This Day in Jewish History / Finally, Construction on the Knesset Begins

Ten years after Israel was born, ground owned by the Greek Orthodox Church was broken for Israel’s migratory parliament.

Ilan Bruner/GPO

On October 14, 1958, a decade after the State of Israel was born, construction began on the new, permanent home for the Knesset in Jerusalem, on land that to this day is owned by the Greek Orthodox Church. Finishing the building, based on the design of a highly controversial architect, would take eight more years.

The first parliamentary session in Israel, by the “Constituent Assembly” (Ha’asefah Hamekhonenet) took place on February 14, 1949 in Jerusalem, following the country’s first general election, on January 25. The Assembly’s initial act was to reconstitute itself as the Knesset (which literally means “assembly”), and to empower itself to elect a president for the state. After that meeting, for a year parliament convened in Tel Aviv, then moved back to the capital for good.

Thus, starting in March 1950, the Knesset convened in Beit Froumine, a new structure on King George V Street in Jerusalem, originally intended to house a bank. By then, however, planning had already begun for a government complex near the northern entrance to the city.

The designated area, called Givat Ram, had been the location of an Arab village, Sheikh Badr, until the War of Independence, when its residents were expelled by the Haganah, and a paramilitary base was set up there. Givat Ram is also where the new campus of the Hebrew University was built, opening in 1958. At the time Jerusalem was still divided: after its unification, it became possible to return to and expand the original university campus, on Mt. Scopus.

Land owned by the Church

The land that was selected for the government complex, as well as for the site of the Israel Museum and the residential neighborhood of Nayot, was and is owned by the Greek Orthodox Church. (The same is true of the real estate where the official residences of both the prime minister and the president stand, in Rehavia and Talbiyeh, respectively.)

The Greek Orthodox Church generally has a policy of not selling land, but it will lease it for long periods. That’s what it did with the tract chosen for the government complex: In 1952 it signed a 99-year lease with Israel, with an option for a 49-year renewal.

In June 1955, it was announced that the southern slope of the hill was to be designated for the Knesset. The Knesset Speaker issued a statement explaining that during the Second Temple period, there had been a Jewish settlement on the site, and that nearby, Jewish burial caves had been found.

On July 25, 1956, an architectural competition for the design of the Knesset building was announced. The following year, from among 40 plans submitted, a jury consisting of six professionals and seven Knesset members unanimously chose the design of Joseph Klarwein.

The architect who annoyed everybody

But the choice of the Warsaw-born Klarwein (1893-1971), who was something of a lone wolf among Israeli architects, elicited a nearly unanimous chorus of objections from among his professional colleagues. So loud was the sniping that an international committee of experts was appointed to review Klarwein’s design.

It concluded unanimously that his plan “excels in its simplicity and unity of image,” and thus was “very worthy of being accepted.”

At that point, Klarwein was sent to Europe for the stated purpose of examining other public buildings whose design might be relevant for planning the Knesset (the only structure that impressed him was the new home of UNESCO, in Paris, designed by Marcel Breuer, Pier Luigi Nervi and Bernard Zehrfuss), but also to get him out of the way, so that changes could be introduced to his initial plan.

Eventually, seeing what he was up against, Klarwein agreed to work together with architect Dov Karmi on adapting his plan to the contingencies of the political and practical reality. Years later, Karmi’s son and colleague, Ram Karmi, would admit that, “we felt sorry for Klarwein. We chopped up his building.”

As a gesture of collegiality, the two offered to “forgo mention of our name, and leave Klarwein’s name.”

Funding for the construction of the Knesset was provided by the estate of James de Rothschild, who shortly before his death, in May 1957, decided to allocate 1.25 million pounds sterling for that purpose.

The dedication of the new Knesset building took place on August 30, 1966.

Twitter: @davidbeegreen