Bending the truth at Beersheba

The Beersheba ceremony looked spectacular, but it got the history seriously wrong.

The Israeli flag flies alongside those of Australia and New Zealand in the re-enacted advance on Beersheba on 31 October. PHOTO Abir Sultan, European Pressphoto Agency

The Israeli flag flies alongside those of Australia and New Zealand in the re-enacted advance on Beersheba on 31 October. PHOTO Abir Sultan, European Pressphoto Agency

Just quietly, I can’t wait for all the World War I centenaries to fade into the past.

As a kid I remember the Last Post as a plaintive lament heard on one or two days of the year. Along with solemn speeches about blood and sacrifice, we now seem to be hearing the sound of the bugle every second day. It no longer seems so plaintive.

It’s no bad thing to remember people who fought and sometimes died in war, but too much repetition lessens the impact, and too often the truths of history get lost in the bombast.

Take last week’s event at Beersheba in southern Israel, attended by Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and our own Malcolm Turnbull.

In his official speech, after a dark warning to Palestinian infiltrators – “do not test the will of the state of Israel or the army of Israel” – Netanyahu made some interesting historical connections.

After Jewish fighters helped Anzac forces at Galipoli, he said, there was “the Jewish Legion that helped liberate Palestine here, in this campaign that we mark today… a partnership that has historic significance today.”

He went on to praise the “brave Anzac soldiers [who] liberated Beersheba for the sons and daughters of Abraham and opened the gateway for the Jewish people to re-enter the stage of history.”

Turnbull told a similar story. The Anzac mounted charge, he said, “did not create the state of Israel, but enabled its creation. Had the Ottoman rule in Palestine and Syria not been overthrown by the Australians and the New Zealanders, the Balfour Declaration would have been empty words.”

They’re saying that Beersheba’s 1917 capture “liberated” the city from Turkish rule and gave weight to the statement a few days later by British foreign secretary Arthur Balfour that there should be “a national home for the Jewish people”, and this led in turn to the state of Israel.

It’s a neat idea, but it doesn’t stack up. Netanyahu’s claim about the Jewish Legion, a group of battalions within the British army, was simply not true. It had no part in the battle for Beersheba; it was still being formed in the UK at the time and did not enter active service until 1918.

Then there’s the inconvenient matter of the Arab Revolt. From early 1917 until the war’s end in November 1918 an English army captain named T.E. Lawrence worked with Arab regulars and insurgents, both behind Turkish lines and in frontal assaults against the Turks.

The Arab uprising began nearly a year before Beersheba with the support of Allied Middle East commander Edmund Allenby, and would have been well-known to the Anzac troops. Given that, it was a shame an Arab Palestinian representative didn’t take part in the re-enactment.

In 1917 Beersheba was not and never had been a Jewish town. In an arid region with a reliable supply of underground water, it was a Bedouin watering hole until the Ottomans, seeing its strategic value, built a town there in the late 1890s.

For nearly 50 years, mostly under British rule, it remained essentially a Bedouin Arab town with a handful of Jewish residents. Its Arab character was recognised in 1947 by the United Nations, which included the city within the proposed Arab state of Palestine.

Less than a year later, Beersheba was captured by the army of a newly-declared state of Israel, which expelled its Arab residents and over succeeding years replaced them with Jewish immigrants, largely from Russia.

Beersheba today is a fast-growing high-tech hub about the size of Hobart, and almost fully Jewish. That could explain the presence of the Star of David flag in the re-enacted horseback advance on the city. It is to be hoped the Australian War Memorial raised objections to that unhistorical idea.

Today Israel is an established, sovereign nation with an indisputable right to exist. But its foundation, like Australia’s and any other country’s, is a legitimate historical question.

In 1917 the idea of an Israeli homeland was not common currency, limited mostly to diplomacy – a British strategic tool to counter French influence – and Zionist Jews wanting a state of their own.

Israel was born out of decades of self-interested meddling in the Middle East by various foreign powers, notably Britain and France, topped off by feelings of guilt over the Nazi Holocaust.

The Anzac troops attacking Beersheba may have seen both Arabs and Jews as allies against the Ottomans – they knew about the Arab Revolt and possibly about the raising of the Jewish Legion – but essentially they fought the Turks in the name of the British Empire.

It’s not plausible that the Anzacs would have seen themselves as aiding a Jewish cause, let alone preparing the ground for the Balfour Declaration. In implying otherwise, both Netanyahu and Turnbull overstepped the mark.

Netanyahu is a very focused man working in the righteous cause of the Jewish nation – a country which he believes to be above reproach. His view of Beersheba’s history is vividly coloured by the struggles of Jews to build and maintain their own state.

As a guest of Israel, Malcolm Turnbull was never going to query his friend Bibi’s version of history. But he should not himself have echoed those same historically flawed sentiments.

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