Three days ago, Sunday 9th November, thanks to my good friend Ronnie Golding, I enjoyed an amazing morning. Ronnie had invited me to join him at the annual Remembrance Day service at the British War Cemetery in Ramleh. To be honest, I am not sure why I agreed to go but at 8am we met up and Ronnie drove us to Ramleh.
The British War Cemetery in Ramleh is, as every 10 year old Israeli school child knows, the last resting place of Harry Potter. And of course Ronnie and I paid our respects. Harry had been a member of the Worcestershire Regiment and was killed in Hebron in 1939. Since I was born in Worcester it would have been most ungracious not to have visited his last resting place.
And then we bought our poppies (NIS 10 each, which I have learned from daughter is a wopping 20% discount on the going Oxford Street price) and sat down to enjoy the service led by the clergy of the Anglican Church in Ramleh, and presided over by the British Ambassador to Israel.
Despite the presence of an honour guard from the IDF the whole service and wreath laying ceremony was a wonderful example of British precision and respect. I said “despite the presence of the IDF” because after 6 months of training night and day no English soldier could ever approach the level of Israeli shlumpery which the IDF can do naturally without any practice whatever. And the amazing thing about Israel is that I can live here and say this without any fear of being arrested or hung drawn and quartered because we Israelis are so good at military shlumpery. We start off by carefully selecting 16 soldiers for the honour guard – each soldier must of a different height and build, each must wear a uniform either too large or too small and they must never been taught to march. It helps when the commanding officer has never heard of the commands necessary to bring his band of assorted military to attention, to ease or any other of the approved military ballet steps. At Ramleh this whole dance was played out wonderfully when one soldier decided which command was appropriate and then shouted at the officer man who then repeated it to his lower ranked colleagues. Shlumpery to perfection.
To be truthful it is not my intention to be frivolous or facetious but the IDF guard was a little Israeli. The British part of the ceremony was very British. The green of the Ramleh grass was amazing. I have never seen such grass in Israel. The grass and the graves were beautifully tended. The last post was sounded by a bugler and rouse was played by a military bagpipe. I do not know if they had flown in especially from Scotland. The speech by the British Ambassador and the sermon by the Ramleh Christian clergyman were both dignified, sincere, optimistic and tactful. No one in our troubled region could possibly have been offended.
We all prayed to the Almighty that never again would young men have to give up their lives to defend their countries. The most poignant moments came when the diplomatic representatives in Israel of almost all the warring parties of the two world wars joined one another in laying wreaths on the memorial. There were representatives of Britain, Germany, France, USA, Japan, the Ukraine, even the Cameroons and Kenya and the list was a long one. Maybe the secret lay in the colour of the grass. I do not know. But I felt proud to be British that morning. They had certainly brought something to the outposts of the empire, even to Palestine. One day, hopefully we will be able to emulate them and then we can have such a ceremony in the presence of the Egyptians, Syrians, Lebanese, Jordanians and maybe even representatives of Hamas and Hizballah. When we learn to grow green grass then we will know how to arrange a dignified service and then we will have peace. But in the meantime it was a good feeling to be British.
And now Part 2.
The rabbi of the IDF guard announced that there would be a short memorial service for the Jewish fallen in the Jewish section of the cemetery. So we all shlumped off to the Jewish section. We did it because we felt we should, although we knew that it would be a bit shlumpy but it was ours and Ramleh is after all in Israel. So over in the Jewish section we heard a respectful memorial prayer recited by the Rabbi followed by Kel Male Rachamin sung by the Chazan and then Kaddish was said by 91 year old Philip Harris.
After his recital of the Kaddish Phiip in a steady and clear voice started to sing Adon Olam (“He is Lord of the Universe who reigned before any creatures were formed….He is my banner and my Redeemer and a rock in my travail in time of distress…and He is my banner and my refuge..the Lord is with me and I will not fear.”) Many of the crowd started to join Philip in the singing. Quietly, dignified. At the end everyone wiped a tear from their eyes. They rushed forward to shake the Philip’s hand.
Philip was born in London in 1917. During the Second World War he saw active service in the British army. He was decorated. In 1947 he joined the Mahal (volunteer soldiers from abroad) unit in the Israeli army. He was decorated for his service to Israel in the War of Independence. He worked for an important Israeli corporation. Today he lives out his retirement in a town near Tel Aviv.
That morning I was proud to be British. I was proud to be an Israeli. I was proud to have participated in the British ceremony of remembrance. I was proud to have met Philip Harris.
We are not perfect but we have so much to be thankful for. We should be proud of all our roots...even if from time to time they do get a little tangled.