Sunday , 17 December 2017
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The National Institutions Building, Jerusalem*

When I was a new immigrant (Oleh Hadash) I used to walk every day to Hebrew class. I passed the National Institutions Building twice every day. My route began at my Jewish Agency dormitory in the San Remo Hotel, at Hanevi’im corner of Strauss, all the way along King George V Street to my Hebrew ulpan. My ulpan was housed in what was then Hillel House (now the Schocken Libraryon Balfour St. The Hillel House was just across the street from Beit Aghion, at that time the official home of the Foreign Minister.  Only in 1974 was the Prime Ministers Official home transferred from Beit Julius Jacobs to Beit Aghion. As you will see below, the daily walk to my Hebrew class took me past powerful offices. I saw a powerful government ministry, several leading Zionist organizations and the oldest and one of the largest construction companies in Israel.

The National Institutions Building – “the home of the nascent government”

King George V Street (شارع الملك جورج‎‎  – החמישירחוב המלך ג׳ורג׳ ‎‎) was the showcase of the Zionist movement in Jerusalem, distinctly representing modern values. How different from Jaffa Street which led to the ancient Temple Mount. The homes of the Zionist leadership were adjacent to King George in a new, upgrade neighborhood, built in the International style. Rehavia was named after Moses’ grandson “Rehavia”.  So, naturally the National Institutions Building were planned to be erected downtown Jerusalem, on King George Street. The structure was built to create a quasi-governmental structure for the national Zionist institutions and became a symbol of the Jewish state prior to Israel’s establishment. The land that was acquired in the 1920s, by Hachsharat Hayishuv and Dr. Arthur Rupin from the Greek Orthodox church in a Janzeria land purchase transaction. According to a plan drawn up by architect Richard Kaufmann, one of the most influential architects during the Mandate era (1920-32) the plot was designated to be used by the Rechavia Hebrew Gymnasium. However, the heads of the Rechavia Hebrew Gymnasium did not want the school to be located on a main street, King George Street, and it was move inside Rechavia

Who were the “National Institutions”?

They include the following organisations, all of which are based in the same building complex in Jerusalem:

  • Jewish Agency: An international, non-governmental body centered in Jerusalem which is the executive and representative of the World Zionist Organization
  • World Zionist Organization: Theodor Herzl founded the Zionist Organization at the First Zionist Congress in Basle in 1897 (renamed the World Zionist Organization in 1960). Its goals were set forth in the Basle Program: “Zionism seeks to establish a home for the Jewish people in Palestine, secured under public law. The WZO is made up of national Zionist federations, world unions and youth groups.
  • Jewish National Fund: (Founded at the Fifth Zionist Congress in Basel in 1901)
  • Keren Hayesod – United Israel Appeal: (Created at the World Zionist Conference in London on July 7–24, 1920)
Bringing First Fruits to National Institutions
Bringing First Fruits to National Institutions – Photo: nostal.co.il

How to design a capital to be?

The International Style (Bauhaus) design selected was that of the architect Yohanan Ratner. He wrapped the structure around a large forecourt in order to create a formal presence while isolating it from the noise from the street, as well as to maintain the impressive facade of the building. There was some criticism, particularly with regard to its comparatively low height compared to the buildings of other religious groups in Jerusalem, including the nearby Terra Sancta building.

The building contains outer elements similar to those of the Tower of David and the windows are reminiscent of the slits in the Old City Walls. For security the building was fenced.  Arms were kept in the building and there was an underground well where 50 cubic meters of water were stored, in case of a siege.

The first floor of the building was dedicated in 1930, and the second story was completed in 1936. Ben Gurion received an office on the second floor, in a well-protected office, as befitting someone who represented “the nascent government”.

November 29 1947 – celebrations on the building balcony to mark the announcements from Lake Success of the creation of a Jewish state.

Terrorist Attack on the National Institutions Building

It was targeted by a car bomb on March 11, 1948, before the State of Israel was officially declared. This attack was one of the worst attacks of the civil war which proceded the official Declaration of Independence on 14 May 1948 (5 Iyar 5708). A complete floor of the building, in the Keren Hayesod wing, collapsed, 12 people were killed, including Keren Hayesod director general Leib Yaffe.

Even so the National Institutions Building also hosted the first sessions of the Knesset (December 26, 1949 – March 8, 1950). Israel’s first president, Chaim Weizmann was inaugurated in its great hall on December 27 1949.

The National Institution buildings currently house: the offices of the Keen Kayemet LeIsrael, Keren Hayesod and The Jewish Agency, exactly as the buildings were originally planned.

 

What is that deserted building across the street from the National Institutions Building?

This modernistic building erected in 1957 for the Solel Boneh which at that time belonged to the Histadrut Labor Union. How fitting that the Histadrut Labor Union should have its offices on the same block on King George Street as the National Institution Building, Yeshurun Central Synagogue and Heichal Shlomo (Offices of the Chief Rabbinate). Any offers?

Solel Boneh Building
Solel Boneh Building

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