If Winston Churchill were alive today, he probably wouldn’t be surprised to find a Jerusalem street bearing his name – although very few other Britons have been so honored. But Churchill is believed to have been a warm friend to the Jews of Palestine – even reaffirming the Balfour Declaration in 1922, when doubts began to appear.

Rehov Churchill is only a few hundred meters long, yet it is one of the most important in the city, as it runs through strategic Mount Scopus and is lined by two historic compounds. It was from Mount Scopus, located 834 meters above sea level with a fabulous view of the Old City, that Roman general Titus commanded the siege, conquest and destruction of Jerusalem during the Great Revolt.

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Although Mount Scopus has been part of Israel since the establishment of the state, from 1948 until the Six Day War in 1967, the whole area held a dubious special status as a demilitarized zone. And, sadly, during those 19 long years Scopus’s ultramodern Hadassah Hospital lay idle and desolate, its historic Hebrew University neglected and bare. That’s because the road to the mountain was surrounded by hostile Arab neighborhoods.

Activities ceased, for the most part, after April 13, 1948, when a large group of  doctors, nurses, patients, professors and students joined a supply convoy that was traveling to the hospital. The convoy was ambushed and its vehicles blown up as it made its way through the affluent Arab neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah – only a few hundred meters from a British military outpost. Seventy-eight people were murdered in the attack or burned to death after their ambulances and buses were set on fire. Fewer than 30 of the passengers survived.

When the British evacuated Palestine a month later, the Arabs managed to get complete control of the road to Mount Scopus. Hadassah and the Hebrew University were effectively cut off from the rest of the city, becoming a lonely enclave deep in enemy territory. The only people permitted on the mountain were Israeli policemen, and the only defense they were allowed were light weapons.

Needless to say, in the fortnightly supply convoys that ascended Mount Scopus, the “policemen” – actually Israeli soldiers – smuggled in as many arms and as much artillery as they could. Although the soldiers wore made-to-order police uniforms prepared especially by tailors at an Israeli army camp, the Jordanians knew exactly what was going on. Often they would shout across at the new arrivals “Are you from the paratroopers or artillery?”

When the Six Day War began, this was Israel’s strongest border position, and it was ready to do battle. As it happened, however, the fiercest fighting took place on the roads leading to Mount Scopus, at the Police School and Ammunition Hill.

TAKE A STROLL along Rehov Churchill during the week when the university is open and you have access to the unique botanical gardens and elegant early buildings. Begin your jaunt at the British War Cemetery, right next to the large traffic circle near the Regency (formerly the Hyatt) Hotel.

Look through the stately entrance to see a large cross in the middle of the well-tended site. This, Israel’s largest British burial ground, was established after World War I. At that time, Britain’s Lord Balfour announced that “His Majesty’s Government views with favor the establishment of a national home in Palestine for the Jewish people.”

Euphoric over the Balfour Declaration and certain that the British were on their side, the Jews of Palestine presented them with the gift of land for a cemetery. A special British fund is responsible for its meticulous maintenance.

Most of the 2,500 soldiers buried within the peaceful cemetery fell in battles over Jerusalem. The troops belonged to Commonwealth forces and were from South Africa, Britain, India, Australia and New Zealand. A number of Jewish graves are located high on the slope, to the left and near the far wall. Many of the soldiers who are buried there served together in the Royal Fusiliers.

A striking domed edifice was built here as a chapel for the soldiers’ relatives. Guarding the entrance is a statue of St. George, a second-century Roman soldier who is said to have slain a dragon in order to save a princess. St. George was declared patron saint of England in the 13th century.

Winston Churchill took part in a memorial service at the cemetery in 1921 as secretary of state for the Colonies. At the time it was completely bare, with only crosses to mark the plots where British Commonwealth soldiers were buried.

As the cemetery is about 90 years old, few family members are left, and the memorial ceremony in November is only sparsely attended. Nevertheless, the ceremonies can be quite impressive. One year, it featured a women’s choir dressed in scarlet, while blood-red anemones surrounded the cross.

