Photo Credit: Saul Jay Singer

After the birth of the State of Israel was announced on Erev Shabbat, May 14, 1948, Israel’s founders suddenly found themselves having to establish a government. In April 1948, the leaders of the Jewish settlement in Israel had created the Moetzet Ha’am (People’s Council), which became the Provisional State Council and functioned as Israel’s legislature until it was possible to hold the first election in the nascent Jewish state. On January 25, 1949, even before the War of Independence ended, the election was held and voters elected a “Constituent Assembly” which, two days after its first sitting at the Jewish Agency Building in Jerusalem on February 14, 1949, renamed itself the “Knesset.”



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Because of the apprehension and uncertainty regarding the ultimate status of Jerusalem, the Knesset moved to Tel Aviv, where it set itself up at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art in Dizengoff House – today known as Independence Hall – where Ben-Gurion had announced the birth of Israel. Shortly thereafter, it moved to the Kesem (“Magic”) movie house in Tel Aviv on March 8, 1949.

When it opened four years earlier in 1945, the Kesem cinema was an elite premier theatre with upholstered seating for 1,100 people, but it was converted in 1948 to serve as headquarters for Israel’s navy. The Knesset chose Kesem as its meeting house because there were few large venues in Israel that could serve as a suitable assembly hall and because it was a relatively new and spacious building that was centrally and conveniently located. However, on December 26, 1949, at least partly as a step to forestall any effort by the United Nations to declare Jerusalem as an “international city,” the Knesset returned to Jerusalem, where it held its first meetings in the Jewish Agency’s building in Rechavia, but this was only a temporary move until it could find a better location.


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After considering several alternatives, including the possibility of establishing residence in the King David Hotel, the Knesset moved on March 13, 1950, to Beit Froumine (“Froumine House”), where it remained until it moved to its permanent home in the Knesset building at Givat Ram on August 30, 1966. Although the three-floor Beit Froumine was essentially only a skeletal structure at the time, it was chosen because of its large ground-floor hall, which boasted an upper balcony. Some commentators contend that this site, and the location of its plenum hall at street level, was chosen to reflect the Knesset’s liberal democratic view of everyday civil existence (in contrast with the Knesset’s current isolation as a “fortified compound”).

The location may well have been “democratic,” but it also became a great headache to the public because King George Street around Beit Froumine was closed to traffic whenever the Knesset was in session. Another problem was that its easy and open accessibility created significant security issues; for example, during the demonstration against the Reparations Agreement between Israel and West Germany (1952), protesters’ stones pierced the windows and breached the plenum chamber and, in an infamous 1957 event that almost killed several Knesset members, a hand grenade thrown into the plenum hall wounded Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir, and others.

After the Knesset moved to its permanent home in Givat Ram in 1966, Beit Froumine served as the home of the Ministry of Tourism and then by various branches of the Ministry of Religion, including the Rabbinical courts for the Jerusalem District and the Great Rabbinical Court of Appeals. In 2002, Israel sold the land on which it was built to a private entrepreneur, who intended to demolish the building and construct a large complex for residential and commercial purposes, but his plans failed when the Society for Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites, with the support of former and current Knesset Members and much public support, successfully pushed the Knesset to enact the Knesset Museum Law in 2010. Pursuant to that law, the building was restored to its form during the years it housed the Knesset and is open to visitors.

Beit Froumine was always intended to serve as a temporary home for the Knesset until a permanent home could be built, but the years stretched out with no action. Finally, in February 1955, the government decided to take concrete steps (pun intended) to construct a building to serve as a permanent home for the Knesset. The plan was to build it on the southern slope because, according to Knesset Speaker Joseph Sprinzak, there had been a Jewish settlement there during the Second Temple period and Jewish burial caves had been found nearby.

Ironically, the Knesset may be the only Parliament in the world to be built on land not owned by the government: it sits on land owned by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, whose aggregate Jerusalem land ownership is second only to the government itself. In 1952, it sold Israel a 99-year lease, with an option to renew for another 99 years, but the Patriarchate has become a passionate supporter of the Palestinian Authority and characterizes Israelis as “terrorist Zionists.” As such, it is reasonably foreseeable that there could be future problems regarding Israeli properties on Patriarchate lands – which includes some 20 to 30 percent of the Old City, much of Rechavia, the area of Israel’s government offices, the Israel Museum, the Great Synagogue, and the Prime Minister’s and President’s official residences.

On June 14, 1955, Sprinzak announced that the Committee for Land Development for Government Buildings had approved the allocation of land in the southeastern portion of the Government Complex for construction of the Knesset building. On July 26, 1956, the Knesset Presidium, in cooperation with the Association of Engineers and Architects in Israel, announced a public competition open to architects to design the structure. However, since the source of its funding was then unknown, most of Israel’s best-known architects declined to participate, and the competition received only a disappointing 40 proposals.

