Pastorality and 'pressing concerns' on the Golan

Life is not just a bowl of cherries, but I wish all the ethical dilemmas I come across could leave such a good taste in my mouth.

THE EIN HAKSHATOT synagogue where Golan Regional Council head Eli Malka can be seen giving a guided tour. (photo credit: LIAT COLLINS)
THE EIN HAKSHATOT synagogue where Golan Regional Council head Eli Malka can be seen giving a guided tour.
(photo credit: LIAT COLLINS)
Early in a press tour to the Golan Heights last week, I was faced with an unexpected ethical dilemma: what to do with the bountiful juiciest, sweetest cherries I have ever tasted.
The tour was organized by Israel Press Council, aimed at meeting local residents and spreading word of the council’s Ethics Tribunal which handles public complaints. It was hosted by outgoing head of the Golan Heights Regional Council Eli Malka, keen on promoting what the area has to offer.
I wondered if the cherries could be construed as a bribe. Tongue (or cherry) in cheek, I decided the best policy was to destroy the evidence and swallowed as much of the fruit as I could without risking a stomachache.
The road trip on May 31, the Press Council’s second such venture, culminated in the evening with a meeting with residents and local leaders at a beautiful venue on Kibbutz Merom Hagolan, a cherry on top of the Heights. Here an impressive panel tackled what can be described as the “pressing concerns” of the North, an area that borders both Lebanon and Syria and is now in the sights of Iranian forces.
Among those participating were Press Council head, former Supreme Court justice Dalia Dorner; two Israel Prize-winning journalists, Yaakov Ahimeir and Ron Ben- Yishai; the head of Army Radio, Shimon Elkabetz; Prof. Hilik Limor (who taught me an MA communications course at the Hebrew University so long ago that mass media did not include Internet); and Press Council executive director Moti Rosenblum, who likes to describe the council and Ethics Tribunal as “the watchdog of the watchdog of democracy.”
We met up in the morning at Kursi Junction, near the Sea of Galilee, and Malka became our guide as we traveled north. Our first stop, and taste of cherries, was at an elementary school in Bnei Yehuda, which accepts pupils from all over the southern Golan Heights. Here it became clear that bunching together “the periphery” as one stereotypical underdeveloped area is a mistake.
School principal Yariv Gal explained the underlying pedagogic philosophy: Today’s children need different skills and less learning by rote in formal classrooms.
Interestingly, the use of small informal study groups reminded many of us of the traditional havruta (study partner) system for religious learning. That is if you ignore the fact that the children can choose to sit on the floor or on bean bags, a far cry from rows of tables and chairs.
Gal and Malka were proud of the maximum utilization of facilities. The aesthetic library where we met and the sports hall, for example, are used by both the school and the community, allowing for residents to mix with the children and enabling the pupils to remain in the area for extra-curriculum activities without having to rush from one place to another. (However, there are well-maintained bicycle paths connecting the various communities, most of which had signs saying they’re accepting new members.) Malka’s main message concerned ways to develop the area and create new jobs and better transport without ruining the Golan’s best features: its pastoral nature, successful agriculture and wineries, and historical sites.
On June 6, Finance Minister and Kulanu party head Moshe Kahlon announced a plan, being formulated by deputy minister Michael Oren, that would boost the population to 100,000 from around 50,000 today (split almost equally between Jews and Druse, the majority of whom are still Syrian citizens who have their own local councils). Malka emphasized the importance of Israeli control over the Golan, “not only for protecting Israel’s water resources and defending the Galilee but for protecting all of Israel.”
There is a feeling that with the ongoing conflict and turmoil in Syria, the time is ripe to fully act on the assumption that Israel, which extended its laws to the Golan in 1981, is going to remain in control of the strategic area. The likelihood of handing the Golan Heights over to the Assad regime or any of the Sunni or Shi’ite extremist forces has dropped. Malka noted that the toughest time for the Golan was the 1990s, a decade when growth and investment was stymied due to the discussions on a possible Israeli withdrawal. He said that there is a growing trend for the Druse residents to request Israeli citizenship.
Malka is keen on rebranding the area. Today, although it has been nicknamed “Israel’s Tuscany,” many Israelis still associate it with their army service, or worse – with wartime experiences from 1967 and 1973.
Among the historic sites we visited was the Ein Hakshatot synagogue. Also known as Um al-Kanatir, the Mother of Arches, the site gets its name from the Roman-built arches over a local spring. Although the visitors center is not yet fully operating, the reconstructed ancient synagogue is much more accessible than when I visited a few years ago. The view of the typical Golan hills and black rocks is stunning.
The original synagogue, dating back to the sixth century, was probably destroyed by an earthquake but was carefully reconstructed from the piles of stones using modern mapping techniques and technology.
The area where the Ark would have been, facing south to Jerusalem, is flanked by ornate columns decorated with Jewish motifs such as vines and menorahs, as well as geometric shapes and eagles, perhaps a reflection of the birds of prey that can still be seen soaring in the Golan skies.
The remnants of more than 30 ancient synagogues have been uncovered in the Golan, an area of particular Jewish importance following the revolt against the Romans.
After our foray back in time, we were in a hurry to catch up with the present and future, which we did at a meeting at Hispin with youth studying on pre-army mechinot programs. Here Justice Dorner presented her views that “There is no democracy without a free press” and a quote usually attributed to George Orwell: “Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed; everything else is public relations.”
The youths showed particular interest in the challenges of social media and how to know what can be trusted. The importance of public broadcasting, not guided by commercial concerns, came up throughout the day.
Merom Hagolan, which hosted the evening panel, was the Golan’s first Jewish community in modern times, founded in July 1967, just one month after the area came under Israeli control following Israel’s astonishing success in the Six Day War. Although the border with Gaza and the South had dominated the news, everyone was aware that the northern border could also flare up again.
Topics that came up included: “Where do journalists’ loyalties lie” (and the need for integrity) and the need to separate opinion from news: Deliberately cherry picking facts is not acceptable. There was discussion of the generation gap, partly because younger journalists (and media consumers) are used to having all the information they need in a phone in the palm of their hands. Both Ahimeir, a former Israel Broadcasting Authority correspondent in Washington, and Ben- Yishai