'Civil religion’: Mount Herzl vs Dam Square

How a well-staged national monument can foster public debate

Dying for, and as a member of, a collective: a traditional soldier’s grave on Mount Herzl in West-Jerusalem. All photographs © Joost Ramaer

Mount Herzl in West-Jerusalem is Israel’s national cemetery, national memorial and a landscaped park, all rolled into one. It is a showcase for Israel’s ideals, as well as their derailment, and a free zone where Israeli’s can play out their huge tensions in a peaceful way, for once.

David Mendelsson leads us to the northern slope of Mount Herzl, the hump in West Jerusalem serving as Israel’s national cemetery. On the northern slope all Israeli soldiers are buried who have died in uniform — regardless whether that happened under fire, or because of illness or a stupid accident. There are also Christians and Druze resting there, but the vast majority are Jews — a mere reflection of the fact that three quarters of Israel’s eight million strong population are Jewish.

All graves are rectangles, framed by low stone walls. The earliest wear nothing but a simple, rectangular slab placed at a slight angle at their top. The stones only carry the names and ranks of the deceased, and the dates and places of their births and deaths. ‘The idea behind this was that they had died for, and as parts of, a collective, the Israeli nation,’ Mendelsson explains. ‘For years, it was not allowed to decorate the graves further with mementos of the individuals buried there.’

Gradually this started to change, he shows us. Relatives of the dead began to add their own tokens, which were merely tolerated at first, officially permitted later. As you go, the graves become more colourful — covered with photographs and other memories of the dead — or even more Spartan. Orthodox Jews started to cover the graves with pebbles instead of the tough little plants, like thyme or rosemary, which had been the norm till then. For them, plants and flowers, worldwide and in all religions the most common companions for our deceased loved ones, are too evanescent. In the eyes of orthodox Jewry, stones symbolise the eternity of their memories of the dead.

‘Look,’ says Mendelsson. ‘Now it becomes really interesting.’ He halts at the grave of a soldier who was killed by the friendly fire of his own comrades. It bears a second stone. Mendelsson translates its Hebrew inscription for his predominantly non-Israeli audience. ‘The parents of this soldier had the cause of his death inscribed on it. Apparently they insisted on this becoming public knowledge. It is a form of protest, a sharp footnote to the idealistic pretension of the collective concept.’

Simple graves show the evolution of Israel as a nation

What Mendelsson shows us, is nothing more or less than the evolution of the Israeli nation, and of the Zionism that created the Jewish state after half a century of struggle, and remains its soul to this very day. Simple graves betray the cleft that marred Zionism right from the start. A cleft between idealism and a naked land grab, which has never been resolved and only grew more pronounced over the years. In my first post on Medium I have described how Israel has become split in the literal sense as well: in a democracy with rule of law west of the ‘green line’, the eastern border established in 1947 and still the only one recognised by the international community, and the West Bank of the river Jordan, conquered in 1967, where 4.5 million Palestinians live under an Israeli military occupation force and Israeli martial law, without the rights and freedoms enjoyed by Jewish Israeli’s.

Experiencing this situation also made me conscious of a cleft in my own country. The democracy ruled by law called the Netherlands has allowed something similar to come into existence: ‘detention centres’ where ‘illegal aliens’ are held in a fashion violating all the ‘norms and values’ we profess to champion. Up to a point, the crisis of Israel runs parallel to a crisis of the Netherlands. Mendelsson’s guided tour made me realise the crucial role well-staged national memorials can fulfil, as the living and continuously changing symbols of both the high-minded ideals of a nation, and their derailment.

A silent protest against the idealistic pretensions of the collective concept: on this soldier’s grave, his parents added an inscribed stone of their own, because they want the world to know that their son was killed by friendly fire.

Mendelsson characterises this function as ‘civil religion’, a striking expression I had never heard before. In two words, it encapsulates the broad idealistic ambition of the nation-as-an-idea, and the contradictions hidden within this concept. Mendelsson frequently leads groups on tours around Mount Herzl: he is Assistant Professor for Jewish History and Israel Studies at Hebrew University on Mount Scopus in East Jerusalem. Founded in 1918, thirty years before the state of Israel, Hebrew is the prime alma mater of worldwide Zionism.

