Hayyim Nahman Bialik’s Inaugural Speech at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

On the 1st of April 1925, the great poet Bialik gave the inaugural speech of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. This speech takes us back to the world of a still fragile yichuv and of Zionism in its pre-state phase. It was a time when the Zionist project oscillated between the affirmation of a political solution for the Jews, in rupture with Europe, and that of a cultural achievement which continued to be part of the trajectory of the Jews in Europe. The University, like many institutions in Mandatory Palestine, preceded the State and saw itself as the intellectual centre of the Jewish people to come. After the Second World War, it acquired the reputation of being the last German university, a place where the ideal of Bildung, abandoned by Germany and revived by the Jewish tradition, was still cultivated. Today, we have to admit that this ideal has faded, while the University of Jerusalem, from which the other Israeli universities originate, has joined, for better or for worse, the “global campus”, a product of American academic hegemony.


Speech by Lord Balfour at the inauguration of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1 April 1925.

The idea of opening a Jewish academic institution in Palestine was first discussed at the first Zionist Congress in 1897. Subsequently, a group of young Zionists inspired by Hayyim Weizmann, then a professor at the University of Geneva, decided to make the establishment of a university a primary goal of the Zionist movement. The group, which included Martin Buber and Berthold Feiwel (an Austrian Jewish poet and founder of the Judischer Verlag publishing house), raised the issue at the 1901 Congress. After the Congress, Theodor Herzl submitted an official request to the Ottoman Sultan for permission to establish a university in Jerusalem. The plan was to create an internationally respected academic institution that would serve as the leading educational institution, providing the Jewish people with the cultural, spiritual and intellectual resources derived from their heritage, and fostering the training of new generations of scientists, philosophers, statesmen, teachers, agronomists and business entrepreneurs for the growing needs of a new nation. An institution that would also allow Jews to study and make their own contribution to research worldwide.

In 1918, the World Zionist Organisation received permission from the British to lay the foundation stone for the university. On 24 July 1918, twelve foundation stones were sealed by Hayyim Weizmann on Mount Scopus, north-east of Jerusalem. The site had been acquired before the war by the author and journalist Isaac Goldberg. The view overlooked the Old City and Bethlehem on one side and the Judean desert landscape on the other. In 1921, Nobel Prize winner Albert Einstein, excited about the creation of the university, accompanied Weizmann to the United States to rally American Jewry behind the enterprise. However, the process was hampered in 1922 by the proposal of Colonel Ronald Storrs, the British military governor of Jerusalem (1920-1926), to create a “Palestinian university” which would have a Hebrew and an Arab department. In a context marked by rising conflicts between Jews and Arabs, and fearing that the Jewish character of the university would be affected, the president of the Zionist executive, Menahem Ussishkin, rejected this idea and precipitated the foundation of an exclusively Hebrew university.

At first, the university developed through the work of Yehudah Magnes, who moved to Jerusalem in 1923 and devoted himself to the project. Hayyim Weizmann was in charge of the scientific project, supported by English and American committees. Three small research institutes were opened at this stage: Jewish studies, chemistry and microbiology. In the same year, Albert Einstein went to Mount Scopus to give a lecture on the theory of relativity, the first scientific lecture held at the young Hebrew University: he spoke the first sentences in Hebrew, which was to be the language of instruction. From then on, the university was to develop in two directions: on the one hand, to become the centre of the Hebrew tradition, shaped in its original language and in the light of the general humanities; on the other, to become a centre of research in the natural and medical sciences which would also contribute to the development of a national agriculture.

The official inauguration took place on 1 April 1925. In the report published the same year, it is stated : “The ceremony began with the choir singing chapter 19 of the book of Psalms: “The Heavens tell of the honor of God” in a melody by Haydn, and “The Torah shall go forth from Zion”[1], accompanied by the orchestra. Afterwards, Rabbi Kook opened his speech by reading a prayer composed especially in honour of this day. Dr. Weizmann preceded his speech by greeting the noble guests who were kind enough to respond to the invitation and come to attend the opening ceremony of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and he himself translated his remarks into English. The warm speech of His Excellency, Sir Herbert Samuel, the High Commissioner of the Land of Israel, was translated into Hebrew and Arabic. Lord Balfour then gave the opening address. He ended his historic speech by saying: “In the highest faith in the future of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, I now declare it open”. The Hebrew poet, Mr. H. N. Bialik, spoke on behalf of the Hebrew Yishuv (settlement) of the Land of Israel, and then Dr. Hertz, the Chief Rabbi of the British communities, recited a short prayer. When he finished, the choir sang chapter 103 of the book of Psalms – Hallelujah – in Levandowsky’s melody and also HaTikvah[2].

