Raising the Zionist bar

The struggle to keep Mount Herzl relevant to contemporary life.

Pope Francis, flanked by former president Shimon Peres (left) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, arrives at Mount Herzl during his visit to Israel last May. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Pope Francis, flanked by former president Shimon Peres (left) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, arrives at Mount Herzl during his visit to Israel last May.
Every country has its stately official monuments. Unfortunately, we have more than our fair share. Mount Herzl is probably the most iconic site we have. It is the venue for the annual closing Remembrance Day ceremony, swiftly followed by the torch-lighting event, which signals the kickoff of the Independence Day festivities.
So, what role does Yaakov Gispan, the long-serving director of the hilltop site, feel the site named after Zionist visionary Theodor Herzl plays in contemporary Israel? Gispan starts out by noting the official, extraterritorial-oriented representative service the spot provides. “Five years ago there was a government resolution that all foreign heads of state are obliged to make a state visit to Mount Herzl, just as they are taken to Yad Vashem. It is part of the state visit. They can’t not do that. If they don’t do that the visit is demoted from state level to a work visit, rather than a state one. That’s a statement of intent [by Israel].”
It is, says Gispan, a means of enlightening foreign leaders about some of our history and the prominent figures of our national heritage.
“Herzl, of course, was ‘the visionary of the state,’ and the foreign leaders should respect him.”
However, Gispan is keen to point out that Mount Herzl, which is administered by the World Zionist Organization is not just the private reserve of the powers that be, but that anyone is welcome to visit the site wherein lie the remains of numerous political and other public figures. Herzl, who died in Vienna in 1904 at the age of 44, requested a simple funeral and wished to be buried in the vault next to his father, “and to lie there till the Jewish people shall take my remains to Israel.” The former idea was thwarted when thousands of admirers and supporters thronged the funeral procession but, as we all know, his reburial request was fully and ceremoniously fulfilled, the year after the State of Israel became a reality.
Although Mount Herzl is steeped in history, Gispan says he and his cohorts invest great efforts to ensure the site remains relevant to contemporary life in this country. “We have adapted the monument to the Ethiopian Jews who died on their way from Sudan to Israel,” he explains. Presumably, the fact that the plight of the Ethiopian-Israeli community is commemorated at the country’s most important site, not only helps to raise the community’s profile here but also offers some educational added value, in enlightening residents, of all ages, who may not be aware of the difficulties many Ethiopian Jews had to contend with on their way to the Promised Land. “This is official recognition, at Mount Herzl,” Gispan notes.
“Before that they held their ceremonies at Ramat Rahel [at the promenade in East Talpiot]. The monument was built on Mount Herzl in 2011, but in 2013 the names of the fallen were added. That was following a request by the Prime Minister’s Office.”
Education and the dissemination of information feature high in the list of the roles of the site, which also takes in the adjacent military cemetery and the Herzl Center.
The latter incorporates the Herzl Museum and the Margulies Education Center. The Margulies center is an important cog in Mount Herzl site operations.
“For the last four years the education center has performed an important function here,” says Tzofia Dimant- Yossef, executive director of the Department of Diaspora Activities at the Herzl Center. “The center addresses all aspects of Zionism and leadership, and we have developed guided tours on various topics. There are also activities for all the family, in addition to the museum itself.”
Naturally, some times of the year are busier than others and, with the advent of the “Jewish holiday season,” Dimant-Yossef and her staff are being kept on their toes. The center is constantly coming up with innovative ideas and services designed to keep the members of the public coming in, and to keep them gainfully engaged. “We have something we call the Touring Show, whereby professional actors take groups to all the significant points on the mount, and tell the stories of all the locations.”
The peripatetic foray is based on an entertaining tale. “The story is about an athlete who is due to go abroad to represent Israel but she does not know anything about the national flag, or Hatikva,” Dimant-Yossef continues. “This takes us through all kinds of story lines that go through history, and which are portrayed by the actors. They take the groups to the grave of [early Zionist movement leader David] Wolffsohn and they talk about the flag.” Wolffsohn, who accompanied Herzl on his travels to Palestine and Turkey, instructed a flag with a similar design to a blue-and-white prayer shawl to be made for the nascent Zionist movement. Interestingly, he was opposed to Herzl’s own idea for a flag, which featured seven golden stars.
“The Touring Show groups also stop at the grave of Avshalom Feinberg and they hear the story of [First World War Jewish espionage network] Nili, and they go to [former prime minister] Golda Meir’s grave and they talk about Golda, without referencing the Yom Kippur War,” says Dimant-Yossef. “It is a good and efficient way to teach history, and in a sort of experiential way.”
Back indoors, at the Margulies Education Center, there is plenty to keep the visitor engaged and enlightened about the history of the State of Israel, with state of the art facilities on offer all around the facility. The latest addition is the Smart Wall, which was installed with the support of the Jerusalem Foundation. “The Education Center is a three-story building with well-equipped classrooms and a large auditorium,” says the department executive director, noting that the Smart Wall is the jewel in the center’s crown. “It is an interactive wall. You can hear and see all sorts of [historical] things connected to Herzl and his teachings.”
The Smart Wall comprises a technologically advanced interface with multiple touch screens with attractive animated films. As the Mount Herzl website notes: “This new facility offers experiential and interactive learning on Israeli core curriculum subjects, together with the concepts behind Herzl’s vision.” The Smart Wall is also designed to get visitors actively involved, and enables members of the public to “design Zionist captions for stickers and T-shirts on the theme of Herzl’s dream of creating an active Zionist society of excellence.”
The interactive structure sheds light on various areas of Herzl’s work. “People can delve into why Herzl specifically chose Uganda [as a possible homeland for the Jews],” says Dimant-Yossef. “They can learn about how Herzl considered Judaism and how he viewed aliya. There is a section on vision and realization – what Herzl wrote and where we are today. You can read about things, listen to things and use touch screens.”
Dimant-Yossef is keenly aware of the need to convey the bare facts, as well as the more colorful and entertaining stories, in as an attractive way as possible, and to make it all relevant for the younger generations too. “The information is presented in a language format that children enjoy, and it stimulates them. There is video and audio, and there are digital books and summaries of the books with exciting graphics and lovely animation.”
Dimant-Yossef and the rest of the center staff do their utmost to bring in the public – locals and foreigners alike – from all walks of life, and from all age groups, and to engage them in what the center and the rest of the Mount Herzl facilities have to offer. “We have programs that are designed for children of compulsory kindergarten age and upwards. The place serves as a sort of platform for ethical discussion. The ultimate objective is that anyone who visits the site should come away thinking about what he or she can do tomorrow with regard to Zionism. We don’t want them to think about Zionism as some high ideal. We want them to get into the nuts and bolts of it and to see how they can work – youth, soldiers and anyone who has an interest in the topic.”
All the information at the center is available in seven languages, including English, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Russian, and Dimant-Yossef says the site attracts around 100,000 visitors a year, with some 25,000 to 30,000 participating in the various workshops the center runs. The site also runs cultural events, as well as a guided tour from the First Station to Mamilla. “There is a lot of commemoration at Mount Herzl, but we want to bring the subject matter to life,” says Dimant-Yossef. “We want to convey the story of Zionism in a post-Zionism world.”