Not since Menachem Begin fought to have revisionist leader Ze'ev Jabotinsky's remains brought from abroad for re-interment on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem some 40 years ago has Israel's mini-version of Arlington National Cemetery been the center of so much attention and debate.
And all because of a request that Edgar Bronfman, the Canadian-born Seagram magnate, billionaire and philanthropist, be buried there.
The controversy erupted in January of this year when an as yet unnamed member of the Knesset approached Avraham Burg, then the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, with the request concerning Bronfman's final resting place in the section of Mount Herzl called the Burial Ground for the Leaders of the Nation.
Bronfman, who has served as president of the World Jewish Congress since 1981, did not make the request outright, but made known of his desire to spend eternity amid Israel's greatest leaders.
The request has stirred up so much debate because it goes right to the very heart of a critical question: Should Israel's national cemetery be only for its citizens or also include world Jewish leaders? Bronfman, while a world Jewish leader, is not an Israeli citizen.
Until now, only Israeli leaders or Zionist leaders from the pre-state period have been buried in what many Israelis perceive as the hallowed ground of modern Zionism. "Now, world Jewry wants its share of the symbolic soil," wrote the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz, succinctly summing up the crux of the matter.
Most of the Mount Herzl cemetery, in Jerusalem's western hills, is reserved for fallen soldiers.
The Burial Ground for the Leaders of the Nation was created shortly after the establishment of the state of Israel to serve as an eternal resting place, not only for the country's leaders but also for those who helped foster its creation. It has fewer than 100 places — places reserved for presidents, prime ministers, speakers of the Knesset, presidents of the World Zionist Organization and heads of the Jewish Agency for Israel and their spouses.
Among those buried in this exclusive section are the founding father of Zionism, Theodor Herzl, who died in 1904 in Austria, along with his parents and sister; Jabotinsky, who died in 1940 in New York; Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin, Golda Meir and Levi Eshkol; and Presidents Zalman Shazar and Chaim Herzog.
The only near precedent for burying Bronfman on Mount Herzl is that of Nahum Goldman, who served simultaneously as both president of the World Zionist Organization and the World Jewish Congress. Goldman is the only world Jewish leader in the national burial ground. Though Goldman did not live in Israel, he was an Israeli citizen.
Bronfman, who was a leader in the movement to free Soviet Jewry and in the campaign to force the Swiss banks to compensate Holocaust victims, last year, told Israeli author Michael Shachar, in an interview for the forthcoming book in Hebrew titled "Who Are You, Edgar Bronfman?" that it was his great desire to be buried on Mount Herzl and thus to be acknowledged as "a Jewish leader who worked for his people."
Burg reacted favorably to the idea of Bronfman's inclusion among the leaders of the nation, stating that he views it as a legitimate request. "Bronfman is undoubtedly one of the more important leaders in the Jewish world today and he has assisted greatly in opening the gates of the Soviet Union to Jewish immigration and in the return of Jewish property stolen by the Nazis. He has also contributed to Israel tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars."
The Zionist Executive of the Jewish Agency decided to appoint a committee to look into the possibility and also to decide whether there is a need to re-examine the criteria of who may be buried in the Burial Ground for Leaders of the Nation.