A family friend is a professor at the University of Oregon in Eugene. The city is located at the confluence of the McKenzie and the Willamette rivers. I vividly remember looking in awe at a river, thinking of God's power, the enormity of nature and the fragility of man.
Thursday, I was standing near the Jordan River, gazing at the water surface. It was a serene picture, playing with my senses. The water still like glass, on the opposite bank two men fished, the distance shorter than the cement-Los Angeles River.
Although just a miniature of the River in Los Angeles, the greenery on both banks of the Jordan River was overwhelming. Even the birds, en route to spend the winter in warmer climates in Africa, expressed their awe singing, flying up and down. As if confused, they needed to get closer to the ground. "Is that what one calls a river?!?" they asked in utter astonishment?
I, too, was confused. I heard water flowing into the river, but I would never have called this waterway a river. We were on the way to the Golan Heights, in the North East part of Israel. Israel's water shortage is severe, so the driver asked to stop to help water nature. It was clearly unnecessary the green all around was strong and alive, a feeling of healthy growth and rejuvenation.
We were at the Hula Valley in Upper Galilee. Millions of birds pass by every year, some staying to enjoy the winter here. Once a lake surrounded by swamps, this fertile area is now a nature reservoir and major environmental attraction for nature lovers.
We started our ascent to the Golan Heights, looking back down at the Jewish settlements that prior to 1967 were subject to daily sniper hits from the Syrian military which had controlled the area. One of these is Kibbutz Dafna, where my mother and my uncle lived upon arriving having escaped the ovens of the Holocaust.
The love of life, innate survival instinct and the fight against extinction constituted a force like an eruption of magna, thousands of degrees burning from inside the earth to its cold surface. Survivors of the concentration camps, mere shadows of human beings, skeletons scarred with unimaginable and unspeakable horrors, brought with them a will found nowhere else.
Like a river of lava, they captured the essence of life in their wake, the swamps and malaria of the Hula, the daily routine of the Syrians shooting at their nurseries, schools and homes, the annual migration patterns of birds and the cycles of emergence from the dryness and death of the summer to the sprouting of the winter and flowering of the spring.
Drawing from the Zionist ideals of my grandparents, the children grew to become productive adults in the modern country of Israel. They raised their own children and built the country. Like hardened lava, they have become a rock, possessing a unique strength.
The realization we must protect our Land of Israel, our only home, galvanized a determination like lava. They served as officers in Israel's Defense Forces and taught their children this debt to country. They embedded values of life and the meaning of being a good person with a craving for peace in future generations.
The Ascent to the Golan Heights
Subjected to the forces of nature over millions of years, the lava has created the fertile valley from which we were now ascending. Once we reached the Golan Heights, we were on a plateau, awash with vineyards and apple orchards.
The morning was cold, but now the sun was appearing. We approached the Hermon Mountains, a large, barren mass overlooking the plateau. At the bottom were towns, cutting into the very foundation of the mountains like rows of beautiful buildings, three and four story villas and private residences. These are two of four Druze villages: Mas-ada and Majdel-Shams.
We are in Israel, yet the residents of these villages do not have Israeli passports. Instead, they receive travel documents. They cannot vote in Israeli elections and do not serve in the Israeli military. Many, some say most, are hostile to Israel. Their families, clans of a sort called Hamulot are divided by a man-made border between Israel and Syria.
I stood at the border crossing at Kuneitra with the Deputy Minister in charge of development of the Galilee and the Negev. With us there was an elderly lady, covered in traditional clothes, lamenting her son who had gone to study in Syria some nine years earlier. After two years he disappeared.
Since Syria and Israel are in a state of war, travel between the two is not permitted. Given the humanitarian nature of this case, the mother was granted a special permission to go to Syria to look for her son. Some say he is in prison, others claim he disappeared and will never surface again (apparently a somewhat common occurrence in Syria).
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