Thursday, November 2, 2017

On Hallowed Ground

Aussie Aussie Aussie! 
Oi Oi Oi!!
Australian cheer 

It has been said that World War One was the beginning of the end for European Jewry. During the course of the war, 1000s of Jews were killed in battle and in pogroms, Jewish villages were decimated and the inhabitants were scattered. After the war, 1000s more emigrated; to the Americas, to South Africa, to Palestine, and even to Australia. The German defeat, and the degrading conditions set by the allies directly gave rise to Adolf Hitler and Nazism, which, of course, ultimately, led to the murder of over 6,000,000 Jews.

However, another perspective shows that World War One was also the beginning of the rebirth of the Nation of Israel in its homeland.

When my new husband and I moved to Beer Sheva, the capital of the Negev, in 1985, we found a small, quiet, dusty town. Right from the beginnning, I spent a good deal of time exploring my new home by foot. Within a few days, I had already found my very favourite place in town, just a few minutes walk from the apartment we were then living in.

The Beer Sheva British War Cemetery contains the graves of 1,241 soldiers, of which 67 are not identified, who died while serving in the British army during World War One. Maintained to this day by Her Majesty’s government, it was a sea of green in the midst of what was then bleak desert. 

I came across this cemetery in the days before Google (gasp), and so it took me a while, but not that long, to discover the story and the history of the cemetery. 

I had vaguely heard of Field Marshall Edmund Allenby, head of the Egyptian Expeditionary Forces in the Middle East and knew that, up and down Israel, streets had been named after him. I even knew that it was Allenby who renamed the main street of Jerusalem after His Magesty King George, who ruled during the 'Great War'. But I knew little of the Battle of Beer Sheva.
When I first saw the cemetery and began to understand the magnitude of what happened here, I would go to visit quite regularly. I would stop in front of the gate, and salute those courageous and honorable men who, so very long ago and so very far from home, gave their lives so I could live mine. 

100 years ago, on October 31, 1917, the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) stormed Turkish forces on the southeast side of Beer Sheva. There is a great deal of material online about the battle, so I am not going to describe it here. 

Galloping on horseback, and armed with rifles that could not be used while riding, the soldiers of the 4th Light Horse Regiment charged with bayonets in their hands. Of the 600 ANZAC soldiers who rode on horses directly at the Turkish trenches in the late afternoon of October 31, 1917, 35 were killed, and 39 were injured. They showed enormous bravery, charging at full gallop directly into machine guns and heavy artillery fire.  Despite the odds, they succeeded in what they came for. 

The victory at Beer Sheva paved the way for Allenby’s army to make their way to liberate Jerusalem six weeks later, and then on to Damascus, completely defeating the Ottoman Empire. 

After the humiliating defeats at the Dardenelles, Gallipoli, and twice in Gaza, had the British army lost the battle in Beer Sheva (their first victory of the war), they might have abandoned the fight, and left the Middle East to the vicious, backward, crumbling Ottoman Empire, where the inhabitants suffered poverty and neglect.

But the British army was not defeated. The victory of Beer Sheva, and hence the Middle East, gave teeth to the Balfour Declaration, issued two days after the battle. Had the British not been victorious, their support of a Jewish homeland in ‘Palestine’ would have been meaningless. 

The Balfour Declaration led to the San Remo Conference in 1920, which accorded Britain a Mandate in Palestine with the goal of building a homeland for the Jewish people. 

In 1922, the League of Nations approved the mandate, announcing that Britain "shall be responsible for placing the country under such political, administrative and economic conditions as will secure the establishment of the Jewish national home".

L-R Edmund Allenby, Arthur Balfour, Herbert Samuel (High Commissioner of Palestine)
The League of Nations agreement then led, after World War Two, to the partition agreement voted on by the United Nations, and ultimately to the birth of the State of Israel, on May 4, 1948, less than 31 years after 35 ANZAC troups lost their lives in the desert that was Beer Sheva.

It’s not often that the hand of G-d can be seen in such a straight line over the course of 31 years.

However, those men lying in the immaculatly kept cemetery were unaware of their part in G-d’s great scheme to bring His people back to their Homeland. They gave their lives as soldiers of a foreign power, for reasons that were their own.

I still go back to the cemetery once in a while to remind myself that G-d always has a plan, and sometimes, we are lucky enough to see it.

This week, the city of Beer Sheva hosted over 4000 Australians and New Zealanders – many of them descendents and relatives of those who took part in the Battle of Beer Sheva – who came to mark its 100th anniversary. We locals looked at it as a party; a celebration of a victory that paved the way to a greater victory and return to our Homeland after 2000 years of exile. We wanted music, parades, pomp and pageantry. We wanted our guests, and the world, to see what came out of that victory; that Beer Sheva, once a backwater town important only because of its water supplies, has become an amazing metropolis of over 200,000 people—even though it is still dusty.

We Israelis are used to being in the center of attention, of the situation being all about us.

The Aussies and Kiwis, however, did not come to party. They came to honour their dead; to commemorate the heroism and bravery and spirit of their countrymen. The re-enactment of the charge – the climax of the day’s events and attended by 1000s of visitors and Beer Shevaites alike – was changed to ‘a walk of peace on hallowed ground’. 

The walk of peace on hallowed ground
For us, it was Yom HaAzmaut. For them, it was Yom HaZikaron. 

Beer Sheva, October 31, 2017, was not all about us, for a change.

The Beer Sheva British War Cemetery is preserved and maintained by the British people. The dead are not ours. The crosses on all but one grave are not ours.

But they are G-d’s. And we honour and salute them.

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