On Memorial Day last year in Israel, at the height of the first coronavirus lockdown, when even immediate family members were not allowed to visit their loved ones’ graves, the IDF sent an honor guard to every military burial ground. As a result, for the first time in over a century, since fallen Jewish soldiers serving in the British army were buried in Palestine during the First World War, they were honored by an army that hadn’t even existed in their lifetimes.
As the sirens sounded over Jerusalem, two IDF lieutenant-colonels saluted the graves of 24 Jewish soldiers buried in the British War Cemetery on Mount Scopus. The cemetery is run by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which is funded by the British government in partnership with the governments of Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand and South Africa, whose soldiers fought alongside Britain in the war, and is responsible for 23,000 burial sites around the world. The official Memorial Day in these cemeteries is the one observed every year by Britain and the Commonwealth on the second Sunday of November. For Jewish soldiers buried in British cemeteries in Israel, there are two memorial days.
This year, with the reopening of Israel’s military cemeteries on Memorial Day, there was no IDF honor guard on Mount Scopus. In their stead, a small group of civilians gathered by the graves of the Jewish soldiers. They were volunteers from the Amana department of the settler Yesha Council who started visiting these graves voluntarily eight years ago. “I heard that there were graves that no one visits on Memorial Day,” says Moshe Yogev, who first came up with the idea. “I tried to get one of the Hesder yeshivas or the military rabbinate to send soldiers here but that didn’t happen so we started to do it ourselves. Sometimes we get a minyan so we can say Kaddish. Last year, despite the lockdown, I came here on my own, so there would be someone to say El Male Rachamim.”
This year six people came; men and women recited verses from Tehilim and sang the national anthem. When they got to the words “an eye still gazes toward Zion,” Yogev turned away from the graves, towards the Temple Mount, beneath Mount Scopus. There probably isn’t any cemetery that can compete with the vista of Jerusalem seen from one of the highest northern points in the city. 2,515 British and Commonwealth soldiers are buried there, who fell on both sides of the Jordan River in the final stages of the war, and in its aftermath. It was inaugurated in 1927 by General Edmund Allenby who had commanded the forces in the Middle East and captured Jerusalem.
While there is no sign dividing the graves of the Jewish soldiers from the others, with the exception of the Stars of David on their tombstones, nearly all of them are concentrated in the north-western corner, at the ends of four long rows.
They all died in 1918 and we know little of those who served in “non-Jewish” units of the British army, like Gunner Max Mendelssohn of the Royal Horse Artillery who died at the age of 21, or Second Lieutenant H.L.A. Keyzor, of the South Wales Borderers who was 20 when he fell and according to the personal inscription at the foot of his grave, was an only son of Jack and Doddie.
A lot more is known of the fifteen Jewish soldiers buried there from the three battalions of the Royal Fusiliers who were together unofficially known as the Jewish Legion, drafted at the behest of Zeev Jabotinsky and Joseph Trumpeldor and other Zionist leaders towards the end of the war. Their personal stories were recorded by the Jabotinsky Institute and later collected in a special volume of the Defense Ministry’s Yizkor book, devoted to those who had fought and fallen before Israel’s founding.
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From the online Yizkor archive, fifteen of the soldiers buried on Mount Scopus were Jewish legionnaires and it seems that only four of them died in battle with the Turkish army, at a battle on the Jordan crossing two months before the war ended. Nine others died from malaria in a march back from Jordan in which they were guarding Turkish prisoners of war. The last Jewish legionnaire to be buried on Mount Scopus was Private D. Seldin, a volunteer from Chicago who drowned in the Sea of Galilee one day when he was off-duty, four months after the war ended.
The military cemeteries built in British Palestine, in Haifa, Be'er Sheva, Ramle and near Gaza, as well as on Mount Scopus, were the inspiration for the design of Israel’s military cemeteries after the War of Independence, with rows of uniform tombstones amid lush greenery and flowers. Privates and generals were to have identical graves, with only their names, ranks, service numbers and age at the time of death. The British also add the name and badge of the unit, while the IDF adds the date and place of birth.
Ensuring that each and every soldier received a proper individual burial was a relatively new innovation of the First World War. Before that, most armies buried their dead in mass-graves (The Americans buried some of the Civil War dead in individual graves).
Not only the burial, but other traditions of Israel’s Memorial Day were taken from the British. The two-minute siren at 11 A.M. is based on Britain’s Remembrance Day tradition (though in Britain it’s normally observed with two minutes of silence and the ringing of muffled church bells). The time was chosen to commemorate the ceasefire that ended the First World War, at eleven o’clock on the morning of November 11, 1918, when the guns finally fell silent on the battlefields of Europe. Some Israelis also wear the Red Everlasting plant, known in Hebrew as “blood of the Maccabees” in imitation of the red poppy worn in Britain and other Commonwealth countries each November.
There are 12,197 British and commonwealth soldiers buried in cemeteries across Israel and the Palestinian Territories. The graves of Jewish soldiers in the Dir al-Balah cemetery is the only place in the Gaza Strip where stars of David are treated with respect (though there have been some instances of vandalism).
Twenty years ago, the IDF began an annual tradition of planting a small Israeli flag on every soldier’s grave before Memorial Day (in imitation of an American tradition that began in the 1980s), along with a candle and a bouquet of flowers. These were also placed on all the graves of Jewish soldiers in the British cemeteries.
This year, for some unknown reason, they were only placed on the graves of the Jewish legionnaires, recognized as “official fallen” fighters for the rebirth of Israel, while the adjacent graves of Jewish soldiers from “non-Jewish” units remained empty.