Australia's complicated contribution to the State of Israel

Anticipating a visit to Israel by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull for centenary commemorations of the charge of the Light Horse at Beersheba on October 31, the Times of Israel has reproduced a re-enactment photograph showing horsemen bearing the Australian and Israeli flags side-by-side.

Quite apart from anything else the image is historically inaccurate since no such Israeli flag existed in 1917, nor the State of Israel itself. That would come 31 years later.

Ben Chifley said it "was not a matter of choosing between the bad and the good, but of choosing the least of a number of evils". Photo: National Archives of Australia

Ben Chifley said it "was not a matter of choosing between the bad and the good, but of choosing the least of a number of evils". Photo: National Archives of Australia

Why such an ahistorical embellishment of a sacred event in Australian military history should be necessary is a matter for the organisers, but it is difficult to escape a conclusion politics is involved at some level.

I'm with former deputy prime minister Tim Fischer when he says: "Historical recreations of the charge of the Light Horse at Beersheba are inaccurate if either the flag of Israel or the flag of the Palestinian Authority is incorporated."

So, the question becomes: how should we process the feats of the Light Horse on the centenary of what has been described as "history's last great cavalry charge"?

More to the point how should we regard Australia's role in the defeat of the Ottoman Turks and the creation of the modern Middle East, including the establishment of the State of Israel?

As we survey the wreckage of British and French colonial attempts post-World War I to redraw a Middle Eastern map followed in 1947 by the United Nations partitioning of Palestine what is apparent is that outside meddling has exacerbated – rather than salved – age-old conflicts.

First, to Beersheba and its historic legacy.

What is unarguable is that defeat of the Ottomans in desert battles in Egypt, Palestine and Syria enabled a reconfiguring of the Middle East, and the birth of Israel.

Under the command of Lieutenant General Harry Chauve, the Light Horse performed, for the most part, heroically. This is a story well told in Roland Perry's book The Australian Light Horse.

In his concluding chapter Perry writes of "a special relationship between Australia and the burgeoning Jewish state" that has its antecedents at Beersheba.

This is true, up to a point. It remains a stretch, however, to suggest that Beersheba was a midwife to Israel's birth.

In correspondence, Melbourne University academic Richard Chauvel, Harry Chauvel's grandson, put the issue quite well when he writes: "Competing international and local interests cannot be simplified into a causal relationship between the Charge and the State of Israel, however attractive the symbolism of chronological coincidence might be."

I couldn't agree more.

What is the case is collective Western guilt over the Holocaust provided impetus for the General Assembly vote on fateful UN Resolution 181 (II) partitioning Palestine.

Australia was one of 33 countries that voted "yes", with 13 "no's" and 10 abstentions, including the United Kingdom whose wider Middle Eastern oil interests weighed in its calculations.

What should be acknowledged is Labor foreign minister Herbert Vere Evatt's role in Israel's birth as a member of the Ad Hoc Committee on the Palestine Question. Indeed, Evatt helped draft the partition resolution.

Interestingly, then prime minister Ben Chifley responded equivocally when asked in Parliament about the UN vote. "It was not a matter of choosing between the bad and the good, but of choosing the least of a number of evils," Chifley said.

He did not specify these "evils", but he was no doubt referring to blanket resistance from Arab states, including the Palestinians on whose head the partition resolution would descend with disastrous consequences.

In Israel's War of Independence, two-thirds of the Palestinian population of what had been Mandatory Palestine under British suzerainty became refugees, and thus a source of agitation to this day.

A sidebar to a commemoration of Beersheba involves a campaign to elevate Sir John Monash posthumously to the rank of field marshal in recognition of his outstanding leadership on the Western Front. Monash would become the second Australian-born field marshal after Thomas Blame.

If Blamey was honoured then it is hard to argue against Monash who was clearly his superior. But if Monash was to be elevated then the argument for a similar honour to be bestowed posthumously on Harry Chauvel would seem to be overwhelming.

Both men were promoted to full General, belatedly, by Labor prime minister James Scullin in 1929 after earlier prime ministers Billy Hughes and Stanley Melbourne Bruce had balked.

In family correspondence in the 1930s sighted by this correspondent Chauvel noted the influx of Jewish settlers into what was the Palestine of the British mandate. He did not refer negatively to this movement, simply noting the phenomenon.

He was a soldier not a politician. One can only speculate what his view might have been these many years later of any attempt to politicise the Beersheba centenary.