On April 1, 1925, Lord Arthur James Balfour stood on the summit of Mount Scopus (Har Hatsofim, in Hebrew) to dedicate the establishment of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Today, 85 years later, the university looks back proudly on an impressive record of accomplishment. As envisioned by Israel's Zionist founders, the university contributed to preparing the youth of the pioneer generations as leaders of "modern Israel"--both in terms of educating the citizens of the State of Israel itself and in providing an important center of learning for the Diaspora. After independence was achieved, the university provided a focal point for defining Israel and Israelis through interaction between Jews and non-Jews participating in programs offered through HU's Rothberg International School.
1925-1948. In many respects, the university's history mirrors that of the nation it serves. Before independence, the Mount Scopus campus grew and matured concurrently with the development of the infrastructure that would sustain the Yishuv--the Jewish community under the Palestine Mandate that gave rise to the State of Israel. The university produced the educators, doctors, and scientists who would staff the institutions and industries of this new nation. At HU's Rehovot campus near Tel Aviv, Palestinian Jews developed many of the agricultural techniques that would make the desert bloom--not just in Israel but throughout the Middle East.
1948-1967. During the 1948 War of Independence, the university's Mount Scopus campus became a tiny Israeli enclave surrounded by Jordanian-controlled territory. Given the impossibility of conducting classes in such an environment, a new main campus was built in the West Jerusalem neighborhood of Givat Ram in the early 1950s. A few years later, a medical school was established in yet another Jerusalem neighborhood, Ein Kerem.
1967-Present. The unification of Jerusalem after the 1967 Six-Day War permitted the revival of Mount Scopus as a vital component of the Hebrew University complex. Existing buildings were restored, and new ones were built. Its location overlooking the Old City made Mount Scopus the natural choice for the university's Rothberg International School, which opened its doors in 1971. By 1981 Mount Scopus was again the main campus of HU. The legacy of the past, however, would follow the university into the future. The new academic complex built during the years after the Six-Day War resembles a hilltop fortress--and indeed the design was selected to facilitate, if the need should arise, a multilevel defense of the campus by its students and faculty. Among of my first discoveries on campus was the realization that the rose gardens surrounding of this fortress included barbed-wire entanglements--a sadly practical defensive measure.
The physical location of the Mount Scopus campus is quite simply spectacular. Both the Hebrew word hatsofim and the Greek scopus can be loosely translated to mean "the place that looks over." In this case, what is "looked over" is Jerusalem's Old City--at least to the East. Speaking from personal experience, I can confirm that students are easily and frequently distracted by the glimmer of gold and silver emanating from the domed mosques on the summit of Mount Moriah.
Looking West from the university's magnificent amphitheater, the view focuses on a gentle ridge that forms a visible barrier between two climatological zones. Immediately below the treeline that follows the ridge is a stretch of barren terrain that serves as a base for one of the dwindling number of Bedouin bands that still wander the deserts of the Middle East.
As with most of Jerusalem, campus buildings are constructed of local rose-colored stone that settles comfortably into the surrounding landscape. The grounds include numerous gardens and a botanic park, the latter complete with the remains of ancient tombs.
The Hebrew University of Jerusalem has become a world-class center of learning. It has achieved particular renown in areas associated with Biblical archaeology, Jewish religion and history, philosophy, Arabic language and literature, agriculture, and science-based technologies. Hebrew University grants about 30% of the Ph.D.'s earned in Israel each year, including more than three-fourths of the Ph.D.'s earned in the humanities and social sciences. Through its regular academic programs and the programs offered by the Rothberg International School, the university has attracted students from around the globe. Its students come with a variety of goals: to explore their own heritage, to learn about and experience the history and culture of the region, and to study the technologies that support the new global economy. The university's Zionist founders would surely be proud.