Tony Wright: Political grandstanding at WWI commemorations is a disgrace

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets his Australian counterpart, Malcolm Turnbull.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets his Australian counterpart, Malcolm Turnbull. Photo credit: Getty

OPINION: Yesterday, a few thousand of those who pray inside the church of Anzac mythology gathered in the Israeli town of Beersheba to commemorate a WWI battle there a century ago.

The commemoration threatened to turn into a celebration however, as boastful Australians including prime minister Malcolm Turnbull rattled off a series of half-truths, myths and legends as statements of fact.

He was joined by the prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, who was full of praise for Australia's sacrifice and courage - even going as far to say the battle was pivotal in creating the state of Israel three decades later.

What utter rubbish.

Netanyahu failed to mention the dash and bravery of New Zealand soldiers however, who despite playing a pivotal role in winning the battle of Beersheba, were all but ignored in this Aussie/Israeli love-in.

Was that because relations between our two countries are still strained following Netanyahu's threat to declare war on New Zealand in December last year, before we supported a UN resolution condemning Israeli settlement-building in occupied territories?

Some members of the small Kiwi contingent in Beersheba told me it was surreal sitting close to Netanyahu during the ceremony, given what had happened, and god-knows what Kiwi Governor General Dame Patsy Reddy thought as she addressed the partisan Aussie/Israeli crowd to pay tribute to New Zealand's effort in the battle.

I wonder what the long-dead Anzac soldiers would make of it all – what did they die for again – freedom from interference from foreign political powers or something similar?

I had the privilege of being in France last September to cover the centenary of New Zealand's part in the Battle of the Somme. 8000 Kiwis became casualties in just 23 days fighting the Germans, a heavy toll for such a small nation.

The commemoration itself was hijacked by the Prince of Wales, whose presence essentially ruined what had been a very Kiwi-themed affair.

The Prince of Wales is actually from a German family, the Saxe-Coburg-Goth, who changed its name to Windsor during the war in 1917, as to not upset the millions of British Empire families who were losing sons and fathers on the battlefield.

His presence brought with it dozens of extra UK media, who pushed in front of the respectful Kiwis in attendance to get their pictures, and the whole thing threatened to turn into a circus.

Worse still was the incessant noise coming from curious French locals, including many disrespectful children and teenagers, who, there only to see the Prince of Wales, became bored during the speeches and began playing around in the gravestones and shouting - while their parents made phone calls and smoked cigarettes.

These events should be dignified affairs, where the descendants of those who fought and died have the opportunity to reflect on why their ancestors were there a century ago.

They are not a platform for politicians to improve their own careers and perpetuate myths and legends – or for royals to strut around on behalf of the rich and privileged.

Tony Wright is a feature writer at Newshub.