At the western edge of Beersheba's "Old City," the grid of right-angled streets once holding 2,000 Arabs which was left deserted after the War of '48, is laid a cemetery. I enter its grounds three or four times a year. It lies close by what is now the "Negev Museum," a mosque dormant for almost 40 years whose telltale minaret spirals into the sky just across from Beersheba's main immigrant absorption center-- most recently a first Israeli home for hundreds of immigrant Ethiopians. The plaque on the outside wall reads BEERSHEBA WAR CEMETERY; English, Arabic, and Hebrew proclaim that this parcel is "a free grant from the people of Palestine . . . for the perpetual resting place of those of the Allied Armies who fell in the War 1914-1918." The precise, round-shouldered, white stones stand at splendid attention.
Whatever ragged image the blurry phrase "people of Palestine" summons to mind, this formal place could never be mistaken for a Jewish cemetery. In fact, a recent Jewish cemetery may be found within a kilometer of this site. As in all traditional Jewish cemeteries from Vilna to Queens, one senses within it what almost seems an intentional deficiency in plan and design, a mazy slide toward jumble; it is, in fact, redolent of post-'48 Jewish Beersheba itself, a celebrated blunder of city ill-planning, whose streets arc and spiral about obscurely like gross question marks. Not unlike wary, self-protective Judaism itself is Beersheba: if you don't already know the territory, if you do not get assistance from a long-time resident, you will spend a long, long time finding your way.