Mount Herzl in the western part of the city is named after the Austrian-Hungarian journalist who in the late 19th century became the driving force and first leader of Zionism. Till then, the vast majority of the Jews had lived for centuries in ‘diaspora’, in small communities spread all over the world, far away from the holy land of Palestine, from where they had finally been expelled by the Romans in 70 AD. They lived in ghettos, surrounded by overwhelming majorities of Muslims and Christians. Especially the Christians treated them from time to time to pogroms and other forms of repression and terror.

Theodor Herzl became convinced that the diaspora was a dead end

As foreign correspondent for an Austrian-Hungarian newspaper Herzl reported, among many other events, on the Dreyfus-affair in France. Such outbursts of antisemitism, occurring frequently during the late 19th century, convinced him that the diaspora was a dead end. Jews would never be able to integrate fully in predominantly non-Jewish societies, whatever the sacrifices they were willing to make — such as converting to Christianity, like many European Jews did at the time. The only solution, Herzl determined, was the foundation of a Jewish state. He was fairly indifferent as to where it should be established. For years, he negotiated with colonial powers about a space in Africa. For all the Jew he was, Herzl was not religious.

But the overwhelming majority of his supporters were. For them there could be but one destination: the biblical holy land of Palestine, as it was then known. No matter that it had been inhabited for centuries by an equally overwhelming majority of Muslim Arabs. Herzl died young, in 1904. After his death the floodgates flung wide open, never to close again: it had to be Palestine, and nothing else. The end of the First World War set in motion a stream of dynamic Western-European and Russian Zionist immigrants to Palestine, encouraged by Western powers who were secretly relieved to see their Jews go. Almost from the start, this resulted in violence between Jews and Arabs in Palestine, lasting to this very day.

Oddly enough, most of Zionism’s founding fathers in Palestine were just as non-religious as Theodor Herzl. Men like the cosmopolitan Chaim Weizmann, later the first president of the state of Israel, and street fighter David Ben-Gurion, its first prime minister. Ben-Gurion was a Russian revolutionary. An admirer of Lenin, who saw the Jewish state he was striving for first and foremost as a way of realising new idealistic visions of society. He strongly supported the kibbutz and other forms of collective organisation, in which the individual submits himself to the greater good. During the 1930’s, in speeches, articles and books, Ben-Gurion championed equal rights for Arabs in the new Jewish state. Simultaneously, he organised the core of what would later become the Israeli army, to keep the same Arabs violently under control.

The grave of Yitzhak and Leah Rabin. Mount Herzl, West-Jerusalem.

Mount Herzl has reflected that duplicity from the outset. When its eponym had been reburied on its top, the young Israeli army at first maintained a permanent guard at his new grave, as is customary the world over for such prominent dead. ‘The commander at the time soon put an end to that,’ Mendelsson tells us. ‘He growled that his soldiers had far more important things to do.’ Fanatical in the foundation and expansion of the state of Israel, but averse to flaunting their leadership in their outward appearance, and often remarkably ambivalent about the Jewish faith that forms an inseparable cornerstone of that state. If one people personifies ‘civil religion’, it must be the Israeli’s ­– although the phrase was minted as early as in 1762 by the French thinker and writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

David Mendelsson is a British citizen who grew up in London, and decided in 1980 to emigrate to Israel. Since then he has ‘only become less religious’, he says, with an almost apologetic smile. He doesn’t even wear a kippot anymore. The same applies to Emmanuel Kushner, my guide during a tour of Hebron. British, grew up in Liverpool, emigrated to Israel long ago. Kushner still wears his kippot, but his religious faith has also gradually diminished after his emigration, he told me. Kushner and Mendelsson intrigue me. For a Brit to emigrate to Israel is a big step, even if you are Jewish. How come that their religious flame started to flicker after that act, simultaneous with the fast growth of the deeply-religious part of the Israeli population? Regrettably, I didn’t get the opportunity to explore this matter further with Mendelsson and Kushner.

