation for over 3,000 students and premises for the Faculty of Law, the School for Overseas Students, the Institute of Archaeology, the School of Education, first-year science studies for all the experimental faculties, the Harry S. Truman Research Institute, the Martin Buber Center for Adult Education and the Joseph Saltiel Center for Pre-Academic Studies. There were new buildings for the Faculty of Social Sciences, for the Faculty of Humanities, and an undergraduate library for these faculties. These units moved from Givat Ram to Mount Scopus in the fall of 1981 as scheduled. The physical development of the university was thus virtually completed on all four campuses. Enrollment stood at over 15,000, of whom more than a third were engaged in post-graduate work. This latter figure marked the latest phase in the development of the university, making it the Jewish world’s foremost center of advanced study. In addition, university extension courses, both on-campus and throughout the country, brought faculty members to the service of a further 12,000 people each year; while under special arrangements with a number of leading universities, notably in North and South America, the university also aided Jewish studies abroad in staffing and curriculum design and planning. With the growth of local universities in other Israeli cities, the Hebrew University, which had 70% of its student body coming from outside Jerusalem, increasingly served as a national institution.

The university’s Authority for Research and Development coordinated the work of some 2,500 research projects underway at the university with funding received from over 500 different granting agencies. Much of this work and of the more than 3,000 books and papers issuing annually from the academic community were of direct practical importance to the State of Israel and its economic, scientific, and social development. Taken as a whole, the research record made the university an international center of scholarship, which attracted hundreds of visiting academics from all parts of the world.

Growing into the Future

At the meeting of the board of governors held in May 1980, it was decided, despite the financial stringency prevailing, to proceed with the completion of the rebuilding of the Mount Scopus campus to carry out the move of the Social Sciences and Humanities Faculties from Givat Ram in the spring and summer of 1981. The transfer from Givat Ram to Mount Scopus was completed in the summer of 1981 as scheduled.

As the university reestablished itself in the renovated and greatly expanded campus on Mount Scopus in the early 1980s, the consolidation of units that had been scattered in temporary quarters throughout Jerusalem during the 1948–67 "exile" from Mount Scopus enabled the Givat Ram campus to become primarily the university’s science campus, incorporating lecture rooms and laboratories that had been in other locations. As part of this development, the Avraham Harman Science Library was opened at Givat Ram. At Mount Scopus, the Bloomfield Library for Humanities and Social Sciences opened its doors.

As enrollment continued to expand from the early 1980s level of some 16,000 students to close to 23,000 by the mid-1990s, the university sought ways to provide expanded dormitory facilities. This became a matter of high priority not only because of the natural growth in the number of Israeli students but also because of the influx of immigrant students, particularly from the Soviet Union. The total number of dormitory accommodations has reached approximately 6,500.

A major development project initiated in 1995 was he-art facilities for use by high school science classes and their teachers – the only such laboratory in Israel built and operated exclusively for this purpose. The laboratory provides science enrichment for youngsters beyond that which would normally be available to them in their own schools.

At the Ein Kerem medical campus, a full story was added to the existing School of Dental Medicine in the mid-1990s. Besides providing needed additional space for the training of a new generation of dental practitioners and researchers, the new story will also contain the world’s most advanced laboratory for experimentation and documentation involving dental implantations.

Also, at Ein Kerem, the Faculty of Medicine proceeded with plans for a significant expansion of its facilities. A new building, the National and International Institute of Health, provided an improved infrastructure, enabling the faculty to increase its intake of new students and provide them with optimal learning conditions. It also provided more opportunities in teaching and research for talented Israeli scientists who have been compelled to seek adequate conditions abroad.

A major addition to the cultural life of Jerusalem took place on the Givat Ram campus with the development in the 1980s of the Jerusalem and University Botanical Garden, a facility open to the general public which provides a showcase of plant life from all over the world. The garden also included a Visitors Center in the Hank Greenspan Plaza. Another public attraction in Givat Ram is the windows by the artist Mordecai Ardon, dedicated in 1984. The windows, located in the Jewish National and University Library, conceptualize the prophet Isaiah’s vision of peace.

Another development project was the opening in 1987 of the Astrid and Henry Montor Outdoor Sports and Recreation Center of the Mount Scopus campus. The first phase of this center was the tennis courts. A soccer field, swimming pool, and track and field facilities were built later.

An innovation in Israeli higher education was taken in 1985 with the opening of the Koret School of Veterinary Medicine at the Faculty of Agriculture in Rehovot – the country’s first-ever school in this discipline. The school, along with the university’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Rishon Lezion – the largest facility of its type in the Middle East – provides an opportunity for students who formerly were forced to go abroad to study this branch of medical science.

Another innovation in Israeli higher education came in the 1990s with the establishment of Israel’s first B.A. programs in communications and journalism and in hotel studies. Israel’s first Institute for European Studies was also established during this decade at the university.

Rapid expansion took place, in terms of equipment and numbers of students and faculty, in computer science. This trend was given further impetus due to the large influx of talented students from the former Soviet Union. The growth resulted in the creation of a separate Institute of Computer Science.

