AS Beersheba’s military cemetery fell silent, Wayne Swan was emotional. Coming from an Anzac family, he was heartened to see his heritage honoured so far from home.
“It was very moving,” the former treasurer told The AJN by a wreath-covered cenotaph, just after the last notes of the national anthems completed the annual Battle of Beersheba commemoration. “My grandfather fought in World War I and to be here, paying tribute to those who fought is a great honour.”
David Swan, part of Monash’s 3rd Division, served in Europe not the Middle East. But his grandson said that he felt the Beersheba service paid tribute to the same era in history, and felt a special connection to the event.
The service, with its catafalque party, readings and speeches, takes place annually on the Battle of Beersheba anniversary, but this year was unusual as a high-profile delegation of former Australian ministers was present.
Swan was with John Howard, Alexander Downer, Brendan Nelson and Stephen Conroy, co-hosted by the Zionist Federation of Australia and the Israeli Embassy in Australia. Nelson told The AJN that it was a “privilege” to attend, commenting: “Much of our national story was created here.”
Normally, the Australian ambassador to Israel gives the main address, but this year it was Howard. He said that the outcome of military conflict can be unpredictable, but the Battle of Beersheba has an “enduring outcome beneficial to this part of the world”.
While honouring Anzacs, Howard lauded Israel’s military. “I pay particular respect, if I may, here on the soil of Israel, to the heroism and determination of the members of the Israel Defence Forces who have distinguished themselves in such an exemplary manner.”
Local mayor Ruvik Danilovich spoke about his city’s gratitude to the Anzacs, for paving the way to the State of Israel and the development of Beersheba. “Every time I pass through this holy place my heart skips a beat,” he said.
Danilovich asked, “What would the world look like if the Anzac forces hadn’t managed their great achievement?”
The audience included members of the general public, Australian immigrants to Israel, and diplomats from several countries. Australian gap year students were out in force, and Ruth Karotkin, a Habonim Dror member from Perth, said that it felt “meaningful” to remember history where it happened.
A delegation from the Australian branch of Bridges for Peace, a Christian Zionist group, was there, led by Matthew Chivers. “It brings me to tears to remember the sacrifice,” he said. “For us, it’s not just about the victory at Beersheba, but what it led to in terms of Israel.”
Other visitors from abroad included Tongan New Zealander John Pulu. He stood in traditional dress, pointing at the graves, and said: “It is special being surrounded by these stones and remembering this powerful story.”