The Commonwealth Beer Sheva War Cemetery is located in the middle of suburban Beer Sheva. The neat lines of white gravestones set in the beautifully manicured cemetery are overlooked by tall modern apartment blocks. Here the dead meet the living, the contemporary collides with memory.
It’s a small cemetery by the standards of Commonwealth War Cemeteries in Europe, but no less poignant in its pathos. And it holds a special place in the Australian heart in both its memory and its contemporary resonance.
A few weeks ago I visited the cemetery again, this time with a group of Christian clergy as part of an AIJAC trip. We first went to the ANZAC Memorial Centre, built just a few years ago by the Australian and Israeli governments (and with JNF Australian support). It was dedicated in 2017 as part of the 100th anniversary of the conquest of Beer Sheva by the ANZACs. It’s an elegantly simple building telling the story of the soldiers in an experiential way. You enter the world of the Australian horsemen from the moment of their enlistment across Australia until their conquest of the desert town. You’re introduced to some of these remarkable men in the display area and then the audio visual presentation takes you into the fictionalised account of their recruitment, training and ultimately the battle itself. The movie is riveting but on this occasion the guide who took us to through the static display area was just as enthralling. A young Canadian who has just made aliya guided us step by step through the arduous journey across the desert, the lack of water, the exhausted men and their loyal horses brought from Australia. He introduced us to the inspired leadership of General Allenby and his plan to break the well -fortified Turkish defences by the cavalrymen storming from the unexpected eastern side of the city.
After the presentation and screening of the movie we stepped out of a side door onto a wide sweeping balcony. The view from the balcony was of the cemetery and its long lines of lonely graves. It’s a confronting moment, sobering in its reminder of the cost of war, the truncated lives of so many young men, the real individuals we had just been introduced to. The words of the Psalmist came to mind: God counts the stars, He names each and every one…In this spirit, our guide invited us to take a file with us of just one soldier and to locate his grave as we stepped down to the burial site. I randomly selected one -it turned out to be a New Zealander William Lenwood who was born just down the road from where I had lived with my family in Auckland. Wounded in Gallipoli in 1915 he had been sent back to NZ and once recovered he was posted to Egypt as part of its Mounted Rifles Brigade in 1917. He was promoted to Lieutenant and killed in action at Tel El Saba in Palestine initially “buried 317 degrees from Hill 1180 near the edge of the Wadi” according to Chaplain J.N Wilson. Perhaps he was part of Allenby’s wider attack plan for Beer Sheva itself. He was 38 years old and left a wife and parents in Auckland. Their sad tribute notices are recorded in the local newspaper.
As I stood at his graveside, I was overwhelmed by the countless lives lost in this and subsequent wars and the countless stories lost forever. I felt a Kiwi connection to this young man, an Aussie connection to this place engraved in our national consciousness, a Jewish tie to this city, which was the landscape of Avraham and his family. It was here that Abraham dug a well, planted an Eshel tree , made a peace treaty with Avimelech. It was here he proclaimed the name of God, God of the Universe ( Genesis 21,30-32).Later Isaac reopened the well and you can apparently find it near the Old city of Beersheba and Nahal Beersheba on the road to Eilat.
I find something comforting and compelling in Avraham calling out the global name of God in this place where Australia and New Zealand meet both the ancient and modern Beer Sheva. The capture of this t town by the British would open the gateway to Jerusalem and ultimately to the creation of the State of Israel.
As Senior Rabbi to the ADF there’s a resonance to Beer Sheva and I was happy to bring a commemorative medallion of the Centenary of Beersheba and the charge of the 4th Light Horse Brigade to present to the Chief of the Australian Defence Force, General Angus Campbell at a recent meeting.
Finally, my eye caught an inscription on a plaque on the balcony. It is dedicated to the one remaining Jewish servicemen buried here, Captain James Henry aka Jacob Van den Bergh. It reads: So far from home yet so near to those that love him. His Dutch family had moved to England where he was born and enlisted in the British Army. By one of those peculiarly serendipitous quirks his Yahrtzeit was my on the very day of the centenary of the charge of the Light Horse Brigade -and our Australian Chaplain Rabbi Dovid Gutnick was there and highlighted this extraordinary coincidence or sleight of God’s hand.
And in this place so far from home I felt the love of so many for these buried here. And I felt the compassion of Avraham bubbling out of his ancient well to bring together so many different hearts in so many different places.