History on high at Mount Scopus
Israel travels

History on high at Mount Scopus

A thank you gift from the Jews to Lord Balfour, the cemetery hilltop 834 meters above sea level has been a command post, a danger-zone, a world-class medical facility, and a fount of Hebrew knowledge

The original Hebrew University buildings (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
The original Hebrew University buildings (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

On November 2, 1917, Britain’s Lord Balfour announced that “His Majesty’s Government views with favor the establishment of a national home in Palestine for the Jewish people.” One year and nine days later, World War I came to an end. Still euphoric over the Balfour Declaration and certain that mighty England was on their side, the Jews of Palestine presented the British with a gift of land on Mount Scopus for a cemetery.

It was a wonderful location, on a mountain top 834 meters above sea level, with vast military and historical significance. Indeed, it was from Mount Scopus that Roman General Titus commanded the siege, conquest, and destruction of Jerusalem during the Great Revolt nearly 2,000 years ago.

History was made once again in 1925, when Mount Scopus became the site of the world’s first Hebrew University. It was joined soon afterwards by Hadassah Hospital, without question the most modern and well‑equipped medical facility in the entire Middle East. But there was a serious drawback to their Mount Scopus location; the single road to both hospital and university was surrounded by hostile Arab neighborhoods.

As soon as the British pulled out of the country in mid-May of 1948, the Arabs managed to gain complete control of the road to Mount Scopus. Hadassah and the Hebrew University were effectively cut off from the rest of the city, becoming a lonely enclave deep in enemy territory.

It didn’t take the Arabs long to realize how easy it would be to blockade the road and, in the early stages of the War of Independence, they ambushed any Jew naive enough to try passing through. This, despite the fact that the British, who still controlled Palestine, had promised the Jews safe passage to Mount Scopus.

On April 13, 1948 a large group of doctors, nurses, patients, professors and students joined a supply convoy which was travelling to the Hadassah Hospital on Mount Scopus. The convoy was ambushed and its vehicles blown up as it made its way through the affluent Arab neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah — only a few hundred meters from a British military outpost.

With the British looking on, Arab attackers mercilessly slaughtered any personnel attempting to escape the inferno. Incredibly, having resisted Haganah attempts to rescue Jews caught in this death trap, it still took the British over six hours to intervene. Seventy‑eight people were murdered in the attack, or burned to death after their ambulances and buses were set on fire. Among the victims was the director of the Hadassah organization in Palestine, Dr. Chaim Yassky.

As soon as the British pulled out of the country in mid-May of 1948, the Arabs managed to gain complete control of the road to Mount Scopus. Hadassah and the Hebrew University were effectively cut off from the rest of the city, becoming a lonely enclave deep in enemy territory.

On July 7, 1948, Israel and Jordan signed an agreement in which Mount Scopus remained part of the Jewish State but was now located within an Israeli demilitarized zone. The only people permitted on the mountain were Israeli policemen and the only defenses they were allowed were light weapons. Needless to say, in the fortnightly supply convoys that ascended Mount Scopus, the “policemen” — actually Israeli soldiers — smuggled in as many arms and as much artillery as they could.

Although the soldiers donned made‑to‑order police uniforms prepared especially by tailors at an Israeli army camp, the Jordanians knew exactly what was going on. Often they would shout across at the new arrivals: “Are you from the Paratroopers or Artillery?”

Jewish plots at the British War Cemetery (photo: Courtesy)
Jewish plots at the British War Cemetery (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Today, Britain’s Jerusalem War Cemetery stands side by side with a fully-operational Hadassah Hospital, and is located just down the road from the Hebrew University. Meticulously maintained by a special British fund, the cemetery is England’s largest burial ground in Israel. The long driveway passing immediately in front of the cemetery entrance was part of the road on which convoys traveled to Mount Scopus during the years the mountain was cut off from the rest of Jewish Jerusalem.

Most of the 2,500 soldiers buried within the cemetery fell in battles over Jerusalem. The troops belonged to Commonwealth forces and were from South Africa, Britain, India, Australia, and New Zealand. A number of Jewish graves are located high on the slope, to the left and near the far wall; many of the soldiers who are buried there served together in the Royal Fusiliers.