Hayyim Nahman Bialik, already recognized as the “national poet,” and as one of the major representatives of the Tehiyah (“Renaissance”) movement,[3] had settled permanently in Tel Aviv a year earlier. Since his arrival, his cultural and public activities had been numerous both for the development of contemporary Hebrew literature, and for the rediscovery of medieval Hebrew literature. At the inauguration ceremony of the university, he spoke on behalf of the National Committee of Jews in the Land of Israel [הועד הלאומי ליהודי ארץ ישראל], a political body founded in 1920, which represented the executive branch of the Assembly of Elected [אסיפת הנבחרים]. Bialik’s speech was thus poetic and political at the same time.

Bialik’s speech consists of two parts. In the first part, he addresses a general audience, representing the people of Israel and their leaders. In the second, shorter part, he specifically addresses “the sublime representative of the great English people, Lord Balfour”. Each part tells the story of the people of Israel from a different perspective, and from each part Bialik draws the meaning of the event, i.e. of the opening of a Jewish university in that time and place. The first part seems to have as its main objective the reconciliation of modern science, which will be practiced in the university, with the old Jewish intellectual traditions. While acknowledging the decadence of the latter, Bialik tries to convince his listeners of the need to preserve their vestiges and to use them for the design of modern scientific practices. The second part places the opening of the university within the Zionist project after the Balfour Declaration (1917). Bialik compares Balfour to Cyrus, the Persian king who decreed the return of the Jews to Jerusalem after the Babylonian exile. He presents Zionism as the present-day version of the event spoken of in the biblical books of Ezra and Nehemiah – the return to Zion, שיבת ציון. The university, in Bialik’s discourse, then takes the place of the Messianic Temple, from which the moral principles that will guide all of humanity are supposed to emerge.

In a register that is both modernist and rabbinic, Bialik articulates notions and figures from different discursive domains. The words intertwine in the fabric of the story – the theological with the poetic, the Talmudic with the historical and political… If none of them takes precedence, there is one that dictates the meaning of the story – the one that describes a people that has been “small and poor” since its origins, that is today “a people of the proletariat, that is to say, a people that produces with the means of others and for others, … [that] appears to others – sometimes also to itself – under the image of the cultural parasite, that has nothing of its own”. This condition of the people is a ‘very painful mistake’, for it is a people who have always been, as Bialik puts it, ‘on the side of truth’, ‘who have submitted their body and soul to the realm of the spirit, and that for eternity’.

According to Bialik, who reflects a common view among Jewish writers of the time[4], the years of exile deepened the Jewish investment in the realm of the mind and perfected “a kind of sixth sense for all that pertains to the needs of the mind, a fine and very subtle sense, the first among their organs to be attained; a sense common to almost all the great figures of the nation.” But this was done at the cost of renouncing the temporal world. Bialik recognises that “our old spiritual fortresses” are now a thing of the past: “Despite their inner strength and power, despite the amount of energy expended by the nation in their construction and maintenance, they did not stand the day of wrath and have not been reborn since. The Jewish people still contribute to human culture, he says, but their creation “is almost always swallowed up by that of others, is not visible and is never recorded to their credit”.

The promise of the university, ‘an extremely young institution… [which] is practically in name alone’, is enormous. At the end of his remarks, Bialik alludes to Jesus, a “son of a Hebrew carpenter, who carried the announcement of redemption into the idolatrous world and paved the way for the messianic era.” He recognises that this era has not been fulfilled, that the announcement has not been well propagated and understood, because idols still exist, new idols that are no better than the old ones. The heavenly Jerusalem announced by Jesus has not yet found its proper anchorage in the world here below. The cause of this deficiency, if we follow Bialik, is linked to the rupture that the Israelite nation has been forced to assume, between the “temporal life” and the “life of the spirit”. Zionism, of which the university is conceived as the intellectual or spiritual branch, is supposed to remedy this rupture. The university will ensure that the return of the Jews to Zion will also have a spiritual component, that it will also represent the Jerusalem “above”. Like the “House of Yhwh” of Isaiah’s prophecy (2:2), the university will carry to the world “the moral principles that support the houses of our Torah… [and which] will become the heritage of all mankind.

