In 1952, Knesset opposition leader Menachem Begin organized a massive demonstration to protest against the acceptance of German reparations. In a fiery and passionate street speech he called this kind of compensation a life and death issue. He then led thousands of men, women and children on a stormy march to the Knesset, located at that time in the Beit Froumine Building in the middle of King George Street. Tempers were so high that guards had to hold the crowds back with tear gas. The Knesset ultimately voted to accept the reparations, badly needed by the newly created State of Israel.
People walking on lively King George Street generally have a bus to catch, shopping to do, or a friend to meet. Rarely do they have time to study the buildings that line the road. Too bad, for the street is not only oozing with modern history, but most of the structures were constructed in a Bauhaus (International) style – so important that Tel Aviv was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO for its Bauhaus neighborhoods. And some buildings are actually an architectural delight.
King George Street was officially declared open on December 9, 1924. But after Israel became a State, the municipality suggested replacing King George the Brit with King David the Israelite.
The idea was vehemently opposed by Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, Israel’s second president. Ben-Zvi reminded other leaders that King George V ruled at the time of the Balfour Declaration in 1917, and had always been a good friend to the Jews (as opposed to George VI, the monarch who reigned when the infamous British White Paper limited immigration to Palestine).
In a Times of Israel article on the Jerusalem Triangle, we described a few of the historic sites located at the beginning of King George Street, starting with the X-shaped intersection with Jaffa Road. But there is a lot more to see on King George Street, further up the road.
The Froumine Building, for example, features a rounded corner and is decorated with a horizontal, serrated band. Construction on the structure, intended for commercial and residential purposes, began in 1947 but was halted during the War of Independence. The building hosted Israel’s parliament from 1949 to 1966, when the Knesset moved to new premises on Givat Ram. Until recently this historic site housed the Ministry of Tourism, but today it serves as the Jerusalem Rabbinical Court.
Ta’amon Coffee Shop, established in 1938, became a favorite watering hole for parliamentarians after the Knesset began meeting in the Beit Froumine directly across the street. For several decades even after the Knesset moved, this was the place to meet your left-wing friends, journalists, Jerusalem’s bohemia, and even Israel’s Black Panthers – a very vocal protest movement from the seventies, dedicated to improving the lives of first and second generation immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East.
One side street next to Beit Froumine, called HaMa’alot, is named for the huge Beit Ha’Ma’alot apartment complex which, in turn, is named for the elevator (ma’alit) that was one of the first in the city.
Nearby, the semi-circular Yeshurun Central Synagogue was built in the mid-1930s and probably was established to counter the city’s growing Reform movement. The name appears in the Bible as a synonym for the Jewish people: “There is no one like the God of Yeshurun, who rides on the heavens to help you and on the clouds in his majesty.” (Deut: 33:26).
Next door stands the stunning, partly round, partly square Beit Avi Chai completed in 2007.
Beit Avi Chai is a marvelous cultural and social center that reaches out to people from all streams of Judaism with greatly subsidized innovative lectures, workshops, performances and artistic events.
During the British Mandate, a nondescript building across the road was home to the British Officers’ Club. On March 1, 1947, at an hour when there were few civilians about, Jewish Resistance fighters in British uniforms drove a van rapidly through the barbed wire surrounding the entrance. When asked for an entry permit, they opened fire that provided cover for the sappers who ran inside with three bags of explosives (some say tins of combustible gasoline) and ignited the fuse. Soon afterwards, there was a loud explosion and the three-storied building tumbled down. Seventeen British officers were killed in the explosion.
The structure located directly behind the former Officers’ Club is a fascinating architectural mix. It was built in two stages as a home for Bulus Mau, an Arab who owned a souvenir shop. The two stories are vastly different in style, for the first floor was constructed during the dying years of Ottoman rule, when arches were all the rage and the ornamental entrance faced the Old City – the hub of Jerusalem life.
However, two years after King George Street was paved, an eclectic second story was added to the building. And with both business and entertainment now centered in the Jerusalem Triangle (Ben Yehuda, King George and Jaffa Road), the exit onto the back yard became the front entrance.
At the junction with Keren Kayemet Street, an open courtyard faces a complex with three large wings called the National Institutions Building. Here, the three major pre-state organizations have had their headquarters since the early 1930s. Shaped like a horseshoe, and constructed in modified Bauhaus style, the building on the left as you face the courtyard houses Keren HaYesod (United Israel Appeal), the Jewish Agency is in the middle, and the wing on the right holds offices of the Jewish National Fund.
In the middle of the Independence War, on March 11, 1948, a car bomb went off in the courtyard. Twelve people were killed – and the Keren HaYesod wing collapsed, only to be rebuilt one story higher. Interestingly, the northern wall slants downward, like the glacis at David’s Tower, and tiny barred windows resemble the slits in the Old City walls used for firing at an enemy.
Further up the street, the Great Synagogue and Hechal Shlomo share a common plaza. The synagogue’s façade features all kinds of symbols, like an abstract Ten Commandments, while the interior is filled with marble, elegant glass chandeliers, and a splendid display of mezuzot (biblical passages on parchment in decorative cases). The gorgeous chapel, accessible by two marble staircases, features red velvet seats and magnificent stained glass windows.
Hechal Shlomo was originally the seat of the Chief Rabbinate. Today it houses the Wolfson Heritage Museum on the third floor: six rooms with a fantastic collection of Judaica. What makes this museum unique is its theme: Why has the Jewish nation endured, when even the strongest of empires has long disappeared from history?
King George Street ends (and becomes Keren HaYesod Street) at a little plaza. Called Kikar Tzarfat (France Square), this is a popular venue for demonstrations of all kinds because of its proximity to the inaccessible Prime Minister’s Residence less than a block away. Indeed, after huge protest rallies in 2007, the Municipality officially renamed the plaza “Freedom for Jonathan Pollard Square.”
Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel.
Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed, tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.
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