Commentary Magazine


The Hebrew University in Exile:
A Visit to Mount Scopus

Cut off from Jewish Jerusalem by a strip of Arab-held territory, the Hebrew University and Hadassah Hospital buildings on Mt. Scopus have been inaccessible now for four years, and occupied only by military guards; and the university has been forced to carry forward its work in makeshift quarters and under heartbreaking handicaps in Jerusalem.

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The convoy goes up once a fortnight from the College of Terra Sancta, one of the temporary habitations of the displaced Hebrew University of Jerusalem in the Jewish area, to the Hadassah Hospital and the Hill of Scopus—which means the “Watchman.” It takes up twenty police officers to change the guard at the buildings of the Hadassah and the university, with their baggage and food for the fortnight. It also takes up one busload of the academic and administrative staff of the university, who go up to enjoy “the excellence of Scopus,” and to look at the relics of their old studies and research. They can stay there two or three hours before the convoy returns, or, if anyone wishes it, the two weeks till the next convoy comes.

Half the guard is changed each fortnight. The convoy is escorted by a senior officer of the United Nations staff that watches over the observance of Israel’s armistice agreements with the Arab States. The list of all the visitors to Scopus must be approved by the Arab authorities in the Old City of Jerusalem some days before the convoy leaves. At the university building the roll of those who have been approved is called. We produce our identity cards with photographs, and enter a blinded bus that is without windows: and we drive off to the Mandelbaum Gate. That is no portal, but the post in No Man’s Land where the Jewish area ends and the Arab area begins. There we alight, and the roll is checked by the United Nations officer and officers of the Arab Legion, who must give the permit to cross the line. When we have passed the scrutiny, we re-enter the bus with an escort of two soldiers of the Arab Legion.

Slowly the laden bus makes its way up the hill past various road blocks; but we cannot look out except through a tiny slit that lets in the air. The fortunate person who sits by the hole tells the rest of us of good things, meat and fruit stored in an Arab shop on the roadside. We rumble up the hill past the house of the former Mufti. That is said now to be a hotel with the name of “Shepheard’s”—a name hitherto sacred to Cairo’s famous hotel. Then the bus stops, and our Arab escort gets out. We have reached the English cemetery of the First World War and the limit of Arab authority. Another two hundred yards, and we are in the court of the Hadassah Hospital. We alight, and have the freedom of the hill for two hours, restrained only by a warning on both sides of the road: “Beware of mines.”

The hospital, like the university, has been derelict for nearly four years, from the time of the tragic attack by the Arabs on the medical convoy in April 1948, with the loss of the director of Hadassah, the dean-designate of the Medical School of the university, and other heads of the medical faculty-to-be. The hospital itself, the Nurses’ Home, and the Ratnoff Medical Center were all damaged in the shelling, during the battle for Jerusalem in that year of the Hinge of Fate. But the external damage has been repaired, or at least patched up, and the buildings could be serviceable, if there was service to give.

There are, however, no doctors, no nurses, no patients, and no research workers. Only the police and one or two persons of the administration occupy those proud marble halls which display the record of benefactors from all the principal towns of the United States, and that refectory where of old doctors and nurses and assistants were gathered. Some equipment remains, but fortunately most of it was removed to the town in 1948 in the nick of time. The garden is overgrown : the tunnel by which the nurses came from their home to the hospital, protected from the rain and all the winds that blow, is a ghostly alley. The rooms of the Cancer Research Institute and the laboratories, in which once Professors Bernard Zondek, Saul Adler, Olitzki, and Theodor explored new ways of healing, are empty, except during these two hours each fortnight. The lecture theater, where they instructed the officers of the Allied Forces in the war, is a desert space. But the flag of Israel flies from the roofs of the hospital and of the Medical Center, just to indicate that we have not given up possession.

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We walk on to the buildings of the university on the crest of the hill. Here on one side, facing the city, are the skeletons of new laboratories of the science faculty, which were beginning to rise in the winter of 1947-48. The scaffolding is in its place as it was left: the stones lie on the ground ready for the masons who are not there. The break came at the moment of the peak of construction, and not a stone has been put in its place for four years. It is like the ruins of Pompeii, overwhelmed, not by a stream of lava, but by a flood of war and hate. On the other side of the road is the botanical garden of the university, with the trees and plants of the Bible lands. War and hate have not stopped the growth of the trees; and the ridge that falls away to the wilderness of Judea and the deep abyss of Jordan, is more thickly wooded than of old, and the paths are overgrown. The tomb of Ussishkin is undisturbed in that cave of antiquity where ossuaries of the Maccabean period were found by workers of the university, and where the head of the Keren Kay erne t chose his burial place, linking the renaissance of Israel with the past glory.

