Friday, September 24, 2010

A Zionist Citadel

Zionist citadel -

This week the 73rd annual meeting of the board of governors of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem takes place in Israel's capital. Opened in 1925 on Mount Scopus in northeast Jerusalem, in the presence of British grandees Lord Balfour and Lord Allenby and the Zionist leadership headed by Chaim Weizmann, the fate of the university has been intertwined with that of the Yishuv and the nascent State of Israel. The school wrestled with the challenges of institution-building, offered a platform for the fierce competition of ideas, and developed the country's human potential, while encouraging Jewish-Arab coexistence. The demands the university confronted were a microcosm of the larger struggle for Jewish national survival in the face of wars, terror, boycott and de-legitimization.

With the end of the First World War and the arrival of the British Mandate, Weizmann helped to spearhead the creation of a "university of the Jewish people" whose library would become the Jewish National Library. In 1918, twelve foundation stones on land purchased from the estate of Sir John Gray-Hill were laid. Albert Einstein, delivering his opening remarks in Hebrew, gave the first formal university lecture – on the theory of relativity – in 1923. Judah Magnes became the institution's chancellor awarding the first degree in 1931. The university's teaching hospital, thanks to the munificence of the Hadassah Women's Zionist Organization, was to become a preeminent medical center.

In April 1948, Arab gunmen slaughtered a convoy of medical and university personnel making their way through east Jerusalem to Mount Scopus. When the 1948 War of Independence was over, Mt. Scopus remained an Israeli enclave though too dangerous to access. Classes were instead scattered throughout west Jerusalem, while Einstein and others appealed for donors to build an alternative site -- eventually inaugurated at Givat Ram in 1953. Only with the 1967 reunification of Jerusalem was Mount Scopus redeveloped into a flourishing campus.

In a Jerusalem whose population is growing increasingly non-Zionist ultra-Orthodox and Arab, the university today is a bastion of liberal Zionism. One illustration: In partnership with Hadassah and the Israel Defense Forces, HU now offers a distinctive six-year fast-track track physicians-training program in "military medicine." Nevertheless, the conduct of a number of graduates and faculty, with their compulsive anti-Zionism and obsessive embrace of the Palestinian Arab cause, has tended to capture the headlines. After years of indulgence, such whinging is no longer going unanswered.

Day-to-day, however, the "crisis" that most concerns the university's president, Menahem Ben-Sasson, is financial. Government support has been reduced by $8 million; HU is saddled by burdensome pension obligations; it foots a NIS 30 million security bill (nine students and staff were murdered in a 2002 bombing of a campus cafeteria by Palestinian terrorists); the global economic downturn resulted in a $17 million drop in foreign donations. Negotiated salary cuts and summer furloughs notwithstanding, HU ended its 2008/2009 fiscal year with a $30 million deficit.

All is not bleak. The task of strengthening the "university of the Jewish people" is now more equitably shared by a board that is divided, roughly, into one-hundred Israeli and one-hundred Diaspora governors. The university is doing well in garnering grants for its researchers: $45m from Israeli sources; $12m from US granting agencies; $8m from German sources and so on, last year. Its Amirim program identifies and nourishes undergraduates with outstanding potential. [There is healthy intellectual cross-pollination with other world-class institutions. For example, a doctoral student in music and another in Talmud are now studying at Princeton University in an exchange program sponsored by the Tikvah Fund.] The university is vigorously seeking to reverse Israel's brain drain, enticing back scholars and thereby further boosting the university's ability to capture research grants. And since undergraduates do not arrive on campus after IDF service with a sufficiently broad educational background, the university recently instituted a scheme to provide them with a solid grounding in the liberal arts.

Like the state it preceded into existence, Hebrew University finds itself in the throes of crisis. Yet a balanced assessment would note reasons for optimism: international stature, tens of thousands of enrolled students, illustrious faculty, alumni that include six recent Nobel Prize laureates, custodianship of Einstein's literary legacy, and an abiding role in fostering the Zionist enterprise.

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