Knesset State Medal: Rothschild (1966).

Shortly before the publication of the competition results and shortly before his death, Lord James De Rothschild, the son of “Hanadiv Hayadua” (the “well-known patron”) Baron Edmond Rothschild and a great philanthropist in his own right, wrote to Prime Minister Ben-Gurion advising him of his decision to donate 1.25 million pounds sterling (almost $42 million in today’s dollars) for the project, describing his hopes that the new building would become “a symbol in the eyes of all men of the permanence of the State of Israel.”

After his death, Rothschild’s widow, Dorothy, carried out his will and financed the project. (She would also later finance Israel’s Supreme Court building but, sadly, like her husband, she did not live to see the completion of the building, which opened four years after her death in 1988.) However, even to this day, some critics do not approve of Israel’s acceptance of the Rothschild largesse; they argue that citizens of a democracy should pay for their democratic institutions and that, if Israel’s government lacked sufficient funds to build the Knesset building, it should have remained at Beit Froumine.

Unlike in art, where Boris Schatz founded the Bezalel Academy and launched a distinctive Jewish art form, there was then no such thing as a stylistic “Jewish architecture.” Moreover, many Israeli architects had been trained in Germany and, after the rise of the Third Reich, had moved to Tel Aviv, where they proceeded to redesign a city of old Mediterranean-style houses into a modern city of clean lines and functional forms. As such, and most ironically, many of the plans submitted by architects in response to the Association of Engineers and Architects competition were closer to the spirit of Germany than to that of Jerusalem. On July 24, 1957, the jury, which consisted of six architects and seven Knesset members, announced its unanimous decision to award First Prize to Warsaw-born architect Ossip (Joseph) Klarwein, an important representative of Northern German Brick Expressionism who had trained at the Technical University of Munich and the Prussian Academy of Arts.

In 1934, Klarwein (1893-1970), the son of a Hebrew teacher and a fervent Zionist, had made aliyah with his non-Jewish opera singer wife to escape growing German antisemitism. He became an independent architect in Haifa, and his projects, most of which were public and commercial buildings, include Mount Herzl and Herzl’s tomb (1951); the Hebrew University of Jerusalem Givat Ram master plan (1953); the Dagon granaries in Haifa (1953-1966); the Israeli Pavilion at the Brussel’s World’s Fair (1958); and the Tel Aviv Savidor Central railways station in Tel Aviv and the old Jerusalem central bus station (later demolished).

Rather than designing a grandiose architectural marvel reminiscent of the Mishkan that the original Bezalel of scripture had designed in the desert (in accordance with G-d’s command through Moses) and befitting the seat of government for the Jewish state, Klarwein designed a low and publicly accessible modern edifice. According to his original architectural plans, the building was to be constructed with a rectangular shape surrounded by a portico of 20 columns on front and back and with 15 columns on each side and with the plenum hall at the center and an inner courtyard on each side.

However, his selection as chief architect proved highly unpopular and controversial and, at a meeting of the National Committee of the Union of Architects, his design was vehemently criticized by Israel’s top architects for being neo-classical, un-Israeli, not blending into its surroundings, old-fashioned and, perhaps worst of all, boring. Some argued that the structure was wholly alien to Jerusalem architecture, but others contended that the design was entirely consistent with both the original Tabernacle in the desert, which the Bible describes as columned, and the Second Temple, which featured colonnades. The greatest offense to most, however, was the similarity that the proposed design bore to a Greek temple, specifically the Parthenon, and the critics were repulsed by the very idea that the official government building of the newly born Jewish state should be even slightly evocative of non-Jewish temple edifices.

The Union of Architects passed a resolution to do everything in its power to obstruct the construction of Klarwein’s building and it maintained its position even after a committee of experts convened by Sprinzak in April 1958 concluded that Klarwein’s design “excels in its simplicity and unity of image” and was worthy of acceptance. Nonetheless, the Implementation Committee sent Klarwein abroad for the stated purpose of having him study similar edifices but, actually, to get him out of the way while it established an office to improve the planned design to be headed by architect Shimon Powsner.

Upon his return, Klarwein discovered to his chagrin that the Committee had completely revised his design. Against his will, other architects were brought in to work with Powsner to help revise the original plan, including veteran architect Dov Karmi, his son, Ram, and British architect Bill Gillitt, and they proposed the alternative model that had little resemblance to Klarwein’s design. The final construction of the Knesset building used bare concrete, both on the interior and exterior, and, in accordance with the Jerusalem Municipality construction regulations, the outer walls were intertwined with a reddish stone brought from the Galilee.

Invitation to the laying of the Knesset building cornerstone, October 14, 1958.

