by Nathan Roi
The National Institutions Building – 45 King George Street, Jerusalem
The National Institutions building was constructed on land that was acquired in the 1920s, by the leadership of the Hachsharat Hayishuv company (PLDC) and Dr. Arthur Rupin, from the Greek Orthodox church in a Janzeria land purchase transaction. The purchasers Hachsharat Hayishuv¸ which was founded by the World Zionist Organization (WZO), designated the land for the expansion of the Jewish community in west Jerusalem.
According to a plan drawn up by architect Richard Kaufmann, who was the Hachsharat Hayishuv architect and one of the most influential architects during the Mandate era (1920-32), the plot that was chosen to be used by the national institutions, on the corner of King George Street and Keren Kayemet LeIsrael Street, was designated to be used by the Rechavia Hebrew Gymnasium which moved there from the Bucharim neighborhood. The plot was sold to the Jewish Agency by Keren Kayemet LeIsrael.
However, the heads of the Rechavia Hebrew Gymnasium did not want the school to be located on a main street, King George Street. Ramon notes that the heads of the Zionist institutions were happy about the excellent location they obtained, but did not find support for their enthusiasm.
However, one cannot ignore the fact that, across the street, there was a building used by officers of the British Army stationed in Jerusalem, a wall divided the new Jewish neighborhood and the Arab neighborhood near the Muslim cemetery and the Palace Hotel where the heads of the Arab organizations worked, and the area was not very safe. In addition, the building was meant to make a clear statement to the Arab population, and all it symbolized in terms of its character and role.
Competition for Construction of the Building
Either way, a tender for submission of architectural plans for the building was issued. 37 plans were submitted to the competition which took place in 1927.
A large number of architects entered the competition, including the most important architects in Mandate Palestine, including Richard Kaufmann himself, Alexander Baerwald, Aryeh Sharon and Eliezer Yellin.
There were 21 requirements in the tender, including: a two-story building, usage of Jerusalem stone, matching with the architectural environment, an architectonic unit with three wings (KKL, the Jewish Agency and Keren Hayesod), and a budget of no more than 35,000 pounds sterling.
The 1930s were the heyday of the international, Bauhaus, style around the world and also in pre-state Palestine. The style was based on clear and very economic lines. This was possibly the reason why architect Joseph Frank from Vienna was appointed head of the jury committee.
The style was a little more widespread, at the time, in Jewish western Jerusalem but it clearly set the tone. Kroyanker devotes significant parts of his important books on Jerusalem to this.
The winning architect was Yohanan (Oygen) Ratner who submitted a plan for a three-winged building, with an impressive courtyard which opens out onto the main street but still maintains the intimacy of the entrance to the building. There was a large balcony in the façade, which reflects the international architectural style, and next to the building there were references to of a glacis reminiscent of the Old City wall (today this is the front of the KKL wing).
In their explanation for the choice of the plan, the committee members note that:
“The plan submitter also took into consideration the constant increase in automobile traffic, there is ample space for automobiles in the courtyard so that they do not crowd the institutions in a long line, and thereby blocking the free passage of pedestrians.”
The plan was considered to be very modern, but also tailored to the needs of the national institutions, including security requirements as well as providing protection of the leaders using the building, and safeguarding them during hostilities at during crises.
There were others, like architect Binyamin Tzeikin, who complained to Weizmann that the building should not be dwarfed by the city’s tall buildings. “The Jews build stooped buildings,” he said to Weizmann.
The Construction Work
The Zionist Congress decided to create The Jewish Agency during 1929, but the first floor of the building was officially opened only in 1930, due to budgetary considerations.
The second story was added gradually, and completed in 1936.
Plaques were placed on the façade of the building, and in the entrance, with the name of the architect and the years of the construction work (5688-5696, 1929-1936).
The building was extended, with an increase in the number of floors, as The Jewish Agency became more powerful.
In 1935 David Ben Gurion was selected to be chairman of the Jewish Agency, and he was placed on the second floor, in a well-protected office, as befitting someone who represented “the nascent government”.
The heads of “the nascent state” used the building, including the foreign minister of “the nascent state”, Moshe Sharett, and the agricultural minister and finance minister of “the nascent state” Levy Eshkol and others.
