On the outskirts of the Rechavia neighborhood in Jerusalem, at the corner of King George and Keren Kayemet L’Yisrael, an impressive, monumental and iconic building has stood since the 1930s: "the Home of the National Institutions."
The building’s establishment, which lasted more than six years, was a declaration and promise: we don't have a country yet, but we will establish and operate a self-governing house of a "government on the way."
In the nineteen twenties, parallel to the development of the small Jewish settlement (50,000 at the beginning of the decade, 160,000 at the end), the National Institutions also grew. What was initially the Zionist management, was replaced in 1929 by the Jewish Agency, the National Committee, the National Fund for Israel and the Foundation Fund.
The original offices of the institutions were scattered throughout Jerusalem. Eventually, their leaders came to the conclusion that it was appropriate to unite forces and erect a single building, which would not only provide an answer to the dispersion but also be a governmental symbol. The Rechavia Gardens neighborhood, established in the heart of Jerusalem and seen as an urban gem, was proposed as a suitable home for the institution's building. A suitable plot of land was found and purchased from the Greek Orthodox Church. Thus, the eight year process (1928 - 1936) of planning, executing and completing the building began.
The first step, in 1928, was an architectural competition. About thirty architects, including some of the most well-known in Israel at the time such as Alexander Brewald, Richard Kaufman, Leopold Krakouer and Yelin Vehecker, seemed to be sure candidates for winning. The committee of judges surprised many when it chose the proposal of an almost unknown architect from Haifa, named Yochanan (Eugene) Ratner, a lecturer at the newly opened Technion, which had opened only three years before.
Construction began in 1929 and was done in stages. Initially the left wing (seen when looking at the National Institutions from King George Street) was built - the Keren Kayemet wing. It was inaugurated in May 1930. Two and a half years later, in October 1932, the cornerstone was laid for the left wing - that of Keren Hayesod. The establishment of the central wing, intended for the Jewish Agency and the World Zionist Organization, lasted several years and was finally completed at the beginning of 1936.
The National Committee did not have its own wing and was a tenant in the Keren Hayesod wing. Over the years, changes and extensions have been made to the building. In 1937, a wing was added behind the Keren Hayesod wing. After the establishment of the state, a third floor was added to the two-story house and its final shape, known to all, was determined.
The National Institutions Building in an aerial photograph from the 1940s against the background of the nearby Rechavia neighborhood
In the House of National Institutions, fateful decisions were made by the heads of the "government to be" of the "state on the way." The chairman of the board of the Jewish Agency and the World Zionist Organization David Ben-Gurion, the heads of the political department Moshe Shertok and Golda Meyerson, the head of the finance department Eliezer Kaplan, the heads of the settlement, immigration and education departments, as well as the highest institutions of the National Committee, Keren Kayemet and Keren Hayesod. Even the underground "Hagana" had secluded corners in the house.
The house also experienced a series of dramatic events. One such event was "The Black Shabbat." On June 29, 1946, thousands of British soldiers and police stormed the Jewish settlement and arrested thousands, including some of the leaders of the settlement. A British military force "captured" the building and held it hostage for 12 days, searching for hidden weapons and contraband of the Haganah and found nothing.
In the same year, a hunger strike was held that received worldwide coverage. The leaders of the settlement joined the hunger strike of a thousand immigrants who were on a hunger strike in the port of La Spezia in northern Italy. The strike stopped only after more than 100 hours, when it became known that the British would make immigration permits available to the immigrants.
The most dramatic event that occurred was the explosion during the War of Independence (March 11, 1948) which led to multiple casualties. The Arabs managed to sneak a masked terrorist into the guarded compound driving a car belonging to the American consulate. Hundreds of kilograms of explosives were planted in the car. The terrorist left the car, which had a permanent entry permit, in front of the entrance to the House of National Institutions and left. A security man moved the car a few meters in front of the Keren Hayesod wing. The intense explosion killed 12 men and women, including Leib Yaffe, the director of Keren Hayesod, and more than 100 were injured.
