The impetus to establish an institution of higher learning in the land of Israel arose in the latter part of the 19th century, preceding the birth of the Zionist movement. Various ideas were put forth at the time, some of which fell by the wayside, but others of which were realized at a later point in time.
The first plans for establishing such a university were presented in a series of articles written in 1882 by Zvi Hermann Shapira, a rabbi, professor of mathematics and a staunch Zionist. Shapira presented his ideas at the first Zionist Congress in 1897, but no decision was taken there.
Chaim Weizmann, Martin Buber and Berthold Feivel published a pamphlet in 1902 entitled Eine Judische Hochschule, which put forth the principles for organizing a university of the Jewish people.
In 1913, the 11th World Zionist Congress decided to establish a University in Jerusalem, whose language of instruction would be Hebrew.
On July 24, 1918, not long after the end of World War I, the World Zionist Organization received permission from the British to lay the cornerstone for the university. It was decided to place 12 stones in reminiscence of the 12 tribes of Israel, but in actuality an even higher number was placed. The ceremony was held at the Gray Hill Estate on Mt. Scopus. Thousands of people came from Israel and abroad, Jews and non-Jews, to attend the memorable ceremony.
In 1923, Nobel Laureate Albert Einstein visited the land of Israel. An enthusiastic backer of the idea of establishing a university in the land of Israel, he came to Mt. Scopus and delivered a lecture on the theory of relativity – the first scientific lecture to be delivered at the nascent university.
In 1924, the Institute of Chemistry began to function.
Also, in 1924, the Institute of Jewish Studies was inaugurated.
The official opening of the university
The university was formally opened in a historic ceremony on April 1, 1925, in what is now the Rothberg Amphitheater, in the presence of leaders of the Jewish community, as well as representatives from world Jewry and from universities around the world. Among the speakers were Lord Balfour, Sir Herbert Samuel, Dr. Chaim Weizmann, Chief Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook and Haim Nahman Bialik.
Building the university
These were days of the beginnings. The classes were small and students few in number. Classes were conducted in the late afternoons so that students who were working could come. Many of them worked as laborers in the construction of the campus. In the early days, the university’s character was molded by the chancellor, Dr. Yehuda Leib Magnes. In order to establish itself as the country’s leading scientific institution, the university sought outstanding academic figures in the world, who would be willing to work under pioneering circumstances. Students, too, were sought locally and abroad. For them, the university was not only a place to learn but also a place to attain a Zionist foothold.
In 1928, the Institute of Mathematics began to function..
Also in 1928, a decision was made to establish a Faculty of Humanities.
In 1930, the National and University Library was dedicated in the David Wolfson Building.
In 1932, planting was begun in the botanical gardens adjoining the Second Temple period burial caves on the campus.
That same year, the first master’s degrees of the university were awarded to 13 students.
The War Years
During the 1930s, the university began to flourish. New departments were added, the university took in researchers from Germany and Italy, and many young European Jews were assisted in obtaining certificates from the British authorities to come to study in the land of Israel.
In 1934, the cornerstone was laid for a university-affiliated hospital on Mt. Scopus, to be built by the Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America.
In 1935, the Faculty of Science was opened.
Also in 1935, the Department of Teacher Education was founded, the first in the country to provide practical teacher training.
In 1936, the first doctoral degree was awarded.
Also in 1936, an agreement was signed between Hadassah and the university for the construction of the new medical center on Mt. Scopus. In 1939, the hospital was opened to the public. This cooperation between Hadassah and the university made possible medical research and the training of physicians.
In September 1939, with the outbreak of World War II, the scientific cooperation of the university with institutions in Europe were cut, and students from Europe lost contact with their families along with the financial support that they got from them. Emergency funds were made available to these distressed students. Many students as well as lecturers joined the British forces. The role of the university in fighting the war against he Nazis was highly appreciated by the British authorities, and included courses given to health officers to combat diseases. University laboratories also produced inoculations against infectious diseases.
Despite the outbreak of war, the university continued to grow. Rapid growth occurred in 1939-40, at the beginning of the war, but declined at the height of the conflict. With the end of the war, enrollment picked up again dramatically in 1946-47.
In 1942, the Institute of Agricultural Sciences was opened in Rehovot, later to become the Faculty of Agriculture.
Israel’s War of Independence
With the end of World War II, the struggle began for Israel’s independence. The road to the Mt. Scopus campus went through Arab areas, and the convoys that came up to the mount were an easy target for Arab snipers. As a result, In January 1948, studies were discontinued on the campus, and on April 13, 1948, a convoy of personnel from Hadassah Hospital and the university was attacked in an ambush in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood. British soldiers who witnessed the slaughter prevented Haganah defenders from reaching the site in order to assist those being attacked. After several hours, 78 people in the convoy lay dead. From that point on, Mt. Scopus was cut off from Jerusalem and the university’s campus became an Israeli enclave within the territory controlled by Jordan. One month later, Jordanian Legion soldiers attacked Mt. Scopus, but were beaten off.
