Where is the first “White House” of Israel?

This  house — at 46 Ben Maimon in Rehavia, Jerusalem — was  the first official residence of the prime ministers of the State of  Israel. (Photo  by Benny Powers). Image

David Ben Gurion, Levi Eshkol, and Golda Meir  lived in this  house between the  years 1949  to 1974.  They lived  here during all the major ups and downs of the  first quarter of a century of the State of Israel. Perhaps one would expect  something more grand like  the  official residence  of the leader of Denmark  in  Copenhagen, Imageor any of the official  residences of world leaders, all of which are more impressive  than this house.

Well, the  Israeli house is understated, which says something about the modesty of our founding fathers and mothers, and Israeli society in general.

The kitchen of this house became famous during Golda Meir’s time. ImageShe would invite the inner circle of Cabinet members  over for strategy meetings. She  would bake a cake, serve  tea and coffee, and they would all plan how they would  relate  to the larger  cabinet the  next day. Because they met in the kitchen, it became known as the  “Kitchen Cabinet” (or  in Hebrew, the Mitbachon) a term used in Israeli politics  since  then and including Netanyahu’s  government today.

When we look  more closely at the  architecture of this house, we can see  there’s something  unusual  about it. On the one hand, it has the plain white plaster and lack of ornamentation of the  Bauhaus style that was brought  to Israel by German  Jewish  architects  fleeing the rise of the Nazis to power in the 1930s. On  the other hand, it  has classical Roman or  Byzantine style arches.  It  seems that the architect, Benjamin Chaiken who designed this house, and Richard Kaufman, who  designed the  neighborhood  of Rehavia, were trying  to develop a new style for Jerusalem when they built this house,  blending the ancient with the modern.  ImageYou’ll notice that the wall and guard  house were not part of the original design.  (Photo  by Benny Powers).  The house was first owned  by Julius and Nechama  Jacobs. Julius  was a  clerk in the British Mandate  government and was killed in 1947 in the ongoing  skirmishes between Jews, Arabs and the British. On December 5th,1949, Ben Gurion declared that Jerusalem was the Eternal Capital of the Jewish  people, and as such  the government would move immediately to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv where  it  had been during the War of Independence. This house  was  the most logical choice  for the Prime Minister’s residence. Why? It was already in the hands of  the Jewish  Agency (it had been leased  from the Jacobs family), it was  in the  neighborhood  of the Jewish Agency and many Zionist  leaders, and it was on the corner. So, it  was easy to  just build a security wall and booth for a guard  in  order  to secure  the house for  the Prime Minister.

Paula Ben Gurion was known for being more concerned  that  the guard had a good meal than was actually guarding, so she often invited him in to eat with them. In 1974, when Yitzchak  Rabin was  elected Prime Minister, Leah Rabin  came to  see the  house. She felt  it was  in poor condition, so the Rabins  requested a different residence. The official  Prime Minister’s residence was then moved  to  a house  down the  street where Bibi  Netanyahu lives today. While this original house is not a spectacular piece of  architecture, it  is certainly an important part of the  history of the State of Israel.

P.S. So, what is happening with the house today? A few  weeks  ago, some  protestors broke  in  to the house to  continue  the summer protests regarding lack of affordable housing in Israel…but  that’s another story. There  were ideas about 10  years  ago to turn it into a museum for Levy Eshkol, but  the funds weren’t  raised.  The current plan  is  turn it  into a  beautiful apartment building which will retain some aspects of the  original house as a memorial.

© 2011, Lisa (Leah) Bowman. All Rights Reserved.

Walking tours in Jerusalem: http://www.jerusalemwalkingtour.com


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