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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

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My irrational connection to the Golan

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During chol hamoed Sukkot, my family and I took a few days off in the Golan Heights, a favourite place of mine here in Israel. One of my closest friends, another ex-Torontonian, and his family joined us from Tel Aviv.

We enjoyed days of horseback-riding, kayaking on the Jordan River, driving through Druze villages, the holiday village in which we stayed in the southern Golan, and the panorama from a viewpoint that’s part of that village, spectacularly overlooking all of Lake Kinneret and a large swath of the upper Galilee to the north, west and south. 

We also took pleasure in dining at fine restaurants in Katzrin, Ani’am and Nov, where the fare was mostly superior cuts of beef, in keeping with the Wild-West pioneering spirit that pervades the Golan and the multitude of cattle that seem to roam everywhere.

Driving around is a challenge. About five years ago, while on a camping vacation on the Heights, I hit a large wolf near Alonei Habashan, totalling my car, not to mention the wolf. My kids didn’t much care about the car. To them I was a murderer. And Golan thoroughfares continue to be perilous, with a menagerie of wild animals dashing across roads with no warning. Huge boars are the scariest.

I most enjoyed the conversations at mealtimes or in our cabins early in morning or late in the evenings. They provided opportunities to share thoughts on assorted topics. Most compelling were those in which my 17-year-old daughter and my friend’s 17-year-old son also took part. Both are 12th graders on the verge of new chapters in their lives. Anxiety and anticipation precede military service –how it might affect their lives, their future plans and their personal liberty – as they discussed the meaning of national service as opposed to individual needs and desires. We parents took a back seat, looking on in wonderment, pride and a pinch of trepidation as we listened to our young adults intelligently expressing convincing arguments on these and other matters.

We also talked about why we feel strongly about the Golan while being ambivalent regarding Judea and Samaria much closer to home. I for one would find it much harder to relinquish this stretch of land to Syria than giving up parts of the West Bank to the Palestinians.

It has something to do with the physical beauty of the place, which is much greener than the rest of Israel, as well as its relative abundance of water; its apple and cherry orchards; its cattle; its black basalt rock so prevalent everywhere; the low density of people, and its frontier atmosphere. And despite the underlying tension of being so close to Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, replete with fenced-off minefields scattered all over the place, I feel at ease when I’m there.

It’s also connected to the fact that Israel has annexed the Golan and that its 20,000 or so Druze residents living in four villages in its most northerly region were offered Israeli citizenship. Most refused, preferring to remain loyal citizens of Syria, but they live peacefully with roughly the same number of Jewish Israelis living in more than 30 towns, kibbutzim and moshavim.

While the international community refuses to recognize Israel’s annexation of the Golan, viewing it as occupied Syrian territory, from a domestic standpoint, there’s a huge difference between it and the West Bank. Israeli law applies in the Golan, while Judea and Samaria continue to be occupied territory ruled by an IDF military government. Between 1.4 and 2.4 million Palestinians (depending on who’s counting), with limited political rights, live there uneasily (that’s an understatement) with 350,000 Israelis.

I know we Jews have a stronger biblical bond with the West Bank, but I feel a much stronger connection to the Golan. It’s not necessarily rational. Maybe it’s because I served in Judea and Samaria for so many years while in the IDF and know how deeply rooted tensions really are.

At sunset one evening during our Golan getaway, we found ourselves having coffee at Kofi Anan, a Hebrew play on words meaning Cloud Café, atop Mount Bental, a deserted IDF installation dug into the mountain. With views in all directions, we peered into the deserted Syrian town of Quneitra in the valley to the east and into flourishing Kibbutz Merom Hagolan to the west.

The view to the west is much more pleasurable, and I look forward to enjoying it for many years to come.

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