Talk about your typically confused military operation!

The full-bore charge that is the commemoration of Beersheba (is this the last horseshit military operation in the culture wars? Don’t bet on it!) has got everything: a total confusion of context, a co-option of suffering, a masking of war crimes, Israel and its supporters inserting itself anachronistically into the act, and, amid a predictably clueless commercial media, an insufficiently critical ABC.

It’s got the lot.

The best thing you can say about Beersheba, a cavalry charge on a Turkish-held Arab town in Palestine, whose inhabitants had love for neither side in the conflict, is that at least it wasn’t, like Gallipoli, an invasion of a sovereign people in their homeland. But it was one that Australian troops appear to have conducted with a brutality towards civilians that exceeded that of British troops — quite possibly because Aussie country boys were accustomed to brutalising brown-skinned people at home. The battle came towards the end of a war that we are asked to remember as the founding of a nation, in duty and sacrifice — yet which was explicitly designed by PM Billy Hughes to serve that purpose. The nation will be united in blood, said the first Australian PM to use professional PR advisers. The whole thing was a simulacrum, an image preceding the real event.

Now it is being repurposed in a way that Hughes, the little digger, would have really dug. The celebration has been entwined with the centenary commemoration of the Balfour Letter, the 1917 statement to parliament by British PM Arthur Balfour that the British empire would support a Zionist Jewish homeland in the Middle East, “so long as it did not interfere with the rights of other inhabitants”. Heh. By a bizarre process, both prime ministers, Turnbull and Netanyahu, have made the creation of Israel the meaning of Beersheba, with Bibi remarking:

“Had the Ottoman rule in Palestine and Syria not been overthrown, the declaration would have been empty words. But this was a step for the creation of Israel.

“While those young men may not have foreseen — no doubt did not foresee — the extraordinary success of the state of Israel, its foundations, its resilience, its determination, their spirit was the same.

“And, like the state of Israel has done ever since, they defied history, they made history, and with their courage they fulfilled history. Lest we forget.”

“Did not foresee” is right. What happened to the idea of commemorating the dead in the terms of what they believed they were fighting for — the empire, and the Anglo-Saxon “race”? It’s reasonable to suppose that many of the light horsemen would have been anti-Semitic to varying degrees, as were most gentiles of the time.

Well, that’s Turnbull. He loves an angle, a deal. If the commemoration can make a political point, so be it. Commercial media, with a couple of noble exceptions, watches gape-mouthed. What about the ABC? Is it succumbing further to the idea that it is not a public broadcaster, but a state broadcaster, uncritical of the government abroad? Should it not make some note of the anachronistic absurdity of the Turnbull-Netanyahu argument? It describes Beersheba as a “southern Israeli” city — which it may well be now – but does not mention it was, at the time, an Arab city, its inhabitants terrorised and ethnically cleansed in the Zionist uprising of 1948 that created Israel. Is that too much to ask to mention that? Given that the ABC’s new reality show about our border forces is titled Keeping Australia Safe, I suspect it is. If Aunty is going to take this role with regard to state power, we will have to sunder old alliances, mount our hobbyhorses and charge them afresh.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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