A striking domed edifice was built here as a chapel for the soldiers’ relatives. Guarding the entrance is a statue of St. George, a second-century Roman soldier who is believed to have slain a dragon in order to save a princess. St. George was declared patron saint of England in the 13th century.

Every few years, in November, memorial services are held at the cemetery. So many years have passed that hardly any family members are left, yet while the ceremonies are only sparsely attended, they can be quite impressive. One year, not too long ago, the ceremony featured a women’s choir dressed in scarlet, while blood-red anemones surrounded the cross.

Hadassah Hospital, Mount Scopus (photo: Courtesy)
Hadassah Hospital, Mount Scopus (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Hadassah Hospital Mount Scopus is just next door, and today it’s booming with activity. But for 19 years it lay idle and desolate, and in 1961 a whole new medical center opened in West Jerusalem (Hadassah Ein Kerem).

The 1967 Six-Day War reunited all of Jerusalem. Just a little over a decade later, renovations began on the original facility, which had been designed by world-renowned German-born architect Eric Mendelsohn in 1934. Mendelsohn had combined the straight, functional lines of Bauhaus (International) architecture with curves that included rounded windows, light fixtures, and, in some cases, even rather strange rounded balconies.

During renovations, care was taken to preserve the original character of the hospital, whose low buildings were intended to help it blend into the landscape. The three domes on one of the rooftops are the only oriental features in the building, and while some sources say that they echo the Arab villages across the way, I find that they more accurately reflect the rounded Judean Mountains.

Tree of Life, Hadassah Hospital (photo: Courtesy)
Tree of Life, Hadassah Hospital (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Created by decorated sculptor Jacques (Chaim Jacob) Lipshitz, a startling statue called the Tree of Life stands on the lawn. It depicts biblical figures: Noah, Abraham, Isaac, and Moses, and six flames — together with Moses’ hand — converge to form a Menorah. Seen against a background of blue sky, villages, and desert, its sculpted parts seem to be engaged in a struggle to survive.

One hospital addition, on the sidewalk next the hospital, was constructed in honor of Judith Riklis, an unforgettably lovely Israeli woman who moved with her husband — tycoon Meshulam Riklis — to my native Minneapolis in the early 1950s. Judy was great friends with my late mother, Barbara, and taught my big brother’s nursery school at our neighborhood Talmud Torah! Sadly, her name has disappeared from the façade of what was once the hospital’s nursing school and after several incarnations now contains a heart rehab facility and a neighborhood gym.

A few dozen meters further on, the Hebrew University begins to dominate the landscape. The idea of a Hebrew University in the land of Israel was first proposed in the early 1880’s by Heidelberg mathematician Professor Hermann Zvi Shapira; he intended the language of instruction to be German and suggested it be located outside of Jerusalem to prevent objections by religious extremists.

A detailed plan for a school of higher Jewish learning was published by three leading Zionists in 1902. Eleven years later a committee was set up to prepare the groundwork for the university and the decision was made to establish it in the Holy City.

Before World War I drew to a close, negotiations were finalized for purchase of land on the heights of Mount Scopus. Ground was broken for the new university on July 24, 1918; Dr. Chaim Weizmann (later to become the first President of Israel) and other dignitaries laid 12 cornerstones, representing the Israelite tribes, on the spot where the amphitheater overlooks the Judean desert today.

It took another seven years, but on April 1, 1925, in a grandiose ceremony held at the same site, the Hebrew University was officially declared open. The ceremony was graced by the most illustrious personalities of the time: Lord Balfour, Weizmann, and General Allenby who led the 1917 Allied conquest of Palestine.

In preparation for a huge influx of future students, the Scopus campus was greatly expanded in the 1970s. Some people consider the new university complex nothing less than a monstrosity. In spite of the exceptional view the university commands, there are very few windows and those that do break the monotony of the white stone are quite small.

The worst problem, however, is functional: The buildings are so similar to one another and are connected by such a complicated (and ugly) labyrinth that people waste valuable time getting lost. A few of them have been wandering around for years, and are still trying to find their way out.


Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven 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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