To conclude, and since this is a text where Bialik states his vision of the university and more generally of the Jewish state, it seems important to us to point out what he does not see, or does not want to see. In Bialik’s discourse, there is no room for the Arab inhabitants of the land and their work. He adheres to an idea that will become central to Zionist ideology, that before the arrival of the young Jewish pioneers, the land of Israel was destroyed and ‘desolate’, a land that needed to be healed ‘from the leprosy of its rocks and the rottenness of its swamps’. In these passages, Bialik seems to be siding with a literary tradition that focuses mainly on the heroism and activism of the pioneers, almost completely silent on the presence of the Arab populations. Nor does he allude to another trend in the Hebrew literature of his time, centred on themes of love of the land and the landscape, full of admiration, sometimes idealised, for its ‘indigenous’ Arab inhabitants.

Davide Mano and Ron Naiweld



Booklet, invitation and entrance card for the inauguration of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.



The Solemnity and exaltation of this moment can only be desecrated by any sort of exaggeration. It is therefore our duty to declare openly and honestly in the presence of this gathering that the house which has just been opened on Mount Scopus by Our honored guest Lord Balfour is now but the embryo of an institution, hardly more than a name. For the time being it is but a vessel that may become filled with content and its future is as yet unrevealed and in the hands of fate. Nevertheless, I feel certain that the thousands assembled here, and with them tens of thousands of Israel in all corners of the world, feel, in hearts that are trembling with joy, that the festival which is being celebrated this day upon this spot is not an artificial ritual that someone has devised but a great and holyday unto Our Lord and unto Our People. I am sure that the eyes of tens of thousands of Israel that are lifted from all parts of the Diaspora to this hill are shining with hope and comfort; their hearts and their flesh are singing a blessing of thanksgiving unto the Living God Who hath preserved us and sustained us and let us live to see this hour. They all realize that at this moment Israel has kindled upon Mount Scopus the first candle of the renaissance of her intellectual life. This day the glad tidings will come unto all the scattered families of Israel, wherever they may be, that the first peg in the upbuilding of the Higher Jerusalem (Yerushalayim shel Malah) has been fixed for all time. For let people say what they may: This peculiar people called Israel has, despite all the vicissitudes which for two thousand years, yea hourly, attempted to expel it from its own milieu and uproot it from its spiritual climate-this people, I assert, has accepted upon its body and soul the burden of eternal allegiance to the Kingdom of the Spirit. Within that Kingdom, it recognizes itself as a creative citizen and in that eternal soil it has planted its feet with all its might for all time. All the sordidness of the accursed Galut and all the pain of our people’s poverty did not disfigure its fundamental nature. Obliged to sacrifice temporal life for eternal life, it learned in the days of suffering and travail to subordinate material to spiritual needs and the requirements of the body to those of the soul. Within the boundaries of the realm of the Spirit the Jewish nation fashioned the bases of its national heritage and its principal national institutions. These preserved it through millennia of wandering, safeguarded its inner freedom amid outward bondage and have led up to this joyful event of the Inauguration of the University on Mount Scopus. The national school in all its forms – the heder, the yeshivah, the bet-midrash’ – these have been our securest strongholds throughout our long, hard struggle for existence, and for the right to exist in the world as a separate and distinct people among the peoples. In times of tempest and wrath we took refuge within the walls of these fortresses, where we polished the only weapon, we had left-the Jewish mind lest it become rusty. At this moment I cannot but recall a saying of our sages, a saying of unparalleled bitter sadness. A certain scholar, when reading in the Pentateuch (Leviticus26:44)”Nevertheless, even when they are in the land of their enemies I shall not detest them, and I shall not abhor them…”, remarked bitterly: «What has, then, been left to Israel in the Galut that has not been detested and abhorred? Have not all the goodly gifts been taken from them? What has been left to them? Only the Torah. For had that not been preserved for Israel, they would in no wise be different from the gentile. “The concept of “Torah” attained in the esteem of the people an infinite exaltation. For them the Torah was almost another existence, a more spiritual and loftier state, added to or even taking the place of secular existence. The Torah became the center of the nations secret and a vowed aspirations and desires in its exile. The dictum “Israel and the Torah are one “was no mere phrase: the non-Jew cannot appreciate it, because the concept of “Torah,” in its full national significance, cannot be rendered adequately in any other tongue. Its content and connotations embrace more than “religion” or “creed” alone, or “ethics” or “commandments” or “learning” alone, and it is not even just a combination of all these, but something far transcending all of them. It is a mystic, almost cosmic, conception. The Torah is the tool of the Creator; with it and for it He created the universe. The Torah is older than creation. It is the highest idea and the living soul of the world. Without it the world could not exist and would have no right to exist. “The study of the Torah is more important than the building of the Temple.” “Knowledge of the Torah ranks higher than priesthood Or kingship.” “Only he is free who engages in the study of the Torah.” “It is the Torah that magnifies and exalts man above all creatures.” “Even a heathen who engages in the study of the Torah is as good as a High Priest.” “A bastard learned in the Torah takes precedence Over an ignorant High Priest.'”