Mount Herzl creates space for controversy

Mount Herzl is also the resting place for Israeli statesmen. Unless they had indicated they wanted to be laid to rest elsewhere. David Ben-Gurion, for instance, was buried at his own kibbutz in the Negev-desert, and Moshe Dayan, minister of Defense during the Six Day War of 1967, in the moshav or village commune in which he grew up. Four Israeli prime ministers were buried at Mount Herzl: Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir, Yitzhak Shamir and Yitzhak Rabin. Only Rabin, killed in the line of duty in 1995 by a Jewish extremist, rests next to his wife Leah. Their grave is a little bigger, but just as sober as all the others. The men with their open collars without a tie, Golda Meir with her unelegant but comfortable orthopaedic shoes — Israeli leaders have always shunned pomp and circumstance, to this very day.

Between the graves grow trees, and grass, plants and flowers. Paths meander among them, occasionally giving out onto open spaces for commemorations and other large gatherings. Mount Herzl is national cemetery, national memorial and a beautiful, landscaped park all rolled into one. It is an accessible and inviting place, unlike the imposing, if not intimidating Arc de Triomphe in Paris, or the gigantic statues of soldier’s and worker’s heroes from the Soviet era. Every day the Mount hosts many touring car loads of young Jewish Israeli’s, taken there by teachers keen to give them a course in the soul of state and Zionism.

This open structure creates space for controversy. Ze’ev Jabotinsky was a contemporary of Ben-Gurion, and at least as important in the creation of Israel. Also originally from Russia, only politically more right-wing. Jabotinsky died in 1940 in New York, eight years before the foundation of Israel. The secular socialist street fighters who had the upper hand in Israel during the first thirty years of its existence, framed the secular, more conservative street fighter Jabotinsky as an ultra-right-wing nationalist extremist, a dangerous nutter, who did not deserve a spot on the Mount. In fact Jabotinsky’s ideas, and certainly his temperament, were much closer to their own than they were willing to concede. Only in 1964 were Jabotinsky and his wife reburied on Mount Herzl, in accordance with their last wishes, but even then still in the face of loud and widespread protests.

A tour around Mount Herzl in West-Jerusalem. On the right, our guide David Mendelsson from Hebrew University.

On the hump there is also a wall, covered with tiles carrying the names of all Israelis who have been killed by an act of terror. In June 2014, three Jewish boys were kidnapped and killed near Hebron. Their bodies were found three weeks later. One day after their burial, Muhammad Abu Khdeir, a fourteen year old Palestinian boy from East Jerusalem, was kidnapped and burned alive, as a reprisal. The three Jewish victims were buried side by side near the settlements on the West Bank where they had lived, in the presence of prime minister Bibi Netanyahu and president Shimon Peres.

Less than a year later the Israeli government decided to also commemorate Khdeir, with a tile on the wall for the victims of terror on Mount Herzl. Muhammad’s father initially applauded this. ‘This is a very good initiative, intended to honour my son,’ he said. But soon he announced he would ask for the removal of the tile with his son’s name. ‘We do not need the recognition. We are not Israeli citizens. Instead of this tile we want justice, and the persecution of his murderers.’ Almagor, an organisation of and for Jewish terror victims, also objected. Khdeir’s fate should be compensated, with money, but not commemorated, with a symbolic gesture from the state. ‘Commemoration is a national matter,’ Almagor stated. ‘It has to do with the narrative of the state, and with shared values and a shared ethos.’ Apparently, Palestinians do not fit into that picture, even if they are living in Israel.

