Yom Ha-Zikaron (Remembrance Day) can leave Olim Chadashim feeling a little disconnected.
While the rest of the country mourns, those of us who do not know anyone personally that has fallen in Israel’s wars stand and listen to the siren, feeling a mix of relief that we haven’t known the pain that all too many Israelis know, but unsure how we should remember those who sacrificed their lives to give us the Jewish homeland.
This year, as the military cemeteries such as Har Herzl filled with Israelis visiting the graves of their friends, family, or comrades, I found myself searching for a way to mark the solemn day. I headed to the British War Cemetery on Mount Scopus. I often walk past this spot on my way to the Hebrew University campus and the large number of gravestones that fill the green plot with one of the best panoramic views of Jerusalem has often sparked my curiosity.
Inside, you can find British, Irish, South African, Australian, New Zealand, British West Indies, Indian, German, and Turkish troops who died in the First World War.
It may sound like an odd place to go for a day dedicated to Israeli soldiers who fell in the wars of Israel.
However, if you enter the imposing wooden gates and walk through the sea of crosses, you can reach plot N on the left side of the cemetery.
Here twenty-three graves are not marked with crosses, but Stars of David.
I’ve often thought of these young Jewish men who fell and were buried here years before Israel would be established. We know many Jewish soldiers fought and perished on all sides of the horrible and tragic conflict that was the First World War. The tragedy of Jewish soldiers who fought bravely to defend Germany and Austria, only to perish in the Shoah a few decades later is often discussed.
When thinking of the bitter futility of that war, I feel the words from the song “The Green Fields of France” by the Dropkick Murphys describe it best.
In it, the vocalist laments to the young soldier (Willie McBride) whose grave he sat beside.
“And I can’t help but wonder, oh Willie McBride
Do all those who lie here know why they died?
Did you really believe them when they told you the cause?
Did you really believe that this war would end wars?
Well, the suffering, the sorrow, the glory, the shame
The killing and dying it was all done in vain
Oh, Willie McBride, it all happened again
And again, and again, and again, and again….”
Questioning the reasons for war is all too common from the American perspective. As we have sent our troops abroad to fight, those at home, faced with the complexity and often unclear nature of global politics and strategy, often asked why our soldiers are dying in the trenches of France, the jungles and rice patties of Vietnam, the mountains of Afghanistan or the deserts of Iraq.
The question of “why we fight” is much clearer to Israelis. The IDF’s mission is so clear that it is in the name — The Army for the Defense of Israel. The troops who have given their lives did not do so on a distant battlefield, but often on the soil of their own country, or just across her borders.
We mourn the dead of the IDF, but we know what they died for.
They fought and died for “Artzeinu,” (our land). Their cause was to enable and preserve the dream described in the national anthem, “to be a free people in our land.” They fought not only for their comrades but for all of Am Israel.
But what of these twenty-three Jewish soldiers who wore the British uniform and fell in the Great War? Why did they fight and die? Were they part of the tragic generation of Europe, damned to perish in a conflict to preserve empires that would soon collapse and would devastate Europe to the degree that the events of the Second World War were made inevitable?
Or did they die for a different reason?
What cause did they serve? While many Zionists advocated Jewish neutrality or loyalty to one’s homeland, Chaim Weitzman, believing that supporting the British in the war could result in the capture of Palestine from the Ottomans and result in a more favorable government for Zionist aspirations.
Other Zionists such as Zeev Jabotinsky shared this view and took actions to bring it to past. His efforts to recruit Jews to fight for the British led to the formation of the “Jewish Legion,” battalions of Jewish volunteers who would serve in the Royal Fusiliers and take part in the British push from Egypt to capture the Holy Land.
The men of the Jewish Legion came from Great Britain, as well as Russia, the Yishuv in Palestine, and North America. Ninety of these men lost their lives in the war and a number of them rest on Mount Scopus.
They came from London, Glasgow, Cleveland, and from eastern Europe, inspired by the early Zionist dream. One, Pinchas Ben-Aryeh wrote to his mother in London saying: “Perhaps this will give you great pleasure to know that I was one of the first English Jewish soldiers to enter the City [Jerusalem].”
Pinchas fell to a Turkish bullet nine months later in the Jordan Valley. He was twenty-three years old.
I feel that these men would be able to answer the question of why they died in World War One. Unlike their comrades in the British Army, they did not die in a strange and foreign land, far from home. They died in ארצנו (our land), and they lie here, some of the very first casualties in the struggle to reestablishing the Jewish home that continues to this day.
When I arrived at the cemetery today, I was glad to see the graves of these men had been adorned with the Israeli flag, a flag that they did not live to witness fly about the land that they fought and died for. Yet, I had the cemetery completely to myself. Since I did not have anyone that I personally knew to remember, and no one is still living to remember and mourn these men who feel over 100 years ago, I was honored to sit in the cemetery next to these twenty-three graves and look out over the skyline of Jerusalem.
I’m not sure how long I sat there. It just did not feel right for me to leave these men alone on this day that we remember those who gave their lives for Israel. The prayer for Israel calls it the “first flowering of our redemption,” and it was the blood of these men of the Jewish Legion that watered the root of what we celebrate today.
Private Alfred Ramus
Private J. Klugman
Private L. Geffen
Private R. Ashberry
Private M. Jubinsky
Private J. J. Lumer
Private M. Zimmerman
Private C. Seramber
Private M. Galinsky
Private S. Abrahamson
Private M. Kassowitch
Private J. Levy
Private Harry Canter
Private F. Rosenberg
Private A. Mittelman
Private H. Galinsky
Private S. Greyman
Private Robert Marks (Pinchas Ben-Aryeh)
Gunner Max Mendelssohn
Lance Corporal M. I. Trachtenberg
First Sergeant Major P. Tennens
Second Lieutenant H. L. A. Keyzor
Lieutenant Bernard Wolffe