Born in Russia, Karmi (1905-1962) made aliyah with his family in 1921 where, after studying at Bezalel, he decided to study architecture at Ghent University in Belgium. Returning to Eretz Yisrael, he became one of a group of architects who developed a unique Bauhaus style for Tel Aviv, later recognized by UNESCO as a world heritage site, and he designed more than 200 buildings, mostly in the modernist style, including in Tel Aviv the Mann Auditorium, the Histadrut building, and the El Al building and, in Jerusalem, the Sherman Administration Building and the Wise Auditorium of the Hebrew University. In 1957, he was awarded the Israel Prize and became the first person to earn that prestigious prize in architecture, but his talent obviously ran in the family: both his son, Ram (2002), and his daughter, Ada (2007), also earned the Israel Prize in architecture.

The new design converted Klarwein’s rectangular design to a square, decreased its circumference, eliminated the center courtyard, and moved the Plenum Hall from the center of the building. Before approving the final design in May 1960, the Implementation Committee wanted to build the entrance from the south, which boasted a stunning view of the Judean Hills and also afforded entrants a front-on view of the grand scale and magnificence of the building, but it ultimately yielded to the IDF which, concerned about protecting Israel’s legislators and other government officials, argued that this southern entrance would expose the building to numerous firing positions from across the Jordanian border.


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The cornerstone for the Knesset was laid on October 14, 1958, but the building was not formally dedicated until almost eight years later on August 30, 1966. Participants arrived at the festive and joyous state ceremony through streets massed with proud forests of flags, pennants and emblems exhibiting the blue and white, and the ceremonies began with the lighting of a sculptured beacon accompanied by the sounding of shofarot designed to suggest the burning bush and Mt. Sinai. As choirs broke into the singing of Nes Tziona (“A Miracle in Zion”), night bonfires were lit on the hills surrounding Jerusalem and beacons were kindled from Eilat, Israel’s southernmost point, to Metullah, its furthest point north. Dorothy Rothschild, attending with her family, cut a ribbon colored in Israel’s blue and white that stretched across the huge iron gates, and a ceremony was held naming a Jerusalem street after her late husband.

Affixing the mezuzah at the Knesset.

Rishon L’Tzion Rav Isser Yehuda Unterman and Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Nissim blessed the building and affixed mezuzot on each side of the huge entry. Prime Minister Eshkol, speaking to the unifying consensus of the day, stated that within the walls of the new structure “will be formed the unity of a people returning to their ancestral home.” However, even on this great day of “unity,” a disagreement arose regarding the name to be given to the building, as Menachem Begin, then leader of the Cherut Party in Knesset, and Rav Shlomo Lorentz, a leading member of the Agudat Yisrael Party in Knesset, vociferously objected to using the term Mishkan Ha-Knesset, insisting that the term mishkan must be retained for the exclusive use of describing the Temple on Mount Moriah.

Amidst the celebration and joy were references to Jews who were unable to attend but not forgotten. Dr. Nahum Goldmann, president of the World Zionist Organization, stressed that the building was “a symbol of solidarity of the Jewish people throughout the world, whether represented here or not,” referring to East European Jewry; Speaker Kadish Luz alluded to the absence of Soviet Jewry; and President Shazar recalled “all those not with us on this day, great former communities of Poland and Germany and of all the other countries whose Jews were either destroyed or prevented from attending.”


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The celebration was attended by leaders, dignitaries and elected officials, as well as the heads of 44 parliaments, some of whom planted trees to commemorate the occasion, emissaries from 47 Jewish Diasporan communities and worldwide institutions, and thousands of citizens and representatives of Israel’s localities, cities and villages. The inaugural committee decided that no foreign representatives would sit on the dais during the ceremonies and that no foreign flags would be flown over the new Knesset building, with various reports suggesting that this was to ensure that the West German flag would not appear over the Knesset and that the West German representative would not play a prominent role in the proceedings.

Interestingly, the Department of State under the Johnson administration sent an August 22, 1966, telegram to Walworth Barbour – the American ambassador to Israel who was well respected and admired there for his high sensitivity to Israel’s needs – authorizing him to accept Israel’s invitation to attend the inauguration dedication ceremonies in Jerusalem, but making clear that this was only:

[a] one-time affair that is not to be regarded as precedent or pattern for future nor as representing any change in USG policy on status of Jerusalem. USG continues to support 1948 UN General Assembly resolution that provided for international status Jerusalem under UN administration, and does not recognize Jerusalem as de jure capital of Israel. We trust attendance of official Americans at Knesset opening will not be spotlighted. These points being made to Israeli Embassy here and should be reiterated by Embassy to GOI at appropriate time.

In addition to Ambassador Barbour, an American delegation including Sen. Walter Mondale, Minnesota Democrat; Senator Clifford Case, New Jersey Republican; and Rep. William I. Murphy, Illinois Democrat and a member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs; attended the ceremonies.


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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at at [email protected].