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Jerusalem Post - 1st May 2003

By : Mark Schulman

The arrival of the ANZACs in World War I was the beginning of Israel's Aussie connection 

Israeli backpackers and tourists may be making their presence known Down Under, but there are growing signs that Australian culture is boomeranging back into Israeli society. 

Take for instance Australian television soap operas such as Home & Away and Neighbors (for those who care - the soap that launched the career of international pop star Kylie Minogue), which are giving their South American competitors a run for their money on Israeli prime time. Tim Tams, the quintessential Australian cookie, are now kosher and available at local supermarkets. And the country's most recognizable mascots, the kangaroo and koala, have taken up permanentresidence at a park for Australian wildlife near Beit She'an. The list goes on. 

But this Aussie invasion isn't a recent phenomenon. It actually started well before the State of Israel was established, with the arrival of the ANZACS. 

Not Aztecs - the ancient Mesoamerican tribe known for their solar calendar and human sacrifices, but ANZACS - the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps that traveled from the ends of the earth to help Allied forces take on the Ottoman Empire in World War I. 

They also came back to this region to fight in World War II, and are fondly remembered for their victory at El Alamein in Egypt, where they stopped the German thrust toward Jerusalem in 1942. The front  page of The Palestine Post (forerunner of The Jerusalem Post) on February 13, 1940 summed up their return in a simple headline that read - "ANZACS 
BACK AGAIN." Even today, Australians continue to play a role in this region, serving as UN peacekeepers in Sinai and Lebanon. There are also 2,000 Australian troops with the coalition in Iraq. 

ANZACS initially became synonymous with the Gallipoli campaign in Turkey in 1915 (an event popularized in the 1981 award-winning Mel Gibson film entitled Gallipoli), in which more than 8,000 Australian and New Zealand soldiers died fighting the Turks. Jewish soldiers also lost their lives at Gallipoli, including some from the Zion Mule Corps - the all-Jewish transport unit set up under the auspices of the British army by Joseph Trumpeldor in March 1915. 

Another regiment, the Jewish Legion - the first Jewish regiment to see action in Eretz Yisrael - was created by Vladimir Jabotinsky in August 1917, and included the likes of David Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Ben-Zvi (Israel's second president). 

But it was in campaigns after Gallipoli, in Turkish Palestine and on the Western front (in France the entire corps was commanded by an Australian Jewish officer, Lieut. General Sir John Monash), that the ANZACS really started making a name for themselves. From defending the Suez Canal to their victorious charge of the Light Horse at Beersheba the  ANZACS were there. In many ways, they still are. 

"The Holy Land is full of ANZAC war sites and memorials, many forgotten or merely overshadowed by the focus on Gallipoli," said Kelvin Crombie, an Australian historian who has specialized in ANZAC study tours in Israel since 1988. "The tours I give connect Australians and New Zealanders to their roots by highlighting the contributions our soldiers made here in both World Wars," he added. 

Crombie's ANZAC tour starts from the Jaffa Gate in the Old City - the very gate where British General Edmund Allenby made his historic entrance on foot December 11, 1917 and heads south to the Negev to pick up the trail of the infamous Australian Light Horse brigade, which took part in one of the more daring and celebrated battles of the Middle East  campaign, the Battle of Beersheba. 

Testimony to the ANZAC's ultimate contribution in liberating the area from the Ottoman Empire is evident by the thousands of Australian and New Zealand soldiers, as well as British, South African, Welsh, and soldiers from other Commonwealth nations, who are buried in war cemeteries throughout Israel, including Ramla, Beersheba, Jerusalem, and Haifa. There are also two prominent war cemeteries in Gaza - one in Dir El-Balah and the other in Gaza City. 

According to the Australian War Museum in Canberra, out of 300,000 Australian soldiers who enlisted, over 60,000 died in World War I. Of that number, some 1,500 Aussies, as well as 500 New Zealanders, died in the Palestine campaign. 

"Gaza was the site of some of the heaviest fighting during the First World War, with many ANZACS losing their lives, particularly in the battles that raged here in March and April 1917," Crombie said. 

It is for this reason that a permanent ANZAC war memorial was built at Kibbutz Be'eri in the northwest Negev, just meters from the Gaza Strip.
The memorial is set appropriately in a eucalyptus forest (the eucalyptus is Australia's most distinctive and widespread tree), which after thespring rains is dotted coincidentally with wild red poppies (perog inHebrew); the official Anzac Day flower of remembrance. 

