Comment: A graveyard's testimony

Tel Aviv's Old Cemetery is the resting place of some of Zionism's greatest luminaries, and should be recognized as a hallowed heritage site

By
September 11, 2007 10:30
4 minute read.
AHAD HA AM 88 224

AHAD HA AM 88 224. (photo credit: )

One hundred years ago, Max Nordau and Ahad Ha'am were bitter rivals for the heart, soul, and mind of the emerging Zionist movement. Nordau, a journalist and physician, ardently defended Theodor Herzl's program of political Zionism and the establishment of a Jewish State in Israel. He advocated a "Jewry of Muscle," a new breed of Jews who would celebrate the benefits of physical fitness and "become deep-chested, sturdy, sharp-eyed men." Ahad Ha'am - the pen name of Zionist philosopher and essayist Asher Zvi Ginsberg - rejected Herzl and Nordau's political vision. His own vision of Zionism would be to make Israel a cultural and spiritual center for world Jewry, especially the masses of Jews living in Eastern Europe. Rather than promote the fitness of the body, Ahad Ha'am instead urged the Zionist movement to focus on a revival of culture based on the tradition of the Biblical prophets and the Hebrew language. "The deliverance of Israel will come at the hands of prophets," wrote Ahad Ha'am in 1897, "not at the hands of diplomats." In life, Nordau and Ahad Ha'am represented the great divide in the philosophy and practical program of the pre-state Zionist movement. In death, however, the debate between these two giants is stilled. The great irony is that these men found their final resting place only a few yards from each other in Tel Aviv's Old Cemetery. The graveyard is located in a residential neighborhood, only a few blocks from the beach (on the corner of Trumpeldor and Hebron streets). Nordau died in Paris in January 1923 but his remains were transferred to Tel Aviv three years later. Ahad Ha'am lived his last years as a resident of the city by the sea. The placement of their graves is a symbol of the synthesis of their visions in the Land of Israel today. Israel today has incorporated the vision of each of these luminaries into the fabric of its society and politics. Nordau's "Jewry of Muscle" is embodied in the reality of an Israel Defense Force and the achievements of Jewish athletes in the Maccabi games and the Olympics. Ahad Ha'am's hopes for a cultural revival has found its realization in its academic institutions, as well as the resurrection of Hebrew as the living, official language of the Jewish State. Go to the graveyard, close your eyes for a moment, and you might hear the two men debating the future of the Jewish homeland. But such moments are fleeting. A visitor to the graveyard encounters a history that can only inspire feelings of awe. How were such men able to convert an idea, a dream, into a living reality? The Old Cemetery in Tel Aviv rivals the Western Wall in Jerusalem in its importance for the Jewish people and, yes, in its sanctity. Today, Tel Aviv is the center of Israel's largest metropolis. A century ago it was merely a vision in the minds of urban pioneers such as Meir Dizengoff. His grave in the Old Cemetery is a testament to the vitality and energy of the Zionist movement. The graves of the great Hebrew poets Chaim Nachman Bialik and Saul Tchernikovsky are also testaments to the ability of Zionism and Hebrew culture to absorb opposing visions and ideas and synthesize them. While the central theme of Bialik's poetry is the clash between traditional Judaism and Western secularism, Tchernikovsky wrote of the Hellenic ideal of beauty and the Canaanite cult of nature. Israel's ability to absorb different cultures, theologies and political ideologies is critical to the future of the Jewish state, as well as Jewish life in the Diaspora. We do not need to idealize Israel to realize that without a Jewish State in the post-Shoah epoch, Jewish relevance and survival would be in jeopardy. With all of its crises and problems, Israel represents much more to most Jews than just a nation like any other nation. No one should condemn Israelis for wanting a normal life free of war, free of tensions between the religious and the secular elements of society, and free of poverty. These are important and critical goals. Yet, Israel will never be a state like any other. Israel is the culmination and inheritor of both ancient Israel and 2000 years of Jewish history in the Diaspora. Israel cannot escape its history. That is a tremendous burden to shoulder, one that should not be forced on Israel alone but a responsibility shared by Jews throughout the world. Aliya of Jews from the Diaspora to Israel would be the ultimate sharing of that burden. As time passes, Israel's role in forming global Jewish identity is not diminishing but steadily increasing. Zionism is both a continuation of Jewish tradition and a radical break with the past. The importance of the modern State of Israel cannot be underestimated. Not only has Israel inspired Jews to surmount the greatest trauma in Jewish history, Zionism resurrected the living by infusing new life into a declining civilization. If the dead in Tel Aviv's Old Cemetery had never lived, thought and acted, Judaism and Jewish life would be utterly impoverished and irrelevant. Max Nordau and Ahad Ha'am were holy rebels who led a movement that rivals the Sinai revelation in its importance to Jews. The Western Wall may be central to historical and religious Jewish consciousness, but the reality in this world is that we are also the inheritors of Nordau, Ahad Ha'am, Bialik, Tchernikovsky and Dizengoff. To ignore their contribution to the destiny of the Jewish people is to reject the true message of Zionism and Jewish history.


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