Remembering the Australian Brigade That Conquered Be'er Sheva

Wandering aimlessly on the liberated streets of the city are the biological and spiritual heirs of the soldiers of those bygone days; the heirs feel no sense of belonging.

Headshot of Haaretz columnist and literary supplement editor Benny Ziffer, who is artistic director of the poetry festival to be held in Metula.
Benny Ziffer
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Headshot of Haaretz columnist and literary supplement editor Benny Ziffer, who is artistic director of the poetry festival to be held in Metula.
Benny Ziffer

Almost exactly 95 years ago, an Australian and New Zealand cavalry brigade conquered Be'er Sheva from the Turkish army. The skirmish, during World War I, went down in history as humanity's final cavalry battle. Two days after the fall of Be'er Sheva, on November 2, 1917, when the British occupation of the Holy Land had begun, the Balfour Declaration conferred Eretz Israel to the Jewish people, as its national home.

So where are the Jewish people's thanks for what the Antipodean cavalry brigade did for it when it conquered the capital of the Negev? That question makes us laugh.

On the memorial day for fallen Israeli soldiers, people speak of those who fought for the rebirth of the nation, including those slain prior to Israel's establishment. But nothing is said about those buried in local British army cemeteries, even though they constituted the "silver platter" upon which the Jewish state was founded.

Five years ago, on the 90th anniversary of the battle, a tradition to reenact the Be'er Sheva charge on the original battlefield was inaugurated. Veterans of the Australian light cavalry brigade, descendants of the battle's soldiers, and of soldiers from other wars, came from Down Under. They galloped about on horses, wearing uniforms of the time and waving the flags of the Red Brigade, Australia and Israel.

Five years have gone by and once more they have come - idealists who stubbornly love Israel and feel a need to support it, no matter what. These are the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the original cavalry soldiers. Men and women, they fly Australian flags and sing "Hallelujah!" They are the cheerleaders. And others are poised to reenact the battle, precisely at 3 P.M., wearing khaki and cowboy hats replete with feathers, and all the medals from all the wars in which they - and their fathers and grandfathers - took part. The horses have come from a ranch in the Golan Heights, noble, brown ones, some with gray spots.

Alas, the reality stands their intentions upside down: Since Grad missiles are being fired from the Gaza Strip, Australian government officials decided that this desolate site, Be'er Sheva, is dangerous. Australia's embassy declined any role in the celebrations, and local officials said: "If there are no dignitaries, no diplomats, why should we make an effort?"

This is because the state that emerged out of that selfsame, generous Balfour Declaration 95 years ago has been transformed into an incomparably ungrateful, narrow-minded entity.

No surrender

My friend Boaz Yuval, the guide for one of the Australian groups, called me over. I saw that the municipality did not find cause to supply even one microphone to the memorial ceremony, at the British cemetery in Be'er Sheva. Barry Rodgers, the estimable commander of the cavalry brigade, was forced to shout his remarks and overcome the noise caused by vehicles in the vicinity. He read a letter of commiseration written by one of the brigade's commanders to the parents of a soldier killed in the battle. Mournful notes sounded faintly out of a home-cassette player.

One solitary figure represented Israel: Avi Navon, a member of Kibbutz Lahav, who chairs Israel's World War I heritage society. He related that when veterans of the cavalry brigade and accompanying Australian groups heard the ceremonies had been canceled, they unanimously decided to remain, and not surrender to terror. This brought thunderous applause.

Not far from the British cemetery stands a monument to Turkish soldiers who fell in the battle. A Turkish flag, with its crescent and star, flies nearby and there is a bust of Ataturk, with one of his statements inscribed at its base: "Peace at home, peace in the world."

Veterans of the cavalry brigade performed a special tribute across from the memorial. "They were good, courageous soldiers. They were human beings who left families behind," remarked Rodgers - referring to the enemy soldiers. The honor guard made its salute, not knowing that in this country, it is not customary to pay respect to your enemies - not even after their deaths. The memorial was vandalized by Israeli hooligans shortly after the Mavi Marmama-Gaza flotilla affair in May 2010 and the impairment of relations with Turkey; crude graffiti was spray-painted on the monument.

Hail to a country drenched in hatred, a country where being a gentleman has become synonymous with being a sucker. Wandering aimlessly on the liberated streets of the city are the biological and spiritual heirs of the soldiers of those bygone days; the heirs feel no sense of belonging. The only courteous host in this alienated city of patriarchs is Howard Bass, a pastor from the Messianic Yeshua's Inheritance church. He is the one who perpetuates the tradition of hosting guests, which started with our patriarch, Abraham.

This Messianic congregation's facility lacks any identifiable markings, perhaps out of fear of Jewish religious extremists, and is located in a venerable Ottoman structure on the edge of the old city. The church library's shelves hold copies of the New Testament in various languages, including Yiddish. I asked where the prayer hall and altar are located. Bass explained that his congregation does not routinely conduct mass. Simplicity reigns. There are some tuna and lettuce sandwiches, frankfurters and cheesecake.

It is 2 P.M. and, happily, no Grad missile has fallen. In other words, there is nothing to stop a reenactment of the charge on the city, played out in front of an audience gathered in a shaded area near the Beit Eshel lookout point, created by the Jewish National Fund.

Ninety-five years ago, the Australian cavalry brigade surprised the Turks when it assaulted them from a desert hill, a site studded today with malls and industrial facilities. Perhaps this fact highlights the contrast: Here is a row of horses and their riders, galloping ahead against the backdrop of temples of consumerism.

Much as they love us, the cavalrymen stand along a fence decorated with JNF flags to receive medals for themselves, and be photographed.

These unflappable Australian Don Quixotes. You've come as gentlemen to a vulgar land. Ninety-five years later, you still haven't grasped that this place is irreparable?

The reenactment this week of the Battle of Be’er Sheva.Credit: Reuters

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