Mount Herzl is also the stage for a yearly ceremony in May celebrating Israel’s independence. A group of Israelis, carefully selected because they have distinguished themselves in some extraordinary way, each light a torch shortly after dusk, exclaiming the words ‘for the glory of the state of Israel’. Officially, they come from all layers of Israeli society, but until recently this had always been interpreted rather narrowly as all layers of Jewish Israeli society. In 2015, for the first time ever a single Arab Israeli was selected for the ritual, the famous television presenter Lucy Aharish. Orthodox Jews immediately started to protest. In their eyes, Aharish is ‘an anti-zionist, who is not loyal to the state’. Aharish, however, has repeatedly and unequivocally stated her loyalty to the state of Israel. She even thinks Israel should remain a Jewish state, an opinion causing plenty of controversy in her own community of approximately 1.5 million Arab Israelis, one-fifth of the total population.

‘I will proudly tell Netanyahu that I will not budge,’ Lucy Aharish declared

Israel’s prime minister always attends the torch ceremony. In March 2015 Bibi Netanyahu had become prime minister again, after an unexpectedly comfortable election victory. To get his supporters out to vote, he had warned them about the ‘threat’ that turn-out among Arab Israelis would be three times higher than normal. It had been shameless fearmongering, and racist to boot in the eyes of many Israelis, Arab and Jewish. After the vote, Aharish, her eyes filled with tears, responded angrily to Netanyahu, during a television broadcast which immediately went viral. ‘I exist,’ she said later, shortly before the ceremony on Mount Herzl. ‘I am going to light a torch. And I will proudly tell him that I will not budge, whether he likes it or not.’

The combination of cemetery and memorial makes the hump into a bearer of physical symbols of Zionism and the Jewish state. Within Israel proper, west of the green line, militant orthodox Jews are gaining the upper hand, numerically, because they tend to have large families, as well as in political influence. They have been playing this hand for years with a single purpose in mind: to make the Israeli state and society more and more exclusively Jewish. But the unintended consequence has been that the minority of Arab Israeli’s has also started to better organise itself, and develop a more articulate profile. One example is the Joint List, the alliance formed for the 2015 Knesseth election between four small political parties representing the Arab Israeli community. This fight, which so often and so easily leads to violence elsewhere, can be fought with peaceful means on Mount Herzl. The hump is simultaneously a mirror and a lightning rod for the fierce tensions in Israeli society.

In the Netherlands, such a place does not exist. Our two most prominent memorials are forty miles apart from each other: the monuments on Dam Square in Amsterdam, and on the Waalsdorper Plain in The Hague. Both are strongly connected to the Second World War, and fulfil their roles mainly during the yearly Memorial Day on May 4 for the victims of 1940–1945. The organisers of the Commemoration of the Dead and Liberation Day on May 5 have been trying hard for years to connect the great issues of the war — resistance, collaboration, racism, genocide — to the great issues of today. This has enriched and expanded public debate, and has also reached the education of our school children. But the Netherlands do not have one Mount Herzl, where the connections between past and present are visible and tangible. We lack a place where national self-reflection can go on during the whole year, and is not restricted to the two official days of commemoration.

There is a marked contrast between the eloquence of Dutch leaders on May 4 and 5, and their lack of passion and conviction as soon as they have to speak about present-day institutions and events that have strong connections to the Second World War. Especially when the subjects are the European Union, and the ‘crisis’ surrounding refugees from Northern Africa and the Middle East. Is it cowardice, laziness or political opportunism?

Does it matter?

The aftermath of the credit crisis and the new assertiveness of hundreds of thousands of young Arabs and Africans, who no longer accept the desperate living conditions in their countries of origin, confront our leaders with huge challenges. They will have to tackle them. That is their job, that is what we have voted them into office for. Fine, all these splendid words on May 4 and 5. Of course we must keep commemorating. But they also have to keep working their brains about the threats and opportunities of the present day. And, above all, to speak out about them. To be bold, to make hard choices, and win our support for them. They have to try things out, and if they don’t work, they have to try out other things.

If only we had a Dutch Mount Herzl, I have often thought since I was there. When, for instance, I hear yet another sanctimonious speech by a politician about something that safely happened seventy years ago. Such a spot would help to keep our lazy, procrastinating leaders on their toes.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.