Rothschild’s gift to Israel turns 50 – Happy birthday, Knesset!

The structure and the august body of lawmakers who occupy its halls stand as a tribute to the independent, democratic, Jewish state that is Israel.

August 17, 2016 20:59
3 minute read.


August 31 marks the 50th anniversary of the inauguration of the new Knesset building in Jerusalem.

The structure and the august body of lawmakers who occupy its halls stand as a tribute to the independent, democratic, Jewish state that is Israel.

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It is a great accomplishment by any standard. The marriage of tradition, history and democracy is a unique successful Israeli experiment in the ever-evolving Middle East. And yet, something is not right with Israel’s Knesset – and hasn’t been for the past 50 years.

The Knesset building was built because of the largesse of James “Jimmy” de Rothschild, son of Lord Edmond James de Rothschild. Jimmy, following in the tradition of his father, was an extremely generous philanthropist. In 1957, shortly before his death, Jimmy de Rothschild told Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, that he would contribute six million Israeli pounds (then called “lira”) toward the building of a permanent home for the Knesset in Jerusalem.

Plans for a Knesset building had been bantered around since 1950, a competition was created for the architectural design and, in 1955, the government even approved the plans, but no building was ever erected.

And then, on October 14, 1958, the cornerstone was laid for the Jerusalem Knesset, and on August 31, 1966, the dedication ceremony was held. Kadish Luz was the speaker of the Knesset. It was a huge national event; finally the Knesset had a permanent home. There would be no more wandering from place to place.

Tzedakah, charity, has been and will continue to be an essential tenet of Judaism.

It is also an important link between Israel and Diaspora Jewry. Philanthropy should never be understated – not on the part of donors and not on the part of recipients.

And yet, there are things that should be paid for with tax dollars, not with donation dollars. The seat of government is one such thing. It had already been 16 years since the discussion about erecting a permanent building had begun and 18 years since the creation of the state.

If the government of Israel did not have the money to pay, the Knesset building should not have been built. It is not the walls, but what goes on the inside those walls that gives the Knesset its power and prestige. The 120 members of Knesset could have remained in their semi-permanent home, the Foumine building on King George Street in Jerusalem, for another few years until the tax dollars, or lira, were found and allocated.

Atop the US Supreme Court is an inscription from the 14th Amendment: “Equal Protection Under the Law.” The quote is based on Deuteronomy 16:18- 19, reiterated in different forms throughout the Bible. Ancient Israel presented this concept of independent justice to the world. Modern Israel should have thought about this dictate while building the structures that mandate justice, protection and democracy.

Institutions of democracy should be paid for by the citizens of that democracy.

No exceptions should ever be made.

In Israel however, the Knesset does not stand alone in this respect. Alongside the Knesset stands the Supreme Court of Israel. The money for the construction of the Supreme Court was also a gift – from the same generous benefactor family.

The Supreme Court was built with the generosity of Dorothy de Rothschild née Pinto, Jimmy’s widow.

It was Dorothy who oversaw Jimmy’s contribution to the Knesset. It was she who decided to fund the building that would house the seat of Israel’s judiciary.

Like her husband, Dorothy did not live to see her generosity turn into a reality.

The Supreme Court opened in 1992, four years after her death in 1988.

It is essential that a democracy always be seen as independent – not beholden to any person or any force other than justice for all. Democratic institutions must proclaim that message in form, in symbol and in action.

The Knesset and Supreme Court are great symbols of Israeli democracy. We celebrate their contributions and value to Israeli society, just as we salute the great contributions of donors and philanthropists world over. What we should not do is mix and match – let each stand on its own merit.

Some institutions should be homegrown by design, for the sake of the people and the sake of the institutions.

The Knesset and the Supreme Court are two towering examples of democracy.

They just should have been built by the Israeli people.

The author is a political commentator. He hosts the TV show Thinking Out Loud.

Follow him on Twitter @MicahHalpern

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