The idea to create a Hebrew University as a cultural anchor of a Jewish homeland in Israel predated the establishment of the Zionist Movement. In June 1882, the Zionist, Hebrew language newspaper HaMelitz published a letter from Dr. Hermann Schapira, a mathematics professor at Heidelberg University. Schapira, who also came up with the idea for creating the Jewish National Fund, wrote, “It is necessary to establish at the center, between those settlements, a large sophisticated institution that will spread high learning, wisdom and literacy to every household in Beit Israel…The purpose of such an institution is highly regarded and considered sacred by me, because in my opinion we should make our people aware of its significance.”
Schapira proposes the need for an institution for higher learning at the First Zionist Congress in August 1897. Although the idea is tabled, Theodor Herzl, in his discussions with the Ottoman Sultan, tries to gain permission for the creation of a university, but his efforts are unsuccessful.
In 1901, Chaim Weizmann, together with philosopher Martin Buber and Zionist leader Leo Motzkin, create a Democratic Faction within the Zionist movement. At the forefront of the faction’s ideas is the creation of a Hebrew university to serve as the centerpiece of revived Hebrew and Jewish scholarship in the Land of Israel. At the 11th Zionist Congress held in Vienna in September 1913, the topic of a university is again raised. Menachem Ussishkin addresses the Congress stating, “We, a small handful, have remained alive and today, 2,500 years since we went into exile, stand here as the representatives of our people and take counsel as to how to accomplish our national revival. Twenty five hundred years it is since our national Holy of Holies, the Temple of God on the Mount Moriah, was destroyed, and today we stand here animated with the idea to erect on Mount Zion a Temple of Culture and Science. This plan is the rehabilitation of our newly awakened people. And it will be realized.” Ussishkin announces that 400,000 Marks have been pledged to the university and a motion to create a special commission is passed by a unanimous vote.
Following the decision to create the university in Jerusalem, Weizmann is tasked with organizing the university committee. Arthur Ruppin, head of the Palestine Office of the World Zionist Organization, is instructed to find a suitable location. In 1914, Ruppin purchases an estate and land on Mount Scopus just outside of Jerusalem.
In 1918 the World Zionist Organization gains permission from the British to start laying the cornerstones for the university in Jerusalem. In 1924 the Institute for Chemistry and Jewish studies opens and the University officially opens on April 1 the following year. . Zionist and British leaders are joined at the opening ceremonies by representatives from universities across the world. Among those in attendance were Lord Arthur James Balfour, Sir Herbert Samuel, and Dr. Chaim Weizmann. Dr. Judah Magnes is the first chancellor and seeks students and academics internationally to grow the university.
Albert Einstein, one of the university’s earliest proponents describes the occasion noting, “The opening of our Hebrew University on Mount Scopus, at Jerusalem, is an event which should not only fill us with just pride, but should also inspire us to serious reflection. … A University is a place where the universality of human spirit manifests itself.”
The photos shows the opening ceremony on April 1, 1925
Photo Source: Central Zionist Archives