On the 70th anniversary of Mount Herzl – the national temple

Over the generations, Jews ascended to Jerusalem and stood in front of the stones of the Western Wall, the last remnant of the Temple.

August 30, 2019 12:36
On the 70th anniversary of Mount Herzl – the national temple

AN HONOR GUARD stands next to Herzl’s coffin on August 16, 1949, the day it was brought to the Land of Israel for burial.. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

For hundreds of years, since the Jewish people were violently exiled from the Land of Israel (70 CE), they remained faithful to it in the lands of the Diaspora and never ceased to pray and hope to return to the ancient homeland and rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem. This yearning was expressed in prayer and religious ritual, and all Jews were committed to realizing this dream one day.

Over the generations, Jews ascended to Jerusalem and stood in front of the stones of the Western Wall, the last remnant of the Temple, trembling and pleading, their prayers filled with yearning for the day when the Jewish people would return to Zion. Some 1,800 years later, the national immigration to the Land of Israel began and the Zionist movement was established. The immigrants who arrived in the Land of Israel replaced religious yearning with national yearning, and in the process abandoned the dream of returning to Jerusalem and establishing the Temple there. They chose to redeem their homeland in the coastal plain and the Galilee, to replace the prayer book with the plow, and replace the dream rebuilding of the Temple with the establishment of a Jewish state. During this process, Jerusalem became a distant dream, and the longing for it became increasingly intense. Nevertheless, over the years, among the leaders of the Zionist movement, the notion that Jerusalem and no other city could be the national capital of the state took form. The religious yearning for Jerusalem became a national yearning and the story of King David, who made Jerusalem the capital of his kingdom, became a national story with no theological characteristics.

On November 29, 1947, the United Nations General Assembly adopted Resolution 181 on the partition of the Land of Israel into two states for two peoples and the transformation of Jerusalem into an international territory under the auspices of the United Nations. It was clear to the heads of the Jewish Yishuv in the Land of Israel in general and to David Ben-Gurion in particular that making Jerusalem the capital of the Jewish state would now be much more complex and problematic. Therefore, Ben-Gurion began to formulate steps that would enable the de facto establishment of Jewish sovereignty and its symbols in Jerusalem. In the period under discussion, Ben-Gurion’s proposal to relocate the Knesset building and the seat of government from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem was accepted. The decision to bury Herzl in Jerusalem was another step in this campaign.

ON NOVEMBER 24, 1948, the provisional government decided to set up a joint committee with the Jewish Agency to deal with bringing Theodor Herzl’s remains to the State of Israel. This was the first step that paved the way for his reburial on a hill at the entrance to the Bayit Vagan neighborhood of Jerusalem on August 17, 1949. In his will, Herzl did not refer to his burial place in the Land of Israel. Over the years, two sites were suggested as appropriate: Mount Carmel and Jerusalem.

Those who supported Herzl’s burial on Mount Carmel relied on the testimony of David Wolffsohn, Herzl’s personal friend and president of the World Zionist Organization. According to them, while Herzl did not explicitly state the desire to be buried there in his will, he often mentioned it in personal conversations. They also relied on a quote from Herzl’s book, Altneuland.

Nevertheless, most of the committee members felt that the most appropriate burial place was Jerusalem. Herzl’s burial in Jerusalem symbolized the full realization of the Zionist idea, the return of the Jewish people to their homeland and Jerusalem, the capital of the Jewish kingdom from the time of King David.

After Jerusalem was agreed upon, the question arose of where in Jerusalem. The most appropriate place according to Jewish belief was the Mount of Olives, but this area and the other places holy to Judaism were in Jordanian hands. Therefore the committee recommended choosing the hill opposite the entrance to the Bayit Vagan neighborhood in the western part of the city.

