By the end of March, most of Israel had had quite enough of one of the coldest and rainiest winters in decades. Heating bills were soaring, and Lake Kinneret was just 36 centimeters shy of reaching its upper limit. And then, literally out of the blue, dawned the harbinger of the summer to come: a cloudless sky and sunshine. It chanced to be the day set aside months ago for a visit by members of the long-established IBCA (Israel, Britain and the Commonwealth Association) to Beit Hanassi – the President’s Residence in Jerusalem.
Conceived and organized by IBCA’s dynamic chairperson, Brenda Katten. the visit was in no sense a political event – IBCA is not a political organization. Its purpose, unchanged since its founding in 1953, has been to encourage, develop and extend social, cultural and economic relations between the peoples of Israel, Britain and the Commonwealth. One of its earliest chairpersons was the president’s father, Chaim Herzog, who had been a senior officer in the British army during World War II. His son, Isaac, who has followed in his footsteps in the presidency, has maintained a link with IBCA throughout his career.
So despite the presence of members of the Diplomatic Corps, including the British, Australian and Canadian ambassadors to Israel, the occasion was essentially social. A few speeches there inevitably were, but the highlights of the occasion were a group photograph of IBCA members with the president, an informed explanation of the artwork that adorns the splendid reception area of Beit Hanassi, and a guided tour of the gardens of the President’s Residence – an experience enhanced by the unexpected sunshine.
The group photograph was in the capable hands of Charles Green, for 20 years official investiture photographer at Buckingham Palace, who made aliyah a few years ago. The guests were grouped on the steps leading down into the gardens, Herzog joined them in the center of the front row, and Green snapped merrily away.
The reception hall is a repository of impressive works of art. Perhaps the most striking is the painted ceiling by artist Naftali Bezem: 63 squares of acrylic tracing the story from persecution in Europe to freedom in Israel. One wall is enhanced by a six-meter high stained-glass triptych by Reuven Rubin illustrating biblical themes. At the far end of the hall, facing visitors as they enter, is the Jerusalem Wall of Fame, a loose representation of the Western Wall.
The current Beit Hanassi is the third President’s Residence in Israel’s short history. Chaim Weizmann, Israel’s first president, used his private home as the first. During the term of Israel’s second president, Yitzhak Ben Zvi, the residence was located in Jerusalem’s Rehavia neighborhood. The current building was conceived, designed and constructed during the 10-year term of President Zalman Shazar, Israel’s third president.
Once the idea of a purpose-built official residence had been approved, Shazar asked that it be built in a residential neighborhood of Jerusalem, in accordance with the biblical verse “Among my own people I dwell.” Ten dunams (approximately 2.5 acres) of land were selected on a hill in the Talbiyeh district.
In 1964 the State of Israel announced a competition, open to Israeli architects only, to design the new President’s Residence. Anything palatial or overblown was ruled out. The guidelines specified that the building should be unassuming but designed to enable all the functions of the president to be fulfilled. Forty-seven bids were submitted to the committee, headed by Teddy Kollek, who later became Jerusalem’s longest-serving mayor. The committee chose the design by Abba Elhanani, one of Israel’s most prominent architects.
Divided into three wings – ceremonial, offices and residential – the residence is constructed of local materials such as granite from Eilat and Jerusalem stone. The roof, rectangular in shape, consists of flat white domes reminiscent of the domes in the Old City of Jerusalem. It was completed in 1971. Splendid yet understated as it is, there is a view that the ceremonial wing might need expanding to take into account Israel’s growing status on the world stage, and the requirement to host larger and more frequent official functions.
For example, the guest list for the state dinner on January 22, 2020, hosted by president Reuven Rivlin to inaugurate the Fifth World Holocaust Forum, had to be severely restricted for lack of room. No spouses were invited, while large marquees were erected in the front of the building to serve as a reception venue and to accommodate security personnel and officials accompanying key dignitaries.
As for the IBCA visit, a high point for many of the guests was the guided tour of the gardens. The grounds are adorned at every turn with sculptures, busts, pieces of ancient architecture and works of art. One striking feature is a row of the busts of Israel’s 10 past presidents to date. Behind each is a large placard bearing an account in Hebrew, English and Arabic, of the main achievements of their presidencies.
All around the garden are trees planted by distinguished guests to the residence. A pope, US presidents, British royalty – each has left a lasting memorial on the grounds of Beit Hanassi that they have visited Israel and been hosted by its president. The IBCA members who participated in their own private visit will have their group photograph as a lasting record of a special and privileged occasion.
But new opportunities are opening up all the time and suddenly, in the early months of 2022, the chance to enjoy the experience of visiting Beit Hanassi is open to everyone.
“You are invited to the home of the Israeli president for an unforgettable educational experience,” runs the opening sentence of a new website run by Makom, a branch of the Jewish Agency. Makom has recently started offering English-language tours of the President’s Residence online via Zoom.
Makom was established in 2006 as a partnership between the Jewish Agency for Israel and 12 Jewish Community Federations in North America. The organization now also works across the world including in the UK, South Africa, France and Israel, designing and running educational programs aimed at optimizing the possibilities that modern Jewish life affords.
Their initiative is linked to “Israeli Hope” workshops, a project of former president Rivlin. In their behind-the-scenes tour at the heart of Beit Hanassi, participants hear about the history and role of the Israeli presidency, learn of the impact and influence of former presidents, and explore the relationships between the presidents, Israeli society and the Jewish world.
No one who undertakes a tour of the splendid President’s Residence can fail to be impressed by the beauty, artistry and living history embodied in the residence and equally in its garden and grounds. It has been described as “Israel’s symbolic home” – a view that many visitors, distinguished and otherwise, will surely carry away with them. ■