Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

26 Tishrei 5767 - October 18, 2006 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Who Okayed Participation in Herzl's Reinterment?

By D. Tzfasman

The tale of the controversy surrounding the reinterment of the remains of Theodore Herzl in Israel, as it emerges from private documents in Rav Tzvi Weinman's archive.

A Mixture of Light and Darkness

The accusatory question was featured inside a prominent box on the front page of the HaKol daily: Who Allowed Rav . . . To Take Part In Herzl's Funeral? Behind the headline raged a fierce campaign led by Rav Meir Dovid Lowenstein z'l, protesting the participation of prominent members of the chareidi community in the ceremonial funeral that was held when Theodore Herzl's remains were re- interred in Yerushalayim.

It was in 5709 (1949). The State of Israel was barely a year old and the largest institutional body of chareidi Jewry, Agudas Yisroel, was faced with the dilemma of whether to approve or to oppose participation in the newly-proclaimed state's institutions of government. The issue of whether the Agudah would extend de facto or de jure recognition to the state still awaited clarification.

In practice, the extent of the Agudah's participation was initially decidedly liberal. One of its representatives was a cabinet minister, while one of the party's factions, Poalei Agudas Yisroel (PAI) was straining at the leash to enter the Zionist enterprise as a full partner. This too, was the government that included the United Religious Front which included all of the religious parties, a short-lived hybrid that was released onto the political stage to quiver and hover in the air for a while like a soap bubble before bursting, in the days before the involvement of the Moetzes Gedolei Hatorah in the political process had become a matter of course.

Backed by an enthusiastic media, the new government hoped to embrace the chareidi circles as full partners — thereby neutralizing them — very worried as it was over that community's alarming tendency towards separatism.

From within there was ferment on the sidelines from the direction of the PAGI movement, a faction of separatist "ideological troublemakers" (that was in many senses the opposite of the rebellious PAI movement). PAGI had been established in, and was run from, Yerushalayim by a group of powerful activists whose influence was far greater than their numbers warranted. This presumptuous group even published the first daily newspaper of its kind, entitled HaKol, expressing the positions of the movement and its members' views.

While PAGI was a divisive movement, the ideological opposition within the mainstream Agudah was embodied by Rabbi Meir Dovid Lowenstein, the Zeirei Agudas Yisroel representative. Rav Lowenstein took an independent line and did not submit to party discipline when it came to voting on an array of current issues. As the `rebel' of the Agudah and of the whole United Religious Front he was constantly clashing with the institutions of the World Agudah and had to clarify his stand to them.

Rabbi Tzvi Weinman, author of From Katowice to the Fifth of Iyar (in Hebrew) kept these letters of Rabbi Lowenstein's to the party's leaders and has let us use them.

Agudas Yisroel's pragmatic approach was made possible by lack of semantics and ceremony in the practical parliamentary arena, though there was no shortage of controversy about which tactics to employ in dealing with the government. Rabbi Lowenstein once absented himself from a vote on the budget, refusing to toe the party line that was being imposed on him. For this and similar steps he had to defend himself before the Agudah leadership of Eretz Yisroel and abroad.

A Facade of Unity

This inner tension took on a practical aspect in Av 5709 when the citizens of the state were informed with fanfare that the remains of Theodore Herzl, the `Envisioner of the State' (the Hebrew phrase could also be translated `Prophet of the State') were to be reinterred in the Holy Land. The country stood at attention in respectful silence. The heads of government saw the event both as the realization of a vision and as the fulfillment of Herzl's expressed wish that his remains be reburied in the Land.

The event assumed supreme importance as a characteristic symbol of allegiance or otherwise to the Zionist ideal.

Within the chareidi community it precipitated a degree of ideological distress. Should the separatist banner be kept hidden once again and the festive procession be joined? Or maybe the time had come to take a short breath of independence? Was it at all certain that halochoh permitted participation in a parade honoring the man who, more than any other, symbolized heretical culture and the most extremely irreligious and estranged face of Zionism?

The arrangements for the ceremony received legal sanction, provided by the Knesset. Besides the state ceremony, a special session of the Knesset would convene to mark the occasion and to honor the memory of the reinterred personage. What would Agudas Yisroel do? How would it justify its actions? What is straightforward to us today — that such a question is put to gedolei Yisroel — was then not yet the routine way to solve such questions.

The issue of Ha'aretz on the twenty-third of Av 5709 reported with evident concern that, "rumors are circulating in the corridors of the Knesset that Agudas Yisroel's executive committee has decided to boycott the funeral of Herzl's remains" but it emphasizes that the "Agudah leaders have strongly denied this."

The ones who didn't have a moment's hesitation were the PAI members who fell over themselves in their fawning. The Ha'aretz report states that, "PAI made the point strongly that they will accord honor to the remains of this great national leader, as befits any Jew whose heart harbors nationalistic and human sentiments . . ."

The paper then reveals a `secret.' "We have learned from a reliable source that Mr. Lowenstein indeed proposed a boycott to his fellow members but the Agudah's executive committee rejected his proposal and obligated Agudah members to take part in the ceremonies like all other Knesset parties and groupings in the yishuv."

Put to the Test

What actually happened?

Ha'aretz reported in shock, "It was a surprise that the benches of the Communists remained empty at the festive Knesset session; neither did they take part in the ceremonial reception of the coffin . . . Their longstanding position is common knowledge and has seemingly undergone no change."

