At security, the official asked me why I was coming to the reenactment of the Charge of the Australian Mounted Divisions in a battle where soldiers from New Zealand and Australia gave up their lives, a battle which influenced the Middle East, as we know it today. I wanted to say something prosaic, opened my mouth to begin my speech, and then looked at the security guard again and said simply, “I was born in Australia.” Without hesitation, he waved me through.
As I made my way into the stadium, built to accommodate thousands of eager spectators, including visitors from Australia, Australian Israelis and Be’er Sheva residents, a friend said, “Yes, we’re here coz we are Australians and this is our history and our ancestors.”
Throughout my childhood in Australia, we would pause at 11 a.m. on the 11th of November to show our respect for the brave soldiers who fought and gave up their lives. While this always seemed so removed from our history and ancestors’ experience, here in Israel, in Be’er Sheva, it became very real.
My ancestors, actually my grandparents, also fought in World War I. They fought to protect the Austro-German Empire. They were on the other side of the battle then. My maternal grandfather was an officer in the Austrian army and my paternal grandfather, who fought for the Germans, was captured by the British and earned an Iron Cross, and 24 years later was provided with free, one-way transportation to Treblinka. So I grew up loyal to Australia, the land that not only offered my family refuge, but the land that offered opportunities for anyone willing to “have a go.”
On the same day that the Australian soldiers who were so far from home were fighting in Be’er Sheva to defeat the Ottoman Empire, the Balfour Declaration was written in London. A clear connection exists between the victory in Be’er Sheva and the creation of the State of Israel, 31 years later. Be’er Sheva is the historical nexus that explains my dual loyalty to Australia, my birthland and to Israel, my homeland.
And we were taken back 100 years — as dusk drew near, the re-enactment took place at same hour, that the battle took place, the bugle sounded and 100 horse riders, some of them descendants of the original fighters, crested the hill, carrying the flags of the ANZACs, Australia, New Zealand and Israel.
And at the same moment I suddenly saw 600 men on horses, I heard the battle cries, the desperation and the exhilaration as those 600 men charged into Be’er Sheva, defeating the Ottoman Army and saving the precious wells. We, in the future, looked back into the past and understood the significance of the battle, but could those in the past have imagined the future? As they charged on that day, October 31, 1917, could they have seen the shadows of 100 men on horses, a century later, carrying flags that looked both familiar and different, and the thousands of people, many of them citizens of a state that had yet to be created, watching and cheering. It seemed strange but somehow it also seemed right. As they charged, they saw the shadows and understood that this battle was of crucial significance.
Sitting in the stands, I saw one more thing, in the fading light. I saw the images of my grandparents, wearing the uniforms of the other side, of the Austro-German armies and I saw how, in a moment of clarity, they saw that their grandchildren, would one day be in the stands in Be’er Sheva and their great-grandchildren would be living in, and defending a Jewish state. As the light was fading, I looked into the shadows so I too could see the future. However, by then the light was gone and the shadows had completely faded.