East Asian studies gained greatly in popularity among students at the university, bringing with it an expansion of staff and subject matter. In addition to Japanese and Chinese, the study of other East Asian languages and cultures was initiated, including courses in the Vietnamese, Thai, and Mongol languages.

East Asian studies gained greatly in popularity among students at the university, bringing with it an expansion of staff and subject matter. In addition to Japanese and Chinese, the study of other East Asian languages and cultures was initiated, including courses in the Vietnamese, Thai, and Mongol languages.

In the area of programs for students from abroad, the Rothberg School for Overseas Students made great efforts to respond to the wave of immigration from the former Soviet Union. Besides offering courses taught in Russian, the school also initiated a special training program for Hebrew Ulpan teachers to provide a cadre of instructors to the large influx of new immigrants both within the university and elsewhere. Another service to the community was the formation of a special training program to prepare immigrant scientists as teachers of mathematics and science in Israeli high schools.

The Rothberg School for Overseas Students, in cooperation with the faculties of Humanities and Social Sciences, began offering in the mid-1990s new programs taught in English for graduate students around the world. An M.A. degree can now be earned in this manner.

The university also has a program of adult education, which offers a wide range of courses taught in Hebrew, English, and Arabic to those who find themselves with increasing leisure hours and a desire to expand their educational/cultural scope of knowledge.

Interdisciplinary study gained impetus throughout the 1980s and 1990s as the pursuit of knowledge and the development of new technologies began to erase old, increasingly artificial definitions of areas of expertise. A prominent example of this was the decision by the university to open a Department of Biotechnology in 1984, a unit jointly administered by the faculties of Science, Medicine, and Agriculture. Another area of interdisciplinary studies and research that gained increasing emphasis in the 1990s was environmental studies.

As an institution that has always stressed research (approximately one-third of the total student body is in graduate studies), the university began in the mid-1980s to institute programs designed to attract the most outstanding students and young researchers to its rolls. This was accomplished through the institution of special scholarships and individualized programs of study. One especially significant vehicle for furthering this goal was the establishment of the Golda Meir Fellowship Fund which, since 1984, has granted many hundreds of fellowships to outstanding graduate students, post-graduates, and young lecturers from Israel and abroad.

Close to 40% of all civilian research carried out in the country is conducted at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In the closing decades of the 20th century, the university placed increasing emphasis on its role in the development of the Israeli high-tech industry. The university’s Yissum Research Development Company has grown over the years. The university is also a partner in the encouragement of new high-tech firms through a "scientific incubator" company.

The university was a pioneer in establishing contacts with Palestinian scholars as well as researchers from Arab countries even before the political movement toward peace began in the early 1990s. University units such as the Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace, the Sanford F. Kuvin Center for the Study of Infectious and Tropical Diseases, and the Faculty of Agriculture were leaders in contact with their Arab counterparts, much of which earned the financial support of Western governments and institutions. These contacts focused on joint research projects involving such topics as regional economics, water usage, environmental quality, education for tolerance, political solutions, and the overcoming of animal and human diseases endemic to the region.

In 2005 the university included eight faculties: Humanities, Natural Sciences, Social Sciences, Medicine, Dental Medicine, Law, Agriculture, Food, and Environmental Sciences. The university had 15 schools: Applied Science, Business Administration, Dental Medicine, Education, Engineering and Computer Sciences, the Rothberg School for Overseas Students, Librarianship, Archive and Information Administration, the Medical School, the Nursing School, Food Sciences, Occupational Therapy, Pharmacy, Public and Community Medicine, Social Work, and Veterinary Medicine. Around 1,200 faculty members teach over 24,000 students, of which about half study in postgraduate programs. University alumni number about 90,000. On the university campuses, there are 11 professional libraries in addition to the National Library. The university has 100 research centers. 

Prof. Mona Khoury-Kassabri was appointed dean of the university’s School of Social Work in July 2018, becoming the school’s first female Arab dean.

Rendering of planned Einstein House

In 2022, Israel’s government approved the establishment of an $18 million Albert Einstein museum on the campus, which will be the largest repository of Einstein material in the world. It will house 85,000 documents, Einstein’s Nobel Prize, and notes he made in 1916 on the general theory of relativity. The cornerstone for the building was laid on June 13, 2023. The distinctive building, designed by the world-renowned architect Daniel Libeskind, will highlight the impact of Einstein's discoveries, his involvement in humanitarian and civil rights issues, as well as his deep commitment to Hebrew University, the State of Israel, and the global Jewish community, according to a press release.


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– ).

Sources: Greer Fay Cashman, First Arab Woman Appointed Dean at Hebrew University, Jerusalem Post, (July 28, 2018).
The Jewish Agency for Israel.
The World Zionist Organization.
Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.

Benyamin Cohen, World’s largest Einstein museum to open in Israel, Forward, (October 24, 2022).
Einstein House at the Hebrew University, Press Release, Hebrew University.