Despite the attack, regular activity continued in the house by all of the departments. Outside officials who were stationed there due to the circumstances of that time: the headquarters of the "Haganah" in Jerusalem and the operational headquarters of the convoys to the city, managed to bring food, equipment and reinforcements despite the siege imposed by the Arabs.
The National Institutions House a few minutes after the attack
During 1948, the house was repaired, in spite of the siege of Jerusalem and the battles of the War of Independence. In early 1949 it was prepared for two state events: the opening session of the Constituent Assembly that became the first Knesset and the election of the first president of the nine month old State of Israel - Dr. Chaim Weizman. This took place in the Hebrew month of Shevat, February 1949, and caused great excitement in Israel.
The oath of the first president, Weizmann
After a few days, the Knesset moved to Tel Aviv. Upon her return to Jerusalem at the end of 1949, she was once again hosted by the House of the National Institutions, until a home was found for her in "Beit Fromin" in the capital. In 1966, the Knesset was moved to her permanent home in Givat Ram.
Thus, the state leadership remained for 12 years (1950-1962) in the National Institution's building.
The prime minister's office was located in the rear wing of the complex, where government meetings were held. Jerusalemites were not surprised in those days to see the entire government (composed of 12-15 ministers) walking from the House of the National Institutions to the residence of President Yitzhak Ben-Zvi - a 200 meter walk.
Ben-Gurion would come every morning, salute the guard at the entrance and go up to his office. The envoy of the Prime Minister's Office in the first years of the state was a young man, an immigrant from Iraq. His name was Eli Amir and he later became known as a well-known writer. He described his experiences at the National Institution’s House and working in the Prime Minister's office in his book "The Bicycle Boy."
A public and national role was played not only by the large building, but also by the extension in front of it, called the National Square. Festive events, demonstrations against the British, joyous rallies and funerals of the people of Shem were held there and attracted audiences of hundreds and even thousands. This was the case on Victory Day over Nazi Germany in May 1945, and the massive rally on the morning of November 30th, 1947, after the historic UN decision for the establishment of the State of Israel.
Dancing in the plaza of the National Institutions building, on the night of November 29th
Protest demonstrations held by the Jews of Jerusalem against the "White Paper" policy of the British, which marched through the streets of Jerusalem, always ended in the square in front of the House of the National Institutions. A particularly impressive demonstration was held by 1,000 women from Jerusalem, led by Rabanit Sara Herzog, the wife of Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Isaac Halevi Herzog, and Rachel Yanait, the wife of National Committee Chairman Yitzhak Ben-Zvi.
The square was often frequented by children and teenagers who celebrated major holidays and events there. On the occasion of Shavuot, the children of Jerusalem, young and old, used to bring first-born baskets to the square, which in return were transferred to the Jewish Foundation. A newspaper report in 1946 read: "The yard of the national institutions was bustling with a large crowd of toddlers dressed for the holiday and garlanded with flowers, when fifty kindergartens in the city brought first-borns to KKL - bikkurim." Tu B'shvat celebrations also opened in the National Square and from there delegations of children left to plant plants throughout the city.
In the summer of 1949, when Benjamin Ze'ev Herzl's second funeral was held, after his coffin was brought to Israel from Vienna, the main ceremony was in the square in front of the House of the National Institutions and from there the coffin was moved to Mount Nisha in western Jerusalem, which has since been renamed Mount Herzl.
The Home of the National Institutions in Jerusalem did not end its role with the establishment of the State. Since then, and throughout the years, the heart of the Jewish people in Israel and the Diaspora continues to beat in it. The various departments of the World Zionist Organization, the Jewish Agency, the National Fund for Israel and Keren HaYesod, work to strengthen the State of Israel and preserve the connection between Israel and the Jewish people in the Diaspora.
The house was and remains "the Home of the National Institutions."
The National Institutions, currently
Written by: Dr. Mordechai Naor
Photos: Courtesy of the Central Zionist Archive