27 November 2017
Signs of hope in Israel as Christians and Jews come together to remember the Battle of Beersheba
How the Beersheba commemoration turned into a much-needed symbol of hope in a troubled region.
By Nathan Jeffay in Beersheba
On a dusty patch in Beersheba, the horses charged, as they did for General Allenby exactly a century earlier.
This is a city that mixes old and new: a modern high-tech hub, named because it is where Abraham is said by the Bible to have dug a well (in Hebrew beer). And in recent weeks, it has become a kind of living museum to First World War history, as it was here that the turning-point happened in Britain’s Sinai and Palestine Campaign.
So, the last month has been one of the most unusual since I started covering the Middle East a decade ago — transporting me back a century to see warfare of a bygone era, then two days later covering the centenary of the Balfour Declaration. While all this happens, the normal news continues: the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu under investigation for corruption, a deputy minister insulting American Jews, and alarm over Syria.
The Beersheba events were enormous. Some 5,000 people from overseas descended on the city for a commemorative service, a civic parade and the reenactment. It was fitting given that the military success there was so momentous: Before the Battle of Beersheba, British forces failed their World War I efforts to wrestle control of Palestine from the Ottomans, pounding away at the enemy but to no avail. Then, on October 31, 1917, Australian and New Zealand soldiers defeated the Ottomans at Beersheba in a surprise cavalry charge.
This success enabled the British to continue to the rest of Palestine, and gave an overall boost to the WW1 campaign. But at the centenary, there was no top-level representative from London and hardly any British interest — a fact that struck me as strange as I stood there in the mostly-British war cemetery with the Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, New Zealand’s governor-general Patsy Reddy, Israel’s Netanyahu, and large crowds from each of their countries.
It just goes to show the extent to which the history that we deem worthy to commemorate is determined by what our country’s political classes and diplomats see as deserving of attention, and the closely related matter of what the media decides to focus on.
It’s a shame that it was so overlooked, as it was a remarkable centenary. It was an amazing sight with the sense of ceremony, the uniforms and the horses. It was emotional, with music composed especially for the cavalry reenactment. It was a history lesson with relations of those who took part – many of those present were descendants of Australian and New Zealand soldiers, ANZACS.
The commemorations also showcased interfaith harmony. Australian Jewry viewed the centenary as its big day, as the Battle of Beersheba meant that Britain came to control Palestine and set the stage for the establishment of a Jewish country there. They saw it an an anniversary of their nation, Australia, helping Israel to come into existence, and headed to Israel in large numbers along with other Australians.
This resulted in a Christian commemorative service in a Christian cemetery where around half of the people in attendance were Jewish — something I never witnessed before. There was no discomfort or conflict, and while the service was more universalistic than normal, a Christian flavour was preserved with a reference to Christ, and people from all backgrounds came away moved.
The only religious crisis was a purely internal Jewish affair — and a fascinating one. Australian Army rabbi Dovid Gutnick was due to speak and say a prayer during the service, but he got a shock when he arrived at the cemetery the day before. Normally open-air, a tent had been erected. This rang alarm bells because Gutnick is a Cohen, a priest, and according to Jewish law, he can’t be under a tent or canopy with even a single Jewish grave. It’s part of ancient ritual purity laws.
So the rabbi started scanning the Christian cemetery to check there weren’t any Stars of David among the crosses. If the graveyard was all-Christian, the tent would have caused no problems in Jewish law. But he found the grave of British-Jewish soldier Seymour Jacob van den Bergh. Gutnick had traveled across the world to take part in a state ceremony — and just discovered he would have to bow out and sit on the sidelines.
When he realised about the problem with the grave and the tent, he started finding out about Captain van den Bergh, and discovered the day of the big Aussie-Kiwi anniversary event was also the 100th anniversary of his death according to the Hebrew calendar. He decided have the date marked in the traditional way, enlisted (non-Cohen) rabbis, and for what is thought to be the first time since burial, van den Bergh had a graveside memorial service with full quorum. By coincidence the rabbi of a Liverpool congregation had just touched down in Israel and recited prayers. He was Rabbi Martin Van Den Bergh, a relation of the captain.
It wasn’t only Christians and Jews who were brought together around the Beersheba commemorations. German and Turkish representatives took part. So did Aboriginals, who were disproportionately represented among the Australian soldiers in the WW1 Palestine campaign, but their legacy tended to be overlooked afterwards. There were lots of efforts around the centenary to right this historical wrong, including a decision by one Australian Jewish organisation, to include twelve Aboriginal Australians in its 100-strong commemorative Beersheba mission. They were relations of soldiers who fought in the region in WW1
When the Battle of Beersheba was underway the British were already working on the Balfour Declaration, and two days later issued the document, more certain than ever that they would be in control of Palestine after the war.
Much has been said and written in the last few weeks that has been either critical of the British for issuing this declaration which said that Britain favoured “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”, or suggesting that the line on protecting rights of the area’s non-Jews was not honoured. In my many conversations with Palestinians I experience the anger that still exists over this declaration.
Perhaps the most level-headed comment of the Balfour centenary season was by the historian Simon Schama, who linked the past, present and hope for the future in a special lecture, during which he was overcome with emotion. He spoke of Jewish-Arab coexistence projects in contemporary Israel, and said that the history of 100 years ago boosts hope that they will have an impact.
Schama said: “To speak of such things as fragile shoots of tikva, hope, can and will, I know be written off as naive piety, as high-minded fantasy, but then again the dark pages of Jewish history have been lit by such impossibilities and one of them, the one we are happily remembering this evening, happened in 1917, a germ of life, a great hope for the future planted amid the hecatombs of the dead.”
His message seems farfetched, but less farfetched than people not long ago would have considered the great efforts to laud Aboriginal Australians and the prospect of Jews and Christians amiably attending a large memorial service which ended with a rabbi’s Hebrew prayers ringing out in a Christian cemetery. And less farfetched than the fact that as I stood in the Beersheba cemetery, representatives of Britain’s WW1 enemies filed past me, walking between graves of soldiers that their armies killed, to lay wreaths. There’s no escaping history in a military cemetery, but seeing that there, even enemies of past conflicts can come together, seems to be a much-needed symbol of hope in a troubled region.
(Front page pic: Israelis pray near the grave of a fallen soldier during Israel's Memorial Day, one day ahead of Israel's 69'th Indepedence Day in Kiryat Shaul Military cemetery, Tel Aviv on May 1st, 2017. Credit: Gili Yaari/NurPhoto/PA)
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