Such is the world outlook to which almost seventy generations of Jews have been educated. In accordance there with their spiritual life was provisionally organized for the interim of the exile. For it they suffered martyrdom and by virtue of it they lived. The Jewish elementary school was established shortly before the destruction of Jerusalem and has survived to this day. As a result of such prolonged training, the nation has acquired a sort of sixth sense for everything connected with the needs of the spirit, a most delicate sense and always the first to be affected, and one possessed by almost every individual. There is not a Jew but would be filled with horror by a cruel decree “that Jews shall not engage in the Torah. “Even the poorest and meanest man in Israel sacrificed for the teaching of his children, on which he spent sometimes as much as a half of his income or more. Before asking for the satisfaction of his material needs, the Jew first prays daily: “And graciously bestow upon us knowledge, understanding, and comprehension. “And what was the first request of our pious mothers over the Sabbath candles? “May it be Thy will that the eyes of my children may shine with Torah. “Nor do I doubt that if God had appeared to One of these mothers in a dream, as He did Once to Solomon, and said, “Ask, what shall I give unto thee? “She would have replied even as Solomon did: “I ask not for myself either riches or honor, but 0 Lord of the Universe, may it please Thee to give unto my Sons a heart to understand Torah and wisdom and to distinguish good from evil.'”

Ladies and Gentlemen! You all know what has become of our old Spiritual strong holds in the Diaspora in recent times and I need not dwell upon this theme now. For all their inner strength, and for all the energy the nation had expended upon creating and preserving these centers, they stood not firm on the day of wrath; by the decree of history, they are crumbled and razed to the foundations and our people is left standing emptyhanded upon their ruins. This is the very curse of the Galut, that our undertakings do not, indeed cannot, prosper. In every land and in every age, we have been sowing a bushel and reaping less than a peck. The winds and hurricanes of history always begin by attacking the creation of Israel and, in a moment, uproot and utterly destroy that which hands and minds have produced over a period of generations. Through cruel and bitter trials and tribulations, through blasted hopes and despair of the soul, through innumerable humiliations, we have slowly arrived at the realization that without a tangible homeland, without private national premises that are entirely ours, we can have no sort of a life, either material or spiritual. Without Eretz Israel-Eretz means land, literally land-there is no hope for the rehabilitation of Israel anywhere, ever. Our very ideas about the material and intellectual existence of the nation have also meanwhile undergone a radical change. We no longer admit a division of the body and the spirit, or a division of the man and the Jew. We hold neither with Beth Shammai, that the heavens were created first, nor with Beth Hillel, ‘that the earth was created first, but with the Sages that both were created simultaneously by one command so that neither can exist without the other. In the consciousness of the nation the comprehensive human concept of “culture” has, meanwhile, taken the place of the theological one of “Torah.” We have come to the conclusion that a people that aspires to a dignified existence must create a culture; it is not enough merely to make use of a culture-a people must create its own, with its own hands and its own implements and materials, and impress it with its own seal. Of course, our people in its “diasporas” is creating culture; I doubt whether any place in the world where culture is being produced is entirely devoid of Jews. But as whatever the Jew creates in the Diaspora is always absorbed in the culture of others, it loses its identity and is never accounted to the credit of the Jew. Our cultural account in the Diaspora is consequently all debit and no credit. The Jewish people is therefore in a pain fully false position: Whereas its true function culturally is that of a proletariat-i.e., it produces with the materials and implements of others for others-it is regarded by others, and at times even by itself, as a cultural parasite, possessing nothing of its own. A self-respecting people will never become reconciled to such a lot; it is bound to arise one day and resolve: No more. Better a little that is undisputedly my own than much that is not definitely either mine or somebody else’s. Better a dry crust in my own home and on my own table than a