Walk up the driveway, which was once part of the road traveled by service convoys to reach Hadassah Hospital. During the 1950s, when the hospital was inaccessible, a new medical center opened in Ein Kerem. Just over a decade after the Six Day War, however, renovations began on the original facility, designed by world-renowned German-born architect Eric Mendelsohn in 1934. Mendelsohn liked to combine the straight, functional lines of Bauhaus (International) architecture with curves that included rounded windows, light fixtures, and, in some cases, rather strange rounded balconies.

Care was taken to preserve the original character of the hospital, whose low buildings were meant to help it blend into the landscape. Note Mendelsohn’s tall, vertical windows typical of Bauhaus, his long horizontal windows, and the different levels of the building. The three domes on one of the rooftops are the only Oriental features in the building. While some sources say that they echo the Arab villages across the way, I find that they more accurately reflect the rounded Judean hills.

On the lawn outside stands a startling statue called the Tree of Life, created by decorated sculptor Jacques (Chaim Jacob) Lipshitz. It depicts biblical figures: Noah, Abraham, Isaac and Moses. Six flames, together with Moses’s hand, form a menora. Seen against a background of blue sky, villages and desert, its sculpted parts seem to be engaged in a struggle to survive.

As you continue up the sidewalk on a gradual ascent, you will see some of the hospital’s other structures. The building on the left was constructed in honor of Judith Riklis, a lovely Israeli woman who moved with her husband – tycoon Meshulam Riklis – to my native Minneapolis after the War of Independence. Judy was great friends with my late mother and taught at my older brother’s nursery school at our neighborhood Talmud Torah. I was sad to see a few months ago that her name had disappeared from the façade of what was once the hospital’s nursing school. After several incarnations, it is now its heart rehab facility and a neighborhood gym.

Across the street, the former outpatient clinic, transformed into a school for overseas students at the Hebrew University, recently became the popular Aroma cafe.  

You have now reached the traffic circle in front of the university’s vehicular entrance.

THE IDEA of a Hebrew university in the Land of Israel was first proposed in the early 1880s by Heidelberg mathematician Prof. Hermann Zvi Shapira. He intended the language of instruction to be German and suggested it be located outside of Jerusalem to prevent objections by religious extremists.

A detailed plan for a school of higher Jewish learning was published by three leading Zionists in 1902. Eleven years later a committee was set up to prepare the groundwork for the university, and the decision was made to establish it in the holy city.

Before World War I drew to a close, negotiations were finalized for purchase of land on the heights of Mount Scopus. Ground was broken for the new university on July 24, 1918. Dr. Chaim Weizmann and other dignitaries laid 12 cornerstones, representing the Israelite tribes, on the spot where the amphitheater overlooks the Judean Desert today. Among them were Lord Balfour, Haim Nahman Bialik, British high commissioner Herbert Samuel, the Sephardi and Ashkenazi chief rabbis and Norman Bentwich, scion of a British Zionist family.

It took another seven years, but on April 1, 1925, in an elaborate ceremony held at the same site, the Hebrew University was officially declared open. The ceremony was graced by the most illustrious personalities of the time: Lord Balfour, Dr. Chaim Weizmann (later to become the first president of Israel), and General Edmund Allenby, who led the 1917 Allied conquest of Palestine.

From the street you can see only one of the old university’s graceful buildings. Originally the national library, today it houses the university’s law school. Look for a relatively dark stone building that is capped by a dome.

In preparation for a huge influx of future students, the Scopus campus was greatly expanded in the 1970s. Some people consider the new university complex nothing less than a monstrosity. In spite of the exceptional view the university commands, there are very few windows; and those that do break the monotony of the white stone are quite small.

This is the end of Rehov Churchill – but don’t stop here! Either enter the university (turn right – the entrance is on your left) and visit the Botanical Gardens and wonderfully warm and elegant old buildings and 1930s amphitheater inside the complex or turn left at the traffic circle and walk down the hill just a few meters. Look to the east for a spectacular view of the Judean Desert and Jordan’s Moab Mountains – especially stunning the day after a good rain.
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