But despite the bucolic setting, this part of the country is still rife with conflict. It was only last December that the army stopped three Palestinian terrorists from trying to infiltrate the kibbutz with grenades and other weapons. 

"I don't spend as much time here as I used to when giving lectures," said Crombie, who was at the ANZAC Memorial with a group the day the incident occurred. "It's getting a bit too dangerous." So, after a quick stop at Be'eri the tour continues inland toward safer ground at Levi Eshkol National Park. Stretching along the banks of Wadi Besor some 30 km. west of Beersheba, the park is an oasis of palm trees and natural springs. For the same reason that it is today a popular weekend picnic site, not to mention having one of the largest public swimming pools in the country, it also served as a staging area for ANZAC and British horsemen and troops before their advance on Beersheba. 

Picking up the same route the soldiers took through the Besor Valley - passing remnants of a railway bridge built by ANZAC engineers and ancient wells used by the Light Horse brigades - the tour picks up Route 25 West into downtown Beersheba. 

"This highway is pretty much the exact route the Australian Mounted Division took when it attacked the city," Crombie said. "And just overthere," he said, pointing out the window to the right, "is where the Kiwis [New Zealanders] captured Tel Sheva - the ancient site associated with the patriarch Abraham - in a 'spirited' bayonet attack." On October 31, 1917, a combined British and ANZAC force of some 58,500 conquered Beersheba in a day of heavy fighting. 

"Beersheba had to be captured with its water wells intact before nightfall," Crombie explained before parking in front of the visitor center that allegedly houses the city's original wells "Otherwise, they would have lost the element of surprise and the water resources they desperately needed." 

Today, Beersheba is a rapidly growing city with a population of 200,000. But nestled near the ever-expanding commercial center stands a powerful reminder of the city's past - the well-preserved Beersheba Commonwealth war cemetery. This is the final resting place of some 1,250 soldiers, many of them Australian, who died in the Battle of Beersheba and the outlying area. 

It was this victory, and others that followed, that ultimately led to the Allies winning the war against the Turks. 

"I believe the contributions ANZACS made at Beersheba and elsewhere played a significant role in the restoration of the Jewish homeland," Crombie said after paying his respects at the cemetery. "It is no coincidence that Beersheba was captured the very day the British War Cabinet agreed to the Balfour Declaration." 

Prophetic words coming from a man who grew up in the "bush"  (Australian English for the rural countryside) on a sheep farm in Western Australia; about the furthest one can be from Israel, with maybe the exception of Antarctica. 

"My initial interest in ANZACS and Israel came when I was young,"  Crombie said in a later interview from his office at Christ Church's Heritage Center in Jerusalem's Old City (established in 1849, Christ Church is the oldest Protestant church in the Middle East). "It was a combination of having two uncles serving in the Middle East during World
War II, reading books on the war and the Holocaust, my friendship with an Israeli family that lived down the road from us for several years, and the impact of Israel's miraculous victory in the Six-Day War." 

Since coming to Israel in 1979, Crombie has spent years pursuing the ANZAC-Israel connection by writing a comprehensive book on the subject, and through the unique private tours he gives. 

"I try to honor the legacy of the ANZACS in the Holy Land as much as I can," he said. 

Every year on April 25, millions of Australians and New Zealanders commemorate Anzac Day. Similar to Israel's Yom Ha'Zikaron, it is a national memorial day to honor the country's fallen soldiers, and is often marked by dawn services and wreath-laying ceremonies. In Israel, Anzac Day commemorations traditionally take place at the Commonwealth War cemetery at Mt. Scopus in Jerusalem. However, last year the event was cancelled due to security concerns. According to the Australian Embassy in Tel Aviv, this could very well be the case this year also. As of March 20, the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has issued a warning against travel to Israel. 

Despite the possibility of cancelling the official Anzac Day memorial service this year, the soldiers who fought and died here will still be remembered, whether in private ceremonies, group prayers, or by taking interested tourists into the field to see for themselves how important a role the ANZACS played in the establishment of Israel. 

For ANZAC tours, contact Kelvin Crombie at

() The Jerusalem Post

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