stall-fed ox in the home of others and on the table of others. Better one little university but entirely my own, entirely my handiwork from foundations to coping stones, than thousands of temples of learning from which I derive benefit but in which I have no recognized share. Let my food be little and bitter as the olive, if I may but taste in it the delicious flavor of a gift from myself. It was in this frame of mind that we took refuge in this land. We are not come here to seek wealth, or dominion, or greatness. How much of these can this poor little country give us? We wish to find here only a domain of Our own for our physical and intellectual labor. We have not yet achieved great things here. We have not had time to wash the dust of long wanderings from Our feet and to change Our patched garments. Undoubtedly many years have yet to pass until we have healed this desolate land of the leprosy of its rocks and the rot of its swamps. For the present there is only a small beginning of upbuilding; yet already the need has been felt fore erecting a home for the intellectual work of the nation. Such has ever been the nature of Our people: it cannot live for three consecutive days without Torah. Already at this early hour we experience cultural needs that cannot be postponed and must be satisfied at once. Besides, we are burdened with heavy cares fort the cultural fate of Our people in the Diaspora. Nations born only yesterday foolishly imagine that through intellectual parching, by means of a numerus clausus, they can do to death an old nation with a past of four thousand years of Torah. We must therefore hasten to light here the first lamp of learning and science and of every sort of intellectual activity in Israel, ere the last lamp grows dark for us in foreign lands. And this we propose to do in the house whose doors have been Opened this day upon Mount Scopus. There is an ancient tradition that in the time of the Redemption the synagogues and houses of study of the Diaspora will be transported, along with their foundations, to Palestine. Naturally this legend cannot come true literally; the house of knowledge and learning that has been erected on Mount Scopus will differ greatly, not only in the materials of which it is made but in its nature and purpose, from the old bet midrash. But, Ladies and Gentlemen, amid the ruins of those hallowed structures there are many sound and beautiful stones that can and ought to be foundation stones of our new edifice. Let not the builders reject these stones. At this hallowed moment I feel impelled to pray: May those stones not be forgotten! May we succeed in raising the science and learning that will issue from this house to the moral level to which our people raised its Torah! We should not be worthy of this festive day if we proposed to content ourselves with a poor imitation of other peoples. We know well that true wisdom is that which learns from all; the windows of this house will therefore be open on every side, that the fairest fruit produced by man’s creative spirit in every land and every age may enter. But we ourselves are not newcomers to the Kingdom of the Spirit and while learning from everybody we also have something to teach. I feel sure that a time will come when the moral principles upon which our House of Torah were founded, such as those enumerated in the wonderful short baraitha known as “The Chapter on the Acquisition of Torah, “will become the heritage of humanity at large. Ladies and Gentlemen! Thousands of our youth, obeying the call of their hearts, are streaming from the four comers of the earth to this land for the purpose of redeeming it from desolation and ruin. They are prepared to pour all their aspirations and longings and to empty all the strength of their youth into the bosom of this waste land in order to revive it. They are plowing rocks, draining swamps, and building roads amid singing and rejoicing. These young people know how to raise simple and crude labor-physical labor-to the level of highest sanctity, to the level of religion. It is our task to kindle such a holy fire within the walls of the house which has just been opened upon Mount Scopus. Let those youths build the Earthly Jerusalem with fire and let them who work within these walls build the Heavenly Jerusalem with fire, and between them let them build and establish our House of Life. “For Thou,0 Lord, didst consume it with fire, and with fire Thou wilt rebuild it. “Let me say in conclusion a few words to the honored representative of the great British people, Lord Balfour. “Who despises a day of small deeds? ” asked the prophet. Least of all should small undertakings be despised in our small country. This country has the virtue of turning