In a state funeral laced with symbolism about the survival of modern Israel, the bones of Jewish fighters who revolted against Rome nearly 2,000 years ago were buried today in a remote corner of the Judean wilderness overlooking the Dead Sea.
Army helicopters ferried about 100 guests, including Prime Minister Menachem Begin and members of his Cabinet, to Nahal Hever where, on the rim of a canyon overlooking the site of the Roman camp that besieged the rebels led by Bar Kochba in the second Jewish revolt of 132-135 A.D., four flag-draped coffins bearing skeletal remains of disputed origin were buried.
The bones, originally excavated in 1955 and 1960 and then dispersed in medical schools throughout the country, were gathered in a personal crusade by Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren to properly inter the Bar Kochba warriors.
The burial ceremony touched off a divisive controversy between Israel's secular and religious Jews and led to charges that the government squandered a reported $250,000 for a nationalistic extravaganza designed to aggrandize Goren and Begin's Likud government. Archeologists and ecologists joined the fray, but Begin insisted the state funeral be held to demonstrate that Jews have returned to the "Land of Israel" forever.
About 30 protesters dressed in togas and wearing tinfoil helmets and laurel wreaths hiked for three hours to reach the remote burial site. Holding spears in imitation of the Bar Kochba rebels, the protesters chanted, "You are making a laughing stock out of history," according to reporters in Nahal Hever.
"We are demonstrating against this madness. The country has such big problems, and they are dealing with old bones," said Neri Erely, a protester from nearby Ein Gedi.
The controversy underscored not only the deep divisions between secular and religious Jews in Israel but also the distrust by a small but vocal segment of Israel's population toward what has been criticized as Begin's fondness for jingoistic spectacles to symbolize Jewish nationalism.
Apart from citing the questioned origins of the bones--some were said by archeologists to predate the Bar Kochba era by hundreds of years--critics of the state funeral have pointed out that Jewish zealots of ancient Israel brought out the destruction of the Second Temple by unnecessarily antagonizing the massive forces of the Roman legion.
But Begin praised Bar Kochba and the renewal of the Jewish state 34 years ago, saying, "Israel and Judea are reborn, carried by the judges of Israel from the four corners of the Earth. Our sons have returned. We have liberated all western Eretz Israel Land of Israel . We have redeemed Jerusalem and united it into one city for generations."
The wooden coffins were placed in the common grave and buried with soil brought in baskets by a troop of about 30 chaplains. Begin, using a cane and assisted by aides because of a hip injury, emptied soil into the grave.
Goren, in a conciliatory speech, praised the archeologists who discovered the bones, mentioning by name Yigael Yadin, who boycotted the ceremony. Yadin had accused Goren of trying to turn the state funeral into a demonstration against "the grave-robbing archeologists," a reference to last summer's campaign by orthodox Jews to halt archeological excavations in Jerusalem's City of David on the grounds that an ancient Jewish cemetery was being desecrated.
"There is not and will not be a struggle between the halacha Jewish law and archeology," said Goren, who added the government was paying a "holy moral debt" to the Bar Kochba rebels.