The report then continues, "Stranger by far however was the behavior of the `opposition within the coalition.'" [What a pretentious description! — D.T.] "While Mr. M.D. Lowenstein, one of the Agudah representatives in the religious party, took part in the Knesset session, he was absent from the ceremonial reception of the coffin in the afternoon."

What lay behind Lowenstein's absence? And what did the question on HaKol's front page — Who Allowed Rav . . . To Take Part In Herzl's Funeral? — mean?

In a well-reasoned letter to R' Yaakov Rosenheim zt'l, President of the World Agudah, Rabbi Lowenstein relates what really happened and poses a probing question to his political rivals in his party. He writes, "Agudas Yisroel's parliamentary committee decided to participate in the Knesset session devoted to Herzl but not to participate in the funeral. This decision appeared in the press the very next day, despite the decision that it should remain secret. I regret having submitted to party discipline and taking part in the session, [including] standing in silence. We had to listen to the speeches made by the Knesset chairman, Yosef Shprinzak, who announced that with the approval of all that is holy to our nation and of all past generations, he was including Herzl among our nation's holy figures . . . and the Prime Minister's speech [in which he] equated Herzl with Moshe Rabbenu and with Yosef, lehavdil . . ."

Then comes the about turn. "As soon as knowledge of our [planned] absence from the funeral became known, fear and dread seized our leaders. The parliamentary committee was immediately convened and it was decided to change the earlier resolution and to allow everyone freedom of choice over whether or not to attend the funeral. But, wonder of wonders, there was a report again in the next day's papers — again, despite the secrecy — that Agudas Yisroel had decided at the last minute to participate in the funeral. Naturally, this brought renewed attacks against me for organizing a `one-man boycott.' "

What about PAI? Rabbi Lowenstein relates, "The PAI kibbutzim sent their representatives to the funeral with bags of earth from their land and emptied them into the grave. The PAI settlements Masmiya and Kibbutz Chofetz Chaim went out onto the road to meet the procession. The entire ceremony was purely worship of a false messiah. They used the pesukim, `And when the aron moved on (Vayehi binso'a ho'Oron)' and `Awaken Yerushalayim for your king has come.' They also wrote that with his burial there, Yerushalayim has attained a higher level of holiness [Afro lepumei — D.T.] and they intend to erect a museum around his grave, as has been done [at Lenin's tomb] in Moscow, a place that will be the destination of `thousands of pilgrims.' "

Here Rabbi Lowenstein then had his own piercing question to ask: "It is hard to describe what a laughing stock we have now become in the eyes of the yishuv, who certainly cannot understand why we have suddenly grown so enthusiastic over Herzl and what connection it might have with our membership in the government?"

The Aftermath

What were the views of the gedolei haTorah? Were they even approached? Such obvious questions were hardly ever asked back then. Rabbi Lowenstein himself doesn't even offer this as a reason for his absence from the funeral. He tried independently to impose the involvement of the Moetzes Gedolei Hatorah — to which some had assigned merely `presidential' [i.e. honorary] status — upon the party.

In a letter that he sent to all the members of the Moetzes Gedolei Hatorah, Rabbi Lowenstein wrote, "There is no doubt that so long as it is not known who is responsible for what happened within the Agudah camp with regard to the funeral of Herzl's remains, mutual confidence — between the Agudah Knesset members and the members of the parliamentary committee [the ones who confirmed the alteration of the first resolution — D.T.] — cannot return to our ranks. It seems to me that one of the highest functions of the Moetzes Gedolei Hatorah is to see to it that confidence exists. Every day that passes [in the present atmosphere] does further damage."

Rabbi Lowenstein suspected that the news of the first resolution had been intentionally leaked to the press in order to damage him and to isolate him in his campaign. He asked the leaders of the Moetzes Gedolei Hatorah to conduct an internal investigation to find out who had leaked the report to the press, but the Moetzes merely asked each of the representatives who sat on the parliamentary committee to write a declaration stating that they "hadn't leaked [news of] the decision to anyone else." From Rabbi Lowenstein's letter it is apparent that it was doubtful whether this request had been fulfilled.

In his speech at the celebrations that Zeirei Agudas Yisroel organized marking the reception of sifrei Torah by Kibbutz Kommemiyus, Rabbi Lowenstein mentioned the issue of the participation in the funeral. A well-known irreligious newspaper described the speech as having been "in the spirit of what was the norm in Agudas Yisroel circles decades ago in the Diaspora." This one-sided slant seems to reflect the views his rivals. The report concludes, "Echoes of the speech reached the Religious Front, which is about to reach drastic conclusions with regard to Mr. Lowenstein."

In Retrospect

Looking back almost sixty years, it seems clear that Rabbi Lowenstein's approach has emerged victorious. Today, Agudas Yisroel's separatism is starker and, most important, all its conduct is subject to the control of the Moetzes Gedolei Hatorah.

Herzl is buried in grey anonymity near the forgotten grave of his father. If there is any way that his grave can be portrayed as a museum it is only with regard to the worn- out, mortally wounded Zionist ideology, which is in its final twitches.

And one final thought: Where is PAI which jumped onto the Zionist bandwagon with a loud cheer? Very little, if anything, remains.

Falsehood has no endurance! The truth endures.


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