Sunrise from the top of an IDF outpost.

Israel surprised me. Six weeks after flying into Tel Aviv, my expectations lay in shattered pieces on the ground. This place is beautiful, stressful, peaceful and intimidating all in the same breath. 

The Golan Heights, the beautiful northern region bordering Lebanon and Syria, was my initial destination. Moshav Odem, where I lived for four weeks, is described by the owner of the local hostel as, “an island of peace in an ocean of chaos.”

The tiny, fenced community is alive with families and visitors. Cherry orchards, a crop shared by Druze and settlers both, and the Odem Nature Preserve surround the Moshav, resting at the base of Mt. Odem and an unoccupied Israeli Defense Force base. High elevations ensure mild weather, warm during the day and cool at night. Cherry crops ripen in early summer, drawing crowds from across Israel traveling to harvest the fruit and stop at the winery. The wine, oh the wine! I can never buy seven dollar bottles from the gas station again, I’m ruined for it. The place is truly a patch of heaven.


This reality is cracked by a massive explosion waking you up at 5 a.m., and you remember you’re on an island. The ocean of chaos surrounding the Moshav seeps in through the gates as IDF training awakens residents with shelling and explosions, and sometimes the sound of bombing in Syria makes its way in as well. Every IDF soldier I have spoken with has spent time training in the Golan, and these exercises are not uncommon. I hear of concerns the war in Syria might spill over, but the locals do not live in the shadow of this threat.  They live peacefully, and without a sense of urgency. 

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One clear night I went to the border to watch fighting between forces within Syria. We stood on the edge of an unoccupied IDF base set at a high elevation on a hill looking down into the valley. A soft wind hummed through the towering skeleton of quiet communications infrastructure weighted down in the heavy concrete base.

The silhouette of a cityscape glowed far in the background, buildings leaning over quiet streets. Flashes of light sporadically crisscrossed in the darkness across the valley, the sign of tracers marking the direction shots are fired. Something sparked a grassfire below us, slowly spreading before coming to a pause. From a distance, it all moves slowly, with intermittent periods of calm. I thought of the fighters that might be sleeping in camps, maybe lying awake. I thought of the civilians caught in the crossfire, wondering how many remained in the city.

Another car parked next to ours. My eyes absorbed the layers of light creating depth back into the valley, wondering why it was so important to see this, certainly not for the entertainment value. Bearing witness is grueling. Standing there twisted my mind into an uncomfortable position. 

When I was a kid my family visited the Gettysburg Battle Field in Pennsylvania, and we stood on the hillside where people brought picnics to watch the Union and Confederate armies fighting. I remember thinking how bizarre it would be to witness such violence so casually. And now I know.

It was sad, and uncomfortable, and distressing. There is a tender place in the human mind triggered by the suffering of others -- the place that drives you to leave the room when commercials featuring the wide-eyed faces of starving children interrupt your show, the place where you are enticed to open your wallet and give money to a stranger.

Standing there, unable to respond to my own humanity was just…weird. There was nothing I could do, people dying within sight and I could do nothing. The subtly of the violence when observing from a distance obstructed my grasp of what I knew was occurring.  

Weirder still,
 it was not my place to do anything.  Not in that moment of course, but I’m still working out the expectation that I am allowed to go observe people suffering, dying, then walk away, and that’s the end of it. I am not ok with that, but still processing this idea. Maybe it is an unavoidable reality in this world I am just now encountering, and I continue wrestling with it. 

I eventually returned to my island of peace, and it was even lovelier. The people live with this reality, not in denial, but in acceptance and with a steely resolve to remain and remain positive.  

If you get a chance, go to Moshav Odem, and witness the beauty of this region and the people for yourself. Beauty is more than sunshine and forests and cherries. It emanates from the hearts of all people who call this place home, choosing to live in peace with their neighbors, Druze and settlers alike.

View photos at augustamcdonnell.com 


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