At a time when the Golan Heights is so widely discussed, I decided that the time has come to discuss the Golan Heights and Israel’s security in clear, human terms. So here are some of the “Golan” selections from the diary that I have kept since I arrived in Israel as a student tin 1970.
Kibbutz Merom Hagolan. Summer 1971. My first kibbutz experience. My friend Shaul Weber from the Hebrew University, a founder of the Kibbutz, had invited me to join him on the Kibbutz for a few weeks. After each day in the field, Shaul took me walking – through the abandoned Syrian Army camp in Kunetra, which was adjacent to the nascent kibbutz. And we went riding in the Kibbutz jeep, from one bunker to another. The Golan, barely four years after being wrested from Syria, still looked like one great abandoned Syrian army camp.
My first night on Kibbutz was my longest. I was treated to my first artillery barrage. Shaul was up in a guardpost somewhere. I will never forget the night in the Kibbutz shelter, listening to the Israeli record “Ish Chasid Hayah”, and sitting with Shaul’s wife Yael and their three little kids. Yael, who had grown up in a kibbutz at the foot of the Golan, mentioned to me that she had grown up listening to hasidic records in her shelter, which she would listen to whenever the Syrians would let loose a barrage on her kibbutz in the Galilee. Now, Yael told me, her kibbutz “down there” was out of range, and Merom Hagolan was in range. And until the cease-fire that Israel signed with Syria in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War in 1973, Merom HaGolan remained within range of the Syrian gun.
On my last day on the Kibbutz, Yehudah Fichtman, the kibbutz secretary, spent some time with me, explaing why he had come to live in the Golan Heights. What Yehudah said to me has remained with me ever since. He explained that he had fought for the Golan, and that he wanted to raise a family in the place where he had risked his life. “We fought for it. Now we will live for it”, said Yehudah. Yehudah was killed in an artillery barrage while he was working in the field a few months after I left. His wife and three children never left the kibbutz. His grandchildren now serve in the IDF on the Golan.
The sudden attack on the Golan Heights in 1973 hit home for me in a strange way. I had been having terrible stomach problems my first few years in Israel, always quite nervous about the Israeli reality that I was living in.
On the first day of the Yom Kippur War, the man whom I called “my tummy doctor”, Dr Moshe Ramon, the former Dr. Murray Raymond of Seattle, lost his oldest son. I remember walking into his living room which doubled as a waiting room where I had been writhing in pain a few weeks before. I would never again feel the stomach pains that I had felt before. I said to myself, instinctively, that Moshe would have more pain than I ever would.
There were his son’s friends from their Nachal kibbutz describing the sudden Syrian attack, how the Syrian soldiers had scaled the fence of their settlement and mowed down the young and surprised Nachal soldiers, young men and young women, with automatic machine gun fire, snuffing out fifteen lives in a matter of minutes. To this day, by the way, it has never been publicized that the Syrians killed a group of young women soldiers.
After the initial ceasfire, I decided to hitch up to the Golan Heights and file a news story. It was there that I witnessed the enormity of the Syrian advance. Rows of Syrian tanks and ever possible vehicle stopped in its tracks, strafed and bombed and left for any photographer to use his imagination as to just close the Syrians had come to conquering the Golan Heights. Yet they had mysteriously stopped in their tracks. After visiting the Golan, I went to stay in the mystical city of Tzfat for a few days. It was there that I met a Rabbi HaLevi who told me a story that he later put in writing, which was that as soon as he had heard of the Syrian attack on the Golan Heights that he had organized a special group of women to chant from the book of Psalms and to invoke the memory of Channah and her seven sons, who martyred themselves rather than convert from Judaism.
By legend, Chana and her seven sons are buried on a slope just below the Old City of Tzfat.
We associate the act of Channah and her seven sons with the Chanukah story and the war with the Hellenists. Yet there is an additional part of the story that is mentioned in the talmud, which is that Channah and her seven sons ask God for a favor in their merit. They ask that, in the merit of their self-sacrifice, that God save a Jewish city under siege. Well, the first time that Rabbi HaLevy had asked for a group of women to invoke Channah and her seven sons was when the 2,000 member Jewish community of Tzfat was under siege in 1948 from an army of more than 12,000. The withdrawal of that army had no rational reason. So now in 1973 the women had prayed again. The Syrian army stopped in its tracks, for no rational reason. Why the Syrian army stopped its advance remains one of the unknown factors of middle eastern warfare that is discussed today in war colleges around the globe.
