For Israel’s early leaders, burials were all about location

A new book by historian Doron Bar examines the tradition of reinterring bodies in the Zionist homeland

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Former US president Barack Obama, right, with then Israeli president Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, at the grave of Theodor Herzl during Obama's visit to Mt. Herzl in Jerusalem, Friday, March 22, 2013. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Former US president Barack Obama, right, with then Israeli president Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, at the grave of Theodor Herzl during Obama's visit to Mt. Herzl in Jerusalem, Friday, March 22, 2013. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Theodor Herzl, the father of modern Zionism, and Moses had much in common, even in death — both Jewish leaders didn’t die in Israel, the land they both planned and pined for at different times in history. Herzl, however, was eventually buried in the Jewish state, while Moses’s remains are said to be in biblical Moab, in what is today Jordan.

It wasn’t that people’s bodies didn’t get reburied in biblical times; they did. The Israelites carried Joseph’s bones in a coffin stored in an ark brought from Egypt, through 40 years of living in the desert. But the ritual of reburying someone in Israel was a practice honed and perfected in the fledgling years of the state, said Doron Bar, a historical geographer at Jerusalem’s Schechter Institute who recently wrote a book on the subject.

“There was a huge motivation to rebury people in Israel,” said Bar on a recent morning visit to Mount Herzl, the Jerusalem hilltop cemetery named for the Zionist leader. “They died, and never ‘got’ to the place where they wanted to be buried. Over here in the Jewish state, we said, ‘Okay, we’ll fix it.’ It’s important to have them with us.”

Bar’s book, “Ideology and Landscape” (Hebrew University Magnes Press, in Hebrew), examines the rituals and history of reburying people in Israel, taking readers on a virtual tour of Israel’s well-known cemeteries.

Doron Bar on the grounds of Mount Herzl, the national cemetery where he has spent much time researching his book, "xxx" (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
Doron Bar on the grounds of Mount Herzl, the national cemetery where he has spent much time researching his book, “Ideology and Landscape” (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

As Bar strolled around the quiet, manicured grounds of Mt. Herzl cemetery, for the most part empty on a Monday morning in September, he lamented the lack of visitors.

“It’s always busier next door,” he said, gesturing to the Mount Herzl military cemetery just below. “Here, things are usually quiet.”

It wasn’t intended to be that way. When the body of Herzl, the founding father of the Jewish state, was first brought to this Jerusalem hilltop in 1949, Israelis used to come to visit his grave, which represented the Zionist dream. It was the ultimate day trip.

“Herzl was the glue of Israel,” said Bar.

Herzl, the Viennese native, was the first in a long series of Zionists who wanted their final resting place to be in the Jewish land.

Herzl never gave any instructions about where he wanted to be buried, beyond writing in his will that he wanted a simple funeral and to be buried beside his father until “the Jewish people shall take my remains to Israel.”

He wrote in “Altneuland,” his novel about Zionism, about being buried in Haifa, on Mount Carmel. But when he died in 1904 of cardiac disease at the early age of 44, the country was still 44 years away from independence. It wasn’t until Israel’s statehood in 1948 that the country’s leaders began discussing Herzl’s reburial in Jerusalem, the capital, with Herzl becoming the symbol of the new land, said Dor.

In 1949, his remains were moved from Vienna to be reburied on the top of Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, named in his memory.

“This was the highest mountain in Jerusalem and it was symbolic,” said Bar, pointing to the view still mostly visible from the flat, squared gravesite. “He could see all of the city’s residents and they could see him.”

A bird's eye view of Theodor Herzl's grave (Nati Shochat/Flash 90)
A bird’s eye view of Theodor Herzl’s grave (Nati Shochat/Flash 90)

It was the World Zionist Organization, the institution founded by Herzl, that was in charge of the burial site, and still is the caretaker of it, along with the government. They planned a grand plaza with a roof supported by 44 columns, referring to the age at which Herzl was when he died. Typically, however, a combination of finances, bureaucracy and arguments ended up detaining that part of the plan forever, said Dor.

Today, Herzl’s grave sits in the middle of a wide open plaza near the front of the cemetery, a square of black marble with his name emblazoned on the front creating a quiet, stately square of contemplation.

In 1949, Herzl’s body was flown to Israel, first over Haifa, and then to Tel Aviv, where he laid in state in Opera Square, in the city’s center. Thousands came to pay their respects, before his body was taken to Jerusalem, where a siren was blared on the radio. Representatives of 400 communities brought bags of soil from their land to put into the ground with him.

Once Herzl was buried on the Jerusalem hilltop, the arguments continued about who else would get buried on there, which was intended as the national cemetery for the country’s leaders and fallen soldiers.

As of today, four of the country’s leaders are buried there, including Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir, Yitzhak Shamir and Yitzhak Rabin, whose wife, Leah Rabin, is buried alongside him. Their graves form an arc of names from the nation’s history, and that semicircle of tombstones includes Zalman Shazar, Chaim Herzog, Yosef Spinzak and Eliezer Kaplan.

