Theodore Herzl's wish that the remains of his children, Hans and Paulina, be interred by his side in Israel will be fulfilled next week - with a slight delay of 76 years. At the beginning of next week, the graves of Herzl's son and daughter in Bordeaux, France will be unearthed, their remains flown to Israel and re-interred the next day by their father's side on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem in an official ceremony in the presence of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
If it were up to Israel alone, the man whose vision brought the state into existence might never have gotten his wish. For decades, the governments of Israel, the Zionist Organization, the Jewish Agency and the Chief Rabbinate preferred to ignore Herzl's express desire for his children to be buried in Israel. If not for another secular dreamer from Be'er Sheva, who also happens to be a historian, and an Orthodox man from Jerusalem, who happens to be Israel's Sephardic chief rabbi, Hans and Paulina would have spent an eternity in a Jewish cemetery abroad. Why? Because the lives of Herzl's children were full of personal calamities that Israel was in no hurry to inscribe in its national annals.
The historian Dr. Ariel Feldstein worked for six years on the Herzl case. It culminated in a three-hour secret meeting on June 18 with Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar in Jerusalem, during which Dr. Feldstein presented all the historical facts. The rabbi asked questions and made his own investigation in Israel and abroad, finally issuing the religious ruling leading to next week's ceremony.
Feldstein, director of the Sapir Academic College in the Negev, says that in a chance visit to Herzl's tomb, he noticed that the Zionist visionary's parents were buried alongside him, but not his children. Shortly thereafter, Feldstein says he awakened one morning with the an unrequited passion "to go to the Zionist Archive in Jerusalem and spy out the hidden files dealing with the burial of Herzl and his family."
He learned that as Herzl's health worsened and he began to feel his days were numbered, he decided to take care of the eternal resting place of his children. In Ma rch 1903, he wrote his will, which stated, among other things "my desire to be buried in a metal coffin next to my father and to rest there until the Jewish people brings my body to the land of Israel. There my father's coffin is also to be brought ... and the coffins of my closest relatives who will have passed away up to the time my coffin is brought to the land of Israel (my mother and my children.)"
"Anyone who met Feldstein got bitten by the same bug," says Avi Viderman, an aide to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert who dealt with the matter in the Prime Minister's Bureau. It happened to Ariel Sharon, and later to Olmert. But the road was rife with bureaucratic potholes.
In 2001, minister Dan Naveh, then-chairman of the ministerial committee for symbols and ceremonies, was put in charge of the matter. Nothing moved for a year and a half. "The committee buried the issue," said Feldman. MK Rabbi Avraham Ravitz then buried it further when he wrote that in light of "the problematic past of Herzl's children" they could be buried "only in a kibbutz."
In 2003, the centennial of Herzl's death, MK Ilan Shalgi (Shinui) spearheaded the Herzl Law, which was passed in 2004, which mandated commemoration of Herzl's heritage. In 2005, the new Herzl Museum on Mount Herzl was dedicated. And still, the last will and testament of the man himself required a government decision.
When Sharon was shown the material in November, things got moving. His aides whispered in Feldstein's ear that on November 21 Sharon would announce his decision and that of the cabinet decision to bring the remains to Israel.
Sharon did make a public announcement on November 21, but the subject was the breakup of the Likud. With everything that followed, the matter of Herzl's children went back into deep freeze.
But it refused to die. Olmert heard about it from his aides for the first time during his first week in office and became interested. Jewish Agency chairman Ze'ev Bielski also got more involved than any of his predecessors.
Olmert asked Bielski, who is also the head of the Zionist Organization (which is funding the entire operation), to have a heart-to-heart with Sephardic chief rabbi Amar and to ask him to issue the necessary halakhic (Jewish law) ruling.
Over the years, the religious establishment has opposed bringing the remains of Herzl's children to Israel. With all due respect to the Zionist visionary, bringing to the holy land the remains of a son who converted and committed suicide the day after his sister Paulina died, was repugnant to the rabbis.
When Olmert approached Amar, he told his aides that he wanted all the loose ends tied up by July 16, 2006. Then, on June 25 Gilad Shalit was abducted to Gaza, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev to Lebanon, and the war broke out.
Nevertheless, in the June 18th meeting between Anar and Feldstein, the latter gave the rabbi an article to read that he had published on the subject in 2002. The rabbi went straight to the problem of Hans' conversion and suicide, but Feldstein informed him Hans had returned to Judaism at the end of his life, and joined a synagogue in London to which he would go to pray. Amar subsequently went to London to personally verify this.
Feldstein found out from Amar that halakha had special consideration for people who committed suicide due to mental illness. Feldstein quickly pointed out that Hans was under great psychological stress due to the death of his sister.
The fact that the Herzl siblings had been interred at first in a Jewish cemetery, which Amar also investigated independently, was another encouraging element.
In the following weeks, Amar sent Feldstein and Olmert's aides on numerous errands to supply him with authorizations, declarations, and testimony, until he finally wrote the long-awaited opinion.
When Feldstein was asked how he became so persistent, he answered, "every time things seemed to be falling through, I opened [the book imagining the future Jewish state] Altneuland of this great man and I read the two closing sentences: "All acts of human beings were once dreams; all their acts will someday become a