It was in February, 1974 that I offered the Jewish Student Press Service to write about the spirit of the people who returned to the Golan Heights after their kibbutzim had been overrun in the war. Kibbutz Ramat Magshimim, on the southern tip of the Golan, seemed to be a logical place to travel to. Their kibbutz had been the first to be overrun. After ascending to the Golan with the one bus that got there on a Friday morning, it took me seventeen different rides until I got to Kibbutz Ramat Magshimim, where my postcard had gotten arrived the day before. They had no way of calling me, but I knew that this was the nation of miracles and I hoped that it would work out. Moshe Ben Tzvi’s family with their four children welcomed me to their home. The kids seemed to be regular kids. During the Shabbat meal, two of the kids began to cry. Moshe called me aside and said that they had cried almost constantly every Shabbat, since that terrible Yom Kippur in 1973, also on a Shabbat, when the families had been told by the regional IDF commander in the middle of the night to suddenly abandon the kibbutz because of the sudden advance of a Syrian tank column. The family came back to a badly damaged home, and Moshe explained that the kids were still disoriented.
Possibly the nicest and calmest moments on the Kibbutz Ramat Magshimim was the gathering of many of the families in a modest, improvised “moadon” clubhouse on Saturday night. The children, all the children, sang popular Israeli folk songs at the top of their lungs, while a young mother, Esther Ben David from Los Angeles, was playing the accordian, and I left on the bus back to Bar Ilan University the next morning where I was studying at the time with a “song in my heart”, so to speak. Esther told me that she was determined to wipe the tears from every nervous kid on that kibbutz.
Now that is a good Kibbutz mother, I thought. On Monday morning, following one of my classes at Bar Ilan social work school, I walked by the Bar Ilan mensa cafeteria. I heard the lunchtime newsreel on the radio. An artillery bombardment had hit suddenly hit Kibbutz Ramat Magshimim. After the dust had cleared, Esther Ben David was found dead in a ditch near the baby clinic that she had just emerged from, where she was getting medicine for her baby boy, whom she was clutching in her hands.
Esther was struck with a direct hit, yet had the presence of mind to hold that boy so that no harm would come to him. No harm did come to that baby, who was found cuddled in Esther’s lifeless arms. Esther, who brought so much happiness to the children in her kibbutz, had saved the life of her little boy in those terrible seconds of an artillery barrage. That little boy, saved in a ditch on the Golan while his dying mother hovered over him, lived to marry a neighbor of mine last year.
It was only recently that I went to interview the man who was credited for persuading the Israeli government to capture the Golan Heights. Yaakov (Yankela) Eshkoli, the man who led the delegation of Upper Galilee residents to lobby Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol and the Israeli government on the fourth night of the Six Day War.
Eshkoli, now 88, was elected four times to be the regional mayor of the Galilee, and served in his position from 1955-1971
Speaking with remarkable resilience and a clear memory after 20 years of severe heart disease, the aging Eshkoli, with his ninety year old wife Yaffa at his side, cannot keep repeating how pleased he is that he has lived to tell his story, while talks with Syria get under way and while the future of the Golan is indeed on the agenda.
Eshkoli says that he is always eager to relate the role that he played in persuading the Israeli government to take the Golan in the midst of the 1967 war.
As Eshkoli told it, by the fourth day of the 1967 war, it was clear that Israel had delivered a solid defeat to Jordan and Egypt.
That left Syria, which had been raining a steady stream of rockets into the Hula Valley below, leaving the residents of 31 settlements in the Upper Galilee region in Eshkoli’s jurisdiction to spend those glorious days of 1967 in deep underground bunkers, glued to their transistor radios.
Leaving his kibbutz in an army jeep, picking up Kibbutz leaders from other settlements in the region, while every kibbutz member was ordered into the shelters because of the continuing Syrian artillery bombardment, Eshkoli remembers that he had the feeling that his Hula valley was burning while the rest of the country was dancing in the streets
Eshkoli was given five minutes to speak to the Israeli cabinet. “The longest five minutes in my life”, Eshkoli remembers. His appeal was simple and clear, when he reminded Eshkol that he and every Israeli leader who had ever come to visit him in the Galilee after Syrian rocket attacks had promised them that if there would ever be another war, that they would use that opportunity to remove the Syrian threat, once and for all.
Eshkoli reported that there was one Israeli minister to oppose the idea: Moshe Dayan, the former Israeli commander in chief who had just been appointed to be Defence minister. Dayan had given the veto to his northern regional commander, “Dado” Elazar, whom he forbid to attack Syria on the Golan, “lest this cost us 30,000 dead and risk a war with the Soviet Union”, which had just pushed through a cease-fire in the UN Security Council. Dayan the war hero from the 1956 war with tremendous popular following, also made a great impression on the cabinet.
Eshkoli recalls that he then thought to himself: “Will I be responsible for world war”, and then said that ” I could only think of my wife and the children of the kibbutz who at that moment were in the shelters”. It was then that Eshkoli made a threat, which he says to this day that he meant with all his heart, which was that if the IDF does not remove the Syrians from the Golan then he would recommend that all Kibbutzim pack their bags and leave, and that the people of Kiryat Shmoneh would follow.