A stroll along a side path brings visitors to the graves associated with Herzl, which ended up including members of his family, as well as other presidents of the WZO, pointed out Bar.

Once the WZO leaders were included on the hillside, the decision about other Zionist leaders became more convoluted, said Bar. Right-wing Zionist leader Zeev Jabotinsky died suddenly in New York in 1940 and was buried in Long Island, but his will stated that he wanted to be buried in Zion once there was a Jewish government in place.

“Of course, Ben Gurion didn’t want him,” said Bar.

The two Zionist leaders had always been rivals, given the vast differences in their beliefs about how to carry out the establishment of the Jewish state.

It took until 1964 and the decision of Levi Eshkol, then the prime minister, for the reburial of Jabotinsky’s remains, and it was a “mega event like Herzl,” said Bar, with a refueling in Paris that also included a ceremony. His remains were buried on Mount Herzl, and his wife was later buried alongside him, in an area separated from the other heads of state.

The original site of Avshalom Feinberg's body in northern Sinai (Courtesy Doron Bar)
The original site of Avshalom Feinberg’s body in northern Sinai (Courtesy: Doron Bar)

There are the lesser known reburials as well, as the Herzl side of the national cemetery gives way to the orderly rows and never-ending graves of Israel’s fallen soldiers. Bar pointed out the flat, in-ground graves of Avshalom Feinberg and Yoseph Lishansky, both of whom died during World War I, while on an operation outside pre-state Palestine.

Feinberg was one of the leaders of Nili, a Jewish spy network in Ottoman Palestine that helped the British during the war. Born in Palestine, Feinberg traveled to Egypt on foot in 1917, and was killed on his way back, reportedly by a group of Bedouins near the British front in Sinai, close to Rafah. His fate remained unknown until after the 1967 Six-Day War when his remains were found under a palm tree that had grown from date seeds in his pocket to mark the spot where he lay.

Lishansky, whose Mount Herzl grave lays next to Feinberg, was also a member of Nili and was on the same, ill-fated trip to Egypt. He was shot and made it to Egypt, but was later caught and sentenced to death in Damascus, where he was hanged. He was reburied in 1967 on Mount Herzl.

Nearby is Hannah Senesh, the pre-state paratrooper who fell in Budapest, alongside other Czech-born paratroopers who were also reburied in the military cemetery in the 1950s.

As Bar made his way around the gravestones, a teenager sat next to Senesh’s grave, placing a stone painted with words from one of her famed poems on the face of the grave. Senesh, known as much for her poetry as her bravery, has long been a symbol for the nation’s teens, even today, said Bar, adding that kids often congregate around her simple grave.

Lowering Hannah Senesh's coffin from the ship which carried her remains back to Israel (Courtesy Doron Bar)
Lowering Hannah Senesh’s coffin from the ship which carried her remains back to Israel (Courtesy: Doron Bar)

“The cemetery has become a religious and national symbol,” Bar said. “Graves are a proven and comfortable way to turn Israel into a place that’s holy.”

The country’s first cemetery was on the Mount of Olives, the most important Jewish cemetery in the world, he said.

“Everyone was buried there until 1948, even the Zionists, because there were no other cemeteries,” he said of the hillside that was under Jordanian control from 1948 to 1967. “Itamar Ben Ami (who lived in New Jersey), Eliezer Ben Yehuda [considered the father of the modern Hebrew language] they’re both there.”

Higher up the hill, on Mount Scopus, was another cemetery, created by Nikanor, a Greek from Cairo who was buried in a sarcophagus and later discovered by archaeologists. Zionist leader Menachem Ussishkin was buried there, and planned for the cave to become a pantheon of figures, but was only joined by Zionist activist Leon Pinsker, whose remains were reburied in the cave.

Once Mount Scopus became an enclave in Jordanian-occupied territory after the 1948 war, the idea of that cemetery was scrapped in favor of Mount Herzl.

The cemeteries that Bar visited, in search of the graves of those whose remains were re-interred, are all over the country. He looks at the graves of Ramat Hanadiv, the formal Baron de Rothschild gardens in Zichron Yaakov where Edmond de Rothschild and his wife were re-interred in a crypt; in Trumpeldor Cemetery in Tel Aviv, where everyone from national poet Hayim Nachman Bialik, first Tel Aviv mayor Meir Dizengoff and singer Arik Einstein are buried in an urban stack of graves; the seaside Kinneret cemetery in the north, a magical, palm tree-shaded space; and, of course, Mount Herzl, named for the occupant of its very first grave.

Ideology and Landscape is currently available in Hebrew, and will be translated into English in 2016. Dr. Bar will speak at a conference on the subject of his book at the Schechter Institute on October 20, from 5-8 pm. Entry is free.

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