From my room at Kibbutz Manara in Israel’s extreme north, the view is of Lebanon, a border that has been closed for three years. While we were off rafting down the Jordan River, Hezbollah militants lit a fire on a nearby hill, something they do from time to time to annoy residents of the kibbutz with the smoke and soot. Proximately and possibly related, an old Syrian land mine exploded, further clouding the air. On our travels through the Golan Heights, we saw miles of fields cordoned off with razor wire bearing signs in Hebrew, Arabic, and English: “Danger: Mines.”
The minefields date to Syrian occupation of the region prior to the 1967 Six Day War. Golan was a valuable strategic objective, according to our guide Maxi, because of its high vantage point. A small strip of land, Golan made up half a percent of Syria’s area, but now composes about 5% of Israel’s. It serves as an important buffer between Damascus and Israel’s northeast, and in addition to military outposts, the Israeli government has built waterworks and reservoirs, allowing settlers to improve the land and plant orchards. From atop Mt. Bental, we gazed across the Valley of Tears, where so much blood was shed on both sides during the ’67 war and the 1973 Yom Kippur wars, and into Syrian land. To the south was a large UN compound, established after the ’73 ceasefire to keep the peace. Perched atop a mountain not far away stood a large Israeli listening post, antennas sprouting from every corner.
Maxi, in his 60s, was in the IDF’s special forces during the ’73 war, and worked behind enemy lines to cause chaos and confusion within the ranks. His father went to war, and told Maxi that it was so that he would not have to. Maxi went to war, and told his children it was so that they would not need to. But the cycle continues. Every Israeli citizen is required to serve a military term after graduating high school. Maxi says that many Arab Israelis refuse to do so, and he wishes they were forced to at least carry out public service, if not actually join the military. He doesn’t mention the ultra-Orthodox Jews who also refuse to serve, and I don’t bring it up.
We rafted down a section of the upper Jordan River today, following a short hike in Nahal Gilabun, a canyon on the Golan. The Jordan, here, is more of a stream than a river. Being in the desert, Israel has constant water problems, and is currently in the fifth year of a drought.
Tonight after forced folk dancing, we circled up and each said why we came on Birthright. The statements were short and generally glib – most people came “because it was free” or due to the nagging of other Jews in their life. Some liked the opportunity to travel, a few others were looking to discover more about their Jewish identity and heritage. The last person to speak said she came to find a husband. Everyone laughed, but she seemed serious. I came for a variety of reasons. Because I did not want to pass up the opportunity to see and experience Israel at no cost, sure. But also because the nature of the exploration fascinates me. Rich Jewish donors, mostly anonymous, put up a ton of money to drag American Jews to the homeland. The tour is whirlwind and exhausting, but even in such a small country, cannot be exhaustive in a mere 10 days. The goals of the program are not hidden: they want young American Jews to be captured by the spirit of Israel, to support Israel’s existence, and to embrace their Jewish identity. The not-so-subtle push is for exactly what the girl in our circle expressed: interbreeding. I say this without judgment. They want to keep pure a bloodline that extends at least 250 generations.
The Taglit Birthright program presents the country from an unabashedly Jewish and pro-Israel point of view. They balance enough “good with the bad” to provide a notional neutrality, but they never claim to be objective. The program and its guides walk a delicate line, attempting to persuade jaded American teenagers and young adults of the importance of their Jewish identity without being so “preachy” as to be off-putting. This fascinates me. The experience is well run, and so far doesn’t seem like an indoctrination program. But I’ll take it one day at a time.