Sometimes speeches were made from the balcony of the building, which acted as a sort of window onto the national institutions, and it was used quite frequently. The most famous occasion was on November 29 1947, when the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine was announced at Lake Success, New York.
A Secure and Social Building
The building acted as the hub of the Jewish yishuv in Palestine, which numbered no more than half a million people in the 1940s.
Here, religious holiday ceremonies took place, such as Tu Beshvat when doves were released, and youth and children paraded across the courtyard. Memorial ceremonies were also held here. The building shaped the renewed national memory, and became the central building in the yishuv’s consciousness.
The chronicles of the period, and of later periods, contain many references to the role of the building. Many cite the book by Yehuda HaEzrachi.
This was also the building to which members of the Yishuv turned when there was unrest and the Jewish Yishuv was attacked.
The most important events which took place in the lead up to the creation of the state, connected to the building, included:
June 29 1946 – the takeover of the building by the Red Berets, and the arrest of the Yishuv leaders.
November 29 1947 – celebrations on the building balcony to mark the announcements from Lake Success of the creation of a Jewish state
March 11 1948 – explosion of a car bomb in the courtyard (a complete floor of the building, in the Keren Hayesod wing, collapsed, 12 people were killed, including Keren Hayesod director general Leib Yaffe , and 44 were wounded).
The building was a security structure, as it was planned, but in the wake of the explosion fortifications and fencing were installed around it, and the yard, which had served as a national social assembly site became a parking lot.
It is known that arms were kept in the building, and many years later caches were traced, and it is known that they including hiding places and an underground well where 50 cubic meters of water were stored, in case of a siege. The cache, the well under the building, can still be seen today.
But it is also known that there was a British “mole” inside the building who passed letters of the management straight to the British secret service (CID).
The Leadership Center
The National Institutions building housed the building of the Jewish leadership in Palestine, from the late 1920s to the early 1950s.
This building included management chairman David Ben Gurion, who was to become the first Prime Minister of Israel. His two management offices are located on the second floor of the building.
The building also contained the offices of the heads of the State Department, which was later to become Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, including Moshe Sharett and Golda Meir.
The leaders of what was to be known as Mossad, headed by Reuven Shiloah, also worked there.
There were also the heads of the Department of Settlement, who established hundreds of communities within the Green Line.
The second floor of the building housed the heads of the Aliyah Department, who brought millions of new olim, from 120 communities, to Israel and absorbed them.
Following the creation of the state, in January 19489, the country’s first president Chaim Weizmann was sworn in. The inauguration ceremony was attended by all the state leaders and leading members of the public, as well as the chief rabbis Rishon LeZion Rabbi Meir Hai Uziel, and the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Isaac Halevi Herzog.
The Government and Knesset Building
From 1949, the National Institutions building, which housed Keren Hayesod, Keren Kayemet LeIsrael and the Jewish Agency, was the main seat of the Government of Israel, as there was no permanent home for the Knesset and the government.
The Knesset convened in Tel Aviv, and the government looked for a home for it.
The first assembly of the Israeli Knesset in Jerusalem took place in the main auditorium of The Jewish Agency, which is called Weizmann Hall.
The background to this is as follows:
December 1949 was a difficult month at the United Nations.
At the beginning of the month the state of Israel suffered what Haaretz newspaper termed as a serious political failure, with regard to the status of Jerusalem. Most of the countries voted for the internationalization of Jerusalem. As a result of this coalition, on December 10 the General Assembly instructs the Trusteeship Council to devise regulations for the international city. The countries that voted against this resolution included Britain and the United States.
Following this, in accordance with the Prime Minister’s proposal, the Knesset decided to immediately relocate to Tel Aviv, and to transfer all the government ministries there, other than the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Ministry of Defense.
Visitors to the National Institutions buildings in Jerusalem, who go up to the hall that bears the name of the country’s first president Chaim Weizmann on the third floor of The Jewish Agency building, will struggle to see signs of the fact that the first assembly of the Israeli Knesset took place there on December 27 1949.