Silence followed Eshkoli’s emotional appeal to the Israeli cabinet.
As Eshkoli turned and began to leave the meeting, Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol grabbed his hand and proclaimed that “The words of Eshkoli have entered the heart of Levi Eshkol, and they will play a crucial role in what we decide to do on the Golan Heights”.
Eshkoli could not know when he left the government meeting, heading back north, whether he had succeeded in his mission. Would his words hold greater weight than Moshe Dayan?
Heading back to Kfar Giladi, Eshkoli stopped off at the bunker of the IDF Northern regional command. By then it was 5AM. “Dado”, General David Elazar, the northern regional commander, was slumped over his desk, next to a bottle of half-empty scotch.
Eshkoli reported to “Dado” what had happened at the government meeting. And while they were talking, “Dado” received a call from the Israel Defence Ministry.
Moshe Dayan’s resonant voice was on the line with an order – “Take the Golan and Succeed” were Dayan’s words, and they were repeated on the 6 a.m. Voice of Israel radio newsreel.
“Dado” loudly said to Eshkoli that Eshkoli had succeeded with Dayan where he, the IDF northern regional commander had not.
Indeed, Dayan’s vote in the government was the lone voice in the government to vote against the Golan attack….
Dayan never forgave Eshkoli for besting him at the government meeting. Eshkoli shows me a yellowing news interview from 1976 with Moshe Dayan with the Israeli daily newspaper Yediot Aharonot, where Moshe Dayan could only recall Eshkoli and his delegation with anger and resentment, characterizing them as “Dado”‘s agents, claiming that, anyway, “the provocation’s of the Galilee farmers and fishermen in no-man’s land were the cause of the Syrian shellings”.
Eshkoli looks at the picture of Moshe Dayan and starts to yell at him “Right – All of my 31 communities provoked the Syrians from their shelters. Our provocation against the Syrians is that we live and prosper here in the Galilee, which the Syrians see as a province of their country”.
Asked about the current negotiations that might bring the Syrians back to the Golan Heights that face down on his kibbutz, Eshkoli could only raise a trembling hand and point to the hills and say that to “bring back the Syrians would be suicide for us”.
Returning on the bus to Jerusalem, I met another prominent Galilee kibbutz leader, Muki Tzur, from Ein Gev, on the shores of the Sea of the Galilee and meters away from the Golan Heights and what might again be Syria.
Muki reached into his briefcase and showed me an article that he had written In the Kibbutz magazine, the monthly publication of the Kibbutz movement.
Tzur, the 1967 author of the best selling book known as the Seventh Day: conversations with Fighters from the Six Day War, wrote in his article that Jewish and Israeli history have taught us that any peace process with Israel’s adversaries will be long, hard and complex, and that no decision can be made under the pressure of an immediate desire for peace. The price of a mistake in the peace process in the North would be guns in place once again on the Golan, trained on the 31 settlements of the Hula Valley in Israel’s lush Upper Galilee region.
That is why the guns in the Golan were removed, and that is why 33 Israeli settlements replaced 15 Syrian army camps on the Golan Heights.
When I covered the recent peace talks in January, 2000, in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, the state department spokesman James Rubin spoke kept referring to the Golan Heights as a piece of land that Israel would use to trade land for peace.
The word “land” has often been dismissed as if it it is only real estate that can be traded as a commodity. People forget that a piece of land can have a greater significance than “real estate” on the market.
Americans should know better. Not far from Shepherdstown, the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce guided some of the media to visit the battlefield of Antitem., where 25,000 American soldiers from North and South died in one day of fighting. That land is rendered “hallow ground” by the US National Parks Authority, and viewed with reverence by every American citizen who visits there. Americans paid for Antitem with their blood, and with memories of those who fell there.
That is how many in Israel feel about the Golan. It is the place where IDF soldier fell in two wars to protect Israel’s northern region. It is the place where Yehudah Fichtman and where Esther Ben David fell while they were raising their families.
There is an Israeli lullaby which was written in 1967 for the children of the Upper Galilee who had been sleeping most of their youth in the sheltters of their kibbutzim and moshavim.
That soothing children song goes:
“Rest my children, rest and relax. The flickering lights that you see on the Golan now are our lights…”
On the plane home to Israel from the Shepherdstown talks, I read a sensitive and touching feature in Newsday about children of the Golan and the psychological crises that they may go through if they are asked to leave their homes as the result of an Israeli pullout from the Golan Heights.
And what kind of psychological crisis will the children of the Galilee cope with if they are forced to live under the Syrian gun once again?
Or, as I asked the guide of the West Virginian chamber of commerce, “Would you trade the Blue Ridge Mountains for peace”?