In August 1948, the provisionary Israeli government headed by David Ben-Gurion dedicated a special session to the Hebrew University. In a letter sent by Ben-Gurion to the directorate of the university, he urged the university to continue serving in Jerusalem as “the central scientific institution of the State of Israel,” and called upon the Jews of the world to assist the university in fulfilling that task.
Searching for a home
In the spring of 1949, following the signing of an Israeli-Arab cease-fire, studies were resumed – far from Mt. Scopus. Even though the Jordanians had agreed to allow access to Mt. Scopus, they violated the agreement and blocked that access. The university found a temporary home in various buildings in Jerusalem, the best known among them being the Terra Sancta Building. There, at the corner of Ben-Maimon and Keren Hayesod streets, classes were held in the humanities. Medical instruction was carried out in the Russian Compound, and the Faculty of Science with its laboratories was located on Mamila street, near the border with Jordan. The students and the faculty became an integral part in the life of the city.
In 1949, the faculties of medicine, law, the center for adult education and the summer program for American students were all initiated.
In 1952, ten years after it was established, the Institute of Agriculture in Rehovot became a full-fledged faculty. In that same year, the School of Education was founded. Also in that year, the first 63 degrees of doctor of medicine were awarded by the Medical School.
In 1953, the School of Economics, the School of Dental Medicine and the School of Pharmacy were founded.
A New Campus
The university wanted to concentrate all of its activities in one place, and therefore sought to find a suitable location in Jerusalem or its environs. The offers it received from the government were not deemed satisfactory, and so the university embarked on its own concerted effort to find a proper location. This effort bore fruit when the government decided to allocate a section of the government quarter for the use of the university. The cornerstone for the new campus was laid on a barren hill between the neighborhoods of Rehavia and Beit Hakerem known as Givat Ram (later to become the Edmond J. Safra campus). Construction of the new campus began in 1954.
In 1955, the one-year program for students from abroad was launched.
IN 1957, the first bachelor’s degrees were granted in science.
In 1958, the new campus was dedicated at Givat Ram, becoming part of the ten-year anniversary celebrations of the State of Israel. The campus became a focus for intellectual stimulation, and the expanding number of students brought to Jerusalem a night life that it had never before known.
In 1960, a new medical center was dedicated at Ein Kerem in Jerusalem, serving as an alternative to the hospital that functioned on Mt. Scopus.
In 1964, Yissum was founded as the technology transfer company of the university.
In 1966, the Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace was founded.
Return to the Mount
The anxious days of May 1967 culminated in the great victory of the Six-Day war in June. On the 7th of June, the Old City of Jerusalem was liberated, and the city was reunited. Efforts to return the university to Mt. Scopus began immediately, but the full restoration and building of the old/new campus took many years.
Just days after the end of the Six-Day War, the Senate of the university decided to award the honorary doctor of philosophy degree to the Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, Yitzhak Rabin, in recognition of his and his staff’s courageous efforts in rescuing Israel from great danger, in reuniting Jerusalem, and for enabling the return of the university to Mt. Scopus.
In 1973, before the work on the Mt. Scopus campus was completed, the Yom Kipur War broke out. More than 100 teachers, students and workers of the university were killed in that war and many hundreds wounded. The academic year was extended into the following year, and all new construction work on the campus was halted for the time being.
In 1975, the Institute for Advanced Studies was opened.
In 1981, the renewed campus on Mt. Scopus was dedicated.
In 1985, the School for Veterinary Medicine was opened.
In 1999, the Benin School of Computer Science and Engineering was opened.
The central role of the university in serving as a key factor in determining the nature of Israeli society has continued into the 21st century. The contributions of the university are felt not only in the overall intellectual life of the community but also specifically in research, in teaching and in applied science.
In 2000, the university marked 75 years of its existence.
In 2001, the Federmann School of Public Policy and Government was established.
In 2008, a two-year initiative for preservation and development of the botanical garden on Mt. Scopus was completed.
Also in 2008, the Institute of Medical Research Israel-Canada was established.
In 2009, the Institute for Drug Research was established at the School of Pharmacy.
In 2010, the Edmond and Lily Safra Center for Brain Sciences (ELSC) was founded
In 2012, the cornerstone was laid for the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School for Advanced Studies in the Humanities.
This was the decade in which Nobel prizes and the Fields Prize were awarded to Hebrew University staff and graduates:
The 2002 Nobel Prize in economics to Prof. Daniel Kahneman; the 2004 Nobel Prize in physics to Prof. David Gross; the 2004 Nobel Prize in chemistry to Prof. Abraham Hershko and to Prof. Aaron Ciechanover; the 2005 Nobel Prize in economics to Prof. Yisrael Aumann; the 2006 Nobel Prize in chemistry to Prof. Roger D. Kornberg; the 2009 Nobel Prize in chemistry to Prof. Ada Yonath, and the 2010 Fields Medal in to Prof. Elon Lindenstrauss.