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"Hahar vehagivah: Ha'universita ha'ivrit beyerushalayim betkufat trom ha'atzma'ut veresheet hamedinah" ("The Mountain and the Hill: The Hebrew University of Jerusalem During the Pre-Independence Period and the Early Years of the State of Israel") by Uri Cohen, Tel Aviv University & Am Oved, 410 pages

Many regarded the opening ceremony of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, held on Mt. Scopus in April 1925, as a highly significant Zionist event. The establishment of the university was perceived as the Zionist movement's most successful enterprise since the Balfour Declaration, and one of the symbols of Jewish renaissance in the Land of Israel. Some even hailed it as a "new national temple."

In practice, though, relations between the university and the Jewish community in pre-state Palestine were edgy and tense from day one. In his new book, Uri Cohen writes that the founders of the Hebrew University sought to maintain autonomy, not only academically, but ideologically.

A clear example of this ideological stance was the university's embrace of Brith Shalom, a movement founded in 1926, with a platform influenced by the views of Ahad Ha'am, Chaim Weizmann and Martin Buber. Brith Shalom combined support for Zionism with plans for a binational state, that is, it was prepared to give up the demand for exclusive Jewish sovereignty over Eretz Yisrael for the sake of peace. In keeping with this idea, it was willing to accept quotas on Jewish immigration and allow the minority status of the Jewish community in Palestine to continue.

In the eyes of most of the Yishuv leadership in those days, these views were regarded as subversive, if not treasonous. But Hebrew University professors were very visible supporters of this movement. The membership of well-known personalities like Hugo Bergmann, Ernst Simon and Gershom Scholem made Brith Shalom and the university almost synonymous, and this image remained in the public mind long after Brith Shalom was gone.

'Nest of pythons'

In the early 1960s, during the uproar sparked by the Lavon Affair, right-wing poet Uri Zvi Greenberg called the university a "nest of pythons," on account of the "evil spirit of Brith Shalom" that continued to hover over the campus.

After the traumatic riots of 1929, relations between the university and the Yishuv became even more strained. Criticism of the university, which focused on its cultural and academic isolation from what was happening in the Yishuv, intensified. Broad sectors of the population denounced the heads of the university for adopting a political policy that was perceived as radical and dangerous.

There were two primary targets. One was Judah Leib Magnes, who, as chancellor of the university, made many of the important administrative and academic decisions, and was responsible for implementing the resolutions of the board of trustees. Magnes became the first president of the university in 1935. It was an honorary position, without any real power or authority. In the 1940s, he headed Ihud (Unity), a political organization that favored a binational entity over a Jewish state. His ideas were completely contrary to the views of the Yishuv leadership. The appearance of Magnes before the Anglo-American Commission of Inquiry in 1946 set off a wave of angry newspaper articles demanding his resignation.

The second target of criticism was less well known: Werner David Senator, another member of Brith Shalom. In 1937, Senator was appointed administrator of the university, a job that put him in a very powerful position. He basically ran the institution in the 1940s.

Once the state was founded, and especially in the 1950s, the policies of the university changed dramatically, from opposition to active collaboration with the new government, and identification with its goals. There were several contributing factors, but the need for government funding was at the top of the list. With Jerusalem divided, and access to the campus on Mt. Scopus cut off, the university urgently needed to build an alternative campus in the city's west.

Fear that the university would be nationalized was another factor. The founding of the state greatly enhanced the effectiveness and power of the political center. With its monopoly over law enforcement, something that was not possible during the British Mandate, and its control over financial resources, there was less room for bargaining and compromise.

Organizations that had previously enjoyed ideological and professional autonomy were forced to adjust to a new situation, writes Cohen, and the Hebrew University was one of them. For the university, it was either "do or die." Clear evidence of this trend was the opening of new faculties that were "practical" in nature, which went against the Ahad Ha'am spirit of intellectualism that had dominated previously. In May 1949, a medical school was approved, and in November 1949, a faculty of law was established, filling the void created when the British mandatory government closed the doors of its law school. In 1952, it was announced that the agricultural institute founded by the university in 1940 would become a full-fledged faculty of agriculture.

Some professors objected to this vocational shift. Gershom Scholem, for instance, contested the decision to open a school of social work. At the end of 1955, he asked the university senate to reconsider the idea of establishing vocational tracks. Alexander Dushkin, a professor of education, replied that the university was not just a place for intellectualism or pure research, but also an academic tool that could serve the needs of the state.

Dushkin's remarks articulated a view shared by many university executives. The pioneer of this approach was Prof. Benjamin Mazar, who served as rector and president throughout most of the 1950s. In the same way that Magnes symbolized the previous era, Mazar became the spokesman of the new era.

Clash with Ben-Gurion

Mazar was an integral part of the Mapai establishment: As an archaeologist, he was connected to the Zionist mainstream, and in terms of his family, he was close to the "royals" (his wife, Dina, was the younger sister of Israeli president Yitzhak Ben-Zvi). Cohen, however, says he managed to find a balance between the demands of the government and the need to maintain the university's independence.

In 1960, as the Mazar era was coming to a close, the Lavon Affair erupted, triggering a serious clash between the university and David Ben-Gurion. The professors were among the chief protesters against the prime minister's "tyrannical behavior," and many of them signed an open letter denouncing him, which was published on December 30, 1960.

Did this confrontation send the university hurtling back to its pre-state days? Cohen's answer is clear. The hidden motive of this clash was not ideological, but professional: The Mapai elite supported the establishment of a new university in Tel Aviv. Up until the end of 1959, the government had given the Hebrew University a free hand in the battle against a new university, but when Mapai won the Tel Aviv municipal elections, it changed its mind. To the heads of the Hebrew University, this represented an attempt to deprive their institution of its status as a national university and challenge its monopoly over higher education. Therefore, according to Cohen, this was not part of the conflict of days gone by.

Uri Cohen has written an interesting and painstakingly researched book, and best of all, one that is error-free. He sheds new light not only on the subject at hand, but on public life in general during the days of the British Mandate, and especially the first decade of Israeli statehood, when patterns were set that affect our lives until today.

Prof. Yechiam Weitz is a historian at the University of Haifa. His book "The Herut Movement, 1949-1955" is being published by Yad Ben Zvi (in Hebrew).