Mount Bental is an old army out-post on the Golan Heights with incredible views
During my Birthright trip, I sat atop the dusty roof of a war-scarred bunker on Mt. Bental in the Golan Heights, a highly sought-after territory in northeastern Israel. The lookout is managed by Kibbutz Merom Golan, which was the first kibbutz established after the 1967 Six Day War, in which Israel combatted Syrian, Egyptian, and Jordanian forces, and gained control of the region. As I gazed past the Purple Line, a ceasefire line also established after the Six Day War, into the Syrian Desert, a rocket, missile, or some kind of explosive detonated. A plume of dust and smoke flowed with the wind like the boom that echoed throughout the sandy landscape. The explosion roped me into the reality of the region. It’s one thing to watch footage of explosives on television or the Internet, and it’s otherworldly to be five miles from the cloud of explosion. I peered through the lens of my camera to zoom in on the blast site just as two UN officials, whose jobs are to monitor the goings on of that region, spied through their binoculars.
The aftermath of the explosion on Mount Bental
Nothing was damaged from the explosive, as far as I could see. The UN officials seemed to conclude that the blast was harmless and merely a voice for the rebel forces, announcing that they had the same artillery as the Syrian government and military. The civil war in Syria broke out as a result of pro-democracy riots in March 2011, after the arrest and torture of teenagers who drew revolutionary phrases on a school wall. This sparked unrest in the streets and people demanded for President Assad’s resignation. As hundreds of thousands continued to take the streets across the country, violence escalated and Syria descended into civil war. Halfway through 2013, the death toll reached 90,000 and that number escalated to more than 191,000 by August 2014. According to the UN, there were 220,000 total casualties as of March 2015, and nearly four million people have fled Syria to Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Egypt. Israel, while it is not welcoming Syrian refugees, set up a hospital to treat war victims. The dichotomy of peace versus war was never more present in my life than atop Mt. Bental. The serene Sea of Galilee, where Jesus supposedly spread the word of God, rested behind me and a war zone was in front of me just beyond the Syrian border.
After traveling around Israel for a few days, I had the fortune of meeting Israeli Defense Force (IDF) soldiers. I spoke to them about the war (operation, as they referred to it) a year before in July 2014. Several soldiers were surprised when I explained that I was on the plane that got rerouted after the missile that detonated a mile from the Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. Their eyes revealed three layers of emotion: 1) heartache for friends and family lost in bus explosions, surprised missile strikes, or kidnapping – one soldier’s friend was kidnapped and murdered in the Gaza Strip; 2) relief that fights were temporarily over; 3) angst for when the next crisis would threaten Israeli lives. At the same time, there was a certain light that emanated from the soldiers. I didn’t want to bog down the excitement of these soldiers, who were essentially on vacation with my Birthright trip group. A Birthright trip is a trip run by an organization that gifts young Jews an opportunity to experience their heritage in Israel.
Historical landmarks abound on my birthright trip
A lot of people on my Birthright trip favored the religious sites we visited, The Western Wall being one of them. My group was blindly introduced to the historic site. By this I mean that the soldiers took us to an elevated lookout across from the Wall and covered our eyes, in groups of eight, as they walked us to the railing of the lookout. They removed their hands, unveiling The Western Wall in all its splendor. When I got close to the chilled limestone, in which countless notes are wedged, I recognized the religious importance of the site, which was more important than getting closer to God or anything like that.
Other members of my birthright trip had highlights at Masada, the historic mound of dusty rock, in the middle of the Negev Desert. Looking out into into the vast desert expanse from Masada, I felt isolated. Some IDF soldiers I met on my birthright trip seemed to have a little distaste for the historic site, perhaps because it involved war. At the same time, there was an unquestioned respect for the people who fought for Masada, even though they knew death was upon them; the Romans outnumbered them. When you gaze out at the Dead Sea from the top of Masada, it’s hard to imagine surrendering such a place.
The Dead Sea surpassed every place I visited on my birthright trip
The Dead Sea surpassed every place I visited on my birthright trip. I have never been able to float, for one thing, so lounging atop the incredibly salty water was like discovering a new sense. The scene is almost otherworldly. Masada regally sits above to one side and the jagged desert cliffs of Jordan border the eastern side of the sea. Aside from the feeling of buoyancy, there was something far more important happening in the silence. There was no conflict despite the Dead Sea being both in Israel and in The West Bank. I was technically in The West Bank, which is not the ideal place for Israelis to be. I don’t know if many people on my trip picked up on this, but I knew the soldiers did. Like the people in the water, us Jews seemed to be more buoyant and in good spirits in Palestinian territory. There was no fear.
Sometimes during my birthright trip, certain passages by my favorite authors come to mind. When I looked at the IDF soldiers, especially when we were smeared with rejuvenating Dead Sea mud, the quote that was ever-present was Maya Angelou’s simile “…like a rainbow in someone else’s cloud.” That is one of the most beautiful sentiments I have ever heard. It provides a glimmer of hope in an otherwise gloomy reality. Some might say that Israel is a little gloomy, and it must be from time to time. All I know is that it was magical to see the way Israeli citizens looked up to these young soldiers, all of whom were younger than I was. When I walked through the Jerusalem street market with the soldiers in uniform, almost every person smiled or gave them a nod of thanks. Amid the bustling crowds and scents of freshly baked baklava, roasting almonds, aromatic spices, freshly caught fish, and sizzling meat at kabob stands, there were rainbows. Even though I am not an Israeli citizen, I felt a level of gratitude towards these soldiers. Everyone joins the army and serves their time in Israel. It is unquestioned because an Israeli does it to preserve the country, so that future generations can behold its beauty. In my time growing up in Hawaii, I saw everything from valleys of guava trees to breaching whales to lava fountain out of a volcano, but my favorite sights were rainbows. I have seen rainbows in cascading waterfalls, rainbows that arch over dormant volcanoes, and rainbows that kissed the horizon. Not a single rainbow was ever as crisp and vibrant as those soldiers.