We come now to the main part of the university buildings, and to the crown of the hill. On the eastern side, fronting the Old City of Jerusalem, we have the Rosenbloom Building of the Humanities, bearing the name of a Pittsburgh benefactor, the University and National Library, the Museum of Antiquities, and the refectory of the teachers and staff. On the eastern side, the Weizmann Institute of Science, built in and around the old Gray-Hill House, which was the starting point of the university, the Einstein Institutes of Mathematics and Physics, the museums of Botany, Zoology, and Geology, and the Open-Air Theater, that noblest of sites, where the Hebrew University was opened to the world by Lord Balfour on April 1, 1925. Everything is stayed as it was in January 1948, when the teaching on Scopus perforce came to an end. Mocking notices are still on the boards of the library, announcing rooms to let in the town—how priceless they would be today; an exhibition of photographs by the registrar; results of examinations and awards of prizes. Here and there a policeman’s couch gives a sign of human occupation. Professor Sukenik, our archaeologist, came with us that day, and we went with him to the museum to see the collection of Jewish coins which is still in its place, the books of the library, and the periodicals of 1947 in many languages. That precious collection of the antiquities of the Holy Land, which had been built up so devotedly, no less than the peerless collection of the Rockefeller Museum of Palestine antiquities in the Old City, is denied to our students. Down in the town, Professor Sukenik has had to build up again the records of the past, amazingly enriched as they are by the Dead Sea scrolls, discovered in the very year of the life struggle.

The library is the most utter symbol of frustration. For though nearly one hundred thousand volumes have been moved to the town, here in their stacks repose half a million books, untouched except by an occasional diligent policeman, using opportunity. The vast reading room, which of old was filled with eager students searching in its works of reference, is another empty space. The librarian’s room, with its catalogues of the great libraries of the world and its solid furniture, a legacy of David Wolffsohn, Herzl’s successor, is open to us; and, a cynical sign of the sudden exodus, we note the unwashed coffee cups on the table. We mount to the roof of the library, the highest point on “Watchman’s Hill.” There is the domed room, sometimes called the Eyrie or Ivory Tower, of Dr. Judah Magnes, who was the first chancellor, and the president of the university in that year of doom. The files and the books are as he left them on his last day of work. One picture only—of Abraham Lincoln—is on the wall. From the roof outside the room we drink in that incomparable view over Jerusalem and Judea, the Jordan Valley and the Dead Sea, the mountains of Gilead and Moab. The view gripped again with a fresh appeal. We look down on Anata, the village of Jeremiah, whose disciple Magnes aspired to be.

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We descend from the roof, and cross the road to the buildings of the science departments. The courtyard here too is full of stones and timber. For in January 1948 the authorities of the university were building and extending in every direction. Yet this place is not just as it had been in the last days of the British Mandate. The storms of four years have brought down some of the old trees, which block the paths, and slit trenches in their crisscross pattern seam the ground. Here and there spent bullets recall those months of siege and stress, before the area was demilitarized in the summer of 1948. With some difficulty we make our way past coils of barbed wire, over stones and felled trees and man-made ditches, to the theater, to admire another unsurpassed panorama of nature. The memorial stone of Minnie Untermyer, on the stage of the theater, recalls a generous friend of the university; and the tiers of rough stone seats recall that unforgettable day of 1925 when seven thousand of our people, assembled from all parts of the world, and a few Arabs, and the representatives of a hundred universities gathered to take part in the ceremony symbolizing Israel’s renaissance.

Today one solitary policeman stands there on the watch, and looks up at an Arab soldier perched on the beetling tower of the neighboring German-built hospice, named after the wife of Kaiser Wilhelm, Augusta Victoria. That was once, in the days of Lord Samuel and Lord Plumer, the seat of British authority: today it is an Arab hospital, and, unlike the Hadassah, in full use for its work of healing. Two hundred yards below us, after an interval of No Man’s Land, are Arab fields and an Arab fellah ploughing with his ox and his ass.

Till 1950, the animals of the Biblical Zoo roamed in the wooded area round the university, and were fed by one of the university staff. But then for a period the supplies were interrupted, and the animals were famished. And while permission has not been obtained to bring down the books and the scientific equipment from Scopus, the common humanity towards animals prevailed, and the lions of Judah and the bears of Lebanon and the rest were brought down to the new Zoological Garden of the Jerusalem municipality planted in the Judean hills. We picked a few red anemones and some lilies of Sharon growing amid the stones, and then we had to retrace our steps to the hospital. There our party was gathered, and we were joined by the twenty policemen who had finished their month of solitude and were going back to the town of Jerusalem and their families. We had another roll call, passed the scrutiny, entered our blinded bus, and drove down the hill quicker than we went up. A cursory examination by Arab officers at the gate that is no gate, and in a few minutes we are back at Terra Sancta with a fresh prayer in our hearts and on our lips for this year’s Seder service: “Next year on Scopus.”

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