The Jewish Agency building was “donated” for the purpose of holding the first Knesset assemblies, due to the lack of halls and offices in Jerusalem. “There is a sense of awakening in Jerusalem, and a willingness to help, and facilitate the difficult operation of transferring the complete government and parliamentary facilities. One of the “victims” of the operation is the Jewish Agency which had to give up all its new wing, and a large part of its old premises, but the Jewish Agency management complied with love and joy, because the longed for day had truly come,” wrote reporter Haim Yeari in the Davar newspaper. "Last night, the sounds of hammers still rang out at The Jewish Agency building, and workers adapted the meeting hall to the needs of the Knesset. The walls were covered with cloth, new light shades were installed, a dais is being constructed, loudspeakers are being inserted, and a table for the government. A picture of Herzl will not be left out of its appointed position. The Knesset mechanism was already in place last night, with all its personnel and executives and ushers. The comfort of the building in Tel Aviv will certainly be missed. This is a cramped facility...the Knesset offices will be housed some distance away, at the new Frumin House which still does not have electricity. But these are transitional pains, and within a few weeks a more comfortable arrangement will be found.”
On the evening of the first assembly the Municipality of Jerusalem held a reception at the King David Hotel, and the senior officials of the Knesset announce they supported the presidency in relocating the Knesset to the capital.
The first assembly of the Knesset opened with an address by the first President of Israel, Dr. Chaim Weizmann. At the center of the assembly sat the first Prime Minister and Minister of Defense, who served as chairman of the Jewish Agency from 1935, David Ben Gurion. On his right sat the members of the government and the first Knesset.
The festive gathering of the Knesset started at 4 p.m., and the first topic on the agenda: joining the International Convention on the Prevention of Genocide. Anyone who is familiar with the convention knows that it was initiated by a Jewish Polish advocate (a resident of Poland, later Belarus) Dr. Raphael Lemkin.
The UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was adopted by the UN General Assembly as resolution 260, on December 8 1945, and came into force on January 12 1951.
The convention was devised by Raphael Lemkin, a lawyer by profession who emigrated to the United States and initiated legislation of what was known as “nameless crime” (“genocide” as he termed it). Lemkin was determined to formulate an official document which would help to prevent the incidence of genocide and would penalize its perpetrators. As such, he submitted his findings to the U.N. which were mainly based on the genocide of the Armenian people, the Holocaust and the massacre of the gypsies during World War Two. However, what motivated him to engage in this work was the genocide of the Armenians by the Turks.
The convention determines that genocide is the physical withholding of the right to live of people, because of their membership of a national, ethnic, religious or racial group, with the intention of completely or partially obliterating the members of the group, regardless of individual guilt. The withholding of the right to live from complete groups is repugnant to the conscious of the human race and leads to the destruction of all of humankind, with regard to the cultural contribution or any contribution made by these groups, and it contravenes moral law and the spirit and objectives of the United Nations.
Dr. Raphael Lemkin began to formulate the draft of the convention when he learned of the Armenian genocide, many years after the Holocaust of the Jews of Eastern Europe. Lemkin determined that many incidents of genocide occurred when racial, religious and other groups were destroyed, fully or partially. The punishment for such crimes is a matter of international importance.
Israel joined the convention on August 17 1949, and ratified it on March 9 1950.
The 1950 Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide Law was unanimously passed by the Knesset on March 29 1950.
The first government meetings were also held in this building, until a suitable venue was found.
The Prime Minister’s Office Building
To the rear of the National Institution buildings, at 1 Ibn Gvirol Street, there is an adjoining building.
The offices of the National Committee – the elected representative body of the Jewish public during the Mandate period - were due to be established on the site of the building. Due to budgetary problems the site remained empty until the early 1950s when the elected government passed a resolution to establish Israel’s first Prime Minister’s Office there.
Yaakov Matrikin was selected as the architect who was to plan a square building to adjoin the National Institution buildings.
The building served as the Prime Minister’s Office until the 1960s, when the new Prime Minister’s Office building was built at Givat Ram.
David Ben Gurion served here as Prime Minister for 13 years, and Moshe Sharett also operated from here.
After the Prime Minister’s Office relocated to Givat Ram the Ministry of Transport moved in to the building, and the offices of the UJA took over the building in the 1980.
The Building Today
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.
The main entrance leads to the Jewish Agency building.
Today, the Jewish Agency building incorporates the offices of the WZO and The Jewish Agency. The heads of both management facilities operate from the building.
Today, leaders of all the Jewish Federations around the world, and the members of the Board of Governors, come to the building and it is open to members of the public, whereby visits have to be prearranged.