Ben-Gurion envisioned Mount Herzl as the national pantheon that would symbolize Jewish national fulfillment and be a place of pilgrimage for citizens of the state. Mount Herzl was the national answer to the Western Wall, which symbolized the holy place and during this period was outside the borders of the state. In the planning of Mount Herzl, the emphasis was placed on integrating into it the national cemetery, in which the heads of state would be buried alongside the fallen soldiers of Israel, the silver platter of the State of Israel. At the top of the mountain would be the tomb of Theodor Herzl, the visionary of the Jewish state.

Ben-Gurion’s vision was partially realized when he chose to be buried in Sde Boker in a plot overlooking the Zin River. Some other heads of state also chose not to be buried on Mount Herzl. Only after the Six Day War and the liberation of the Old City was a symbolic connection forged, like an umbilical cord, between the Western Wall and Mount Herzl. The events of the Memorial Day for the Fallen of Israel’s Wars open with a ceremony at the Western Wall Plaza, while the opening ceremony of Independence Day celebrations take place at Mount Herzl. Over the years, the ceremony at Mount Herzl symbolized the unity and integration of Israeli society, which each year marks the realization of the Zionist idea and its success. In recent years, political disputes have arisen around the ceremony, symbolizing the fissures in Israel’s social unity and sense of partnership. Mount Herzl, the national temple, which was supposed to symbolize national redemption and the fulfillment of the Zionist vision, became a place from which to trace the cracks and splits that characterize Israeli society. 

The writer is a professor of the history of the Zionist movement and leadership; he published a series of articles and books dealing with issues related to these subjects. In recent years he has been researching the shaping of Theodor Herzl’s image in the collective memory.

Conundrum of the cloth: Solved after 70 years

A 70-year-old mystery surrounding the re-interment of Theodor Herzl’s remains in Jerusalem was solved a few weeks ago. The pall that draped Herzl’s coffin mysteriously vanished sometime after the 1949 ceremony and was not found since.

The cloth was prepared in Vienna in 1936 by architect Oscar Strand and artist Arthur Weisz, as plans were made to move Herzl’s remains to what was then British-controlled Palestine. The cloth was then shipped to Jerusalem. When World War II broke out, those plans were put on hold. Tragically, Weisz was murdered in Auschwitz.

Upon the establishment of the State of Israel, one of David Ben-Gurion’s first decisions was to fulfill Herzl’s wishes and bring his remains to Israel for re-interment, and the cloth was used to cover the coffin. The cloth (parochet) was removed in the ceremony and was entrusted in the hands of the Jewish National Fund, but it mysteriously vanished. Years of efforts to locate it bore no fruit. After 70 years, a decision was made to replicate it. In July 2019, during Herzl’s annual memorial ceremony, the replica was publicly presented. But then, a month later, the story took an unexpected twist: the original cloth was found in a JNF warehouse.

Weisz’s son, Yitzhak Weisz, is author of the book Herzl – A New Reading, originally written in French and translated into Hebrew and English. Weisz tells the Magazine: “I spent years in the Zionist Archives doing research for my book, and all this time I had no idea that my father was involved with Herzl in any way.” After submitting the book for publication, Weisz wondered into the Book Gallery, a rare book and print store in Jerusalem, where he saw a poster of the front page of the August 17, 1949, issue of Haaretz, announcing the reburial of Herzl’s remains in Israel. The caption of a photo showing the cloth draping the coffin caught his attention and, stupefied, he realized that the cloth had been prepared already in 1936. This led Weisz right back to the Zionist Archives, and after searching through hundreds of pages, he discovered that it was indeed his father who crafted the cloth.

“I feel as if my father covered the body of Herzl, and I in my book shed true light on the ideas of Herzl’s that had been so falsified,” Weisz reflects.

This month’s astonishing reappearance of the original cloth was a startling experience for Weisz, who was three years old when his father was taken to Auschwitz.

“I feel that I had the opportunity to do the mitzvah of kibud av (respect one’s father) and also grant him immortality in some way: now, the thousands of people who read my book and contemplate this cloth will know that one of those six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust was a Jew named Arthur Weisz.”

Gol Kalev contributed to this article

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