small things into great things in the fullness of time. Four thousand years ago the regathered in this land, from Ur of the Chaldees, from Aram, from Egypt, and from the Arabian Desert, some groups of wandering shepherds divided into a number of tribes. They became in time, inconsequence of events of apparently no great importance, a people small and poor in its day-the people Israel. Few and unhappy were the days of this people on its land as a people dwelling apart, not counted among the nations. “But this people produced men-for the most part of humble station, shepherds, plowmen, and dressers of sycamores, like their brethren-who carried the tempest of the spirit of God in their hearts and His earthquakes and thunders in their mouths. Those men, in speaking of nations and individuals and in discoursing upon the history of their times and the apparently trivial affairs of the moment, dared to tum to eternity, to the Heavens and to the Earth. And it was they who in the end provided the foundation for the religious and moral culture of the world. Across the centuries and over the heads of nations ascending and descending the stage of history, their voice has come down to us to this day, and it is mighty and sublime and filled with the power of God even more than at first, as if it were constantly gaining in strength within creasing remoteness in time. After the proclamation of Cyrus, some tens of thousands of exiles rallied again to this poor, waste country and again formed a poor small community, even poorer and smaller than the first. After only some three hundred years, there arose again in this land a man of Israel, the Son of an Israelite carpenter, who conveyed the gospel of salvation to the pagan world and cleared the way for the days of the Messiah. Since then, two thousand years have elapsed, and we are all witnesses this day that idols have not yet disappeared from the face of the earth; the place of the old has been taken by new ones, no better than the former. And then came the Balfour Declaration. Israel is assembling in Eretz Israel for a third time. Why should not the miracle be repeated again this time? Providence willed that the fate of the Jewish people be associated with that of every civilized nation in the world, and this circumstance has perhaps developed in them more than in other peoples a sense of moral responsibility toward, and concern for, the future of civilization. Many years ago, one of our sages gave fitting expression to this feeling: “A man should always think of himself and of the world as half righteous and half guilty. If he has committed a single transgression-woe betide him, for he has weighed down the scales of the whole world on the side of guilt”. Who knows but that the task in which great nations have failed amid the tumult of wealth may be achieved by a poor people in its small country? Who knows but in the end of days this doctrine of responsibility for the fate of humanity may go forth from its house of learning and spread to all the people? Surely not for nothing has the hand of God led this people for four thousand years through the pangs of hell and now brought it back unto its land for the third time. The Books of Chronicles, the last of the Scriptures, are not the last in the history of Israel. To its two small parts there will be added a third, perhaps more important than the first two. And if the first two Books of Chronicles begin with “Adam, Seth, Noah” and end with the Proclamation of Cyrus, which three hundred years later brought the gospel of redemption to the heathen of old, the third will undoubtedly begin with the Proclamation of Balfour and end with a new gospel, the gospel of redemption to the whole of humanity.

Hayyim Nahman Bialik


1 Isaiah, 2:3.
2 We would like to thank Guila Cooper from the Alliance Israelite Universelle library for her help with the book consultation.
3 The term Tehiyah (Hebrew for “Renaissance”) refers to the current of renewal of the Hebrew language and literature that developed from the end of the nineteenth to the first two decades of the twentieth century, particularly in Palestine. Among its major interpreters were the poets Hayyim Nahman Bialik (1873-1934) and Shaul Chernikovsky (1875-1943), the novelists Michah Yosef Berdichevsky (1865-1921), Uri Nissan Gnessin (1881-1913) and Yosef Hayyim Brenner (1881-1921), as well as the essayists Yosef Klausner (1874-1958) and Yaakov Fichman (1881-1958). On the centrality of Bialik within this current, see Ariane Bendavid, Haïm Nahman Bialik. La prière égarée, Brussels, Aden, 2008.
4 We are thinking in particular of Sigmund Freud, who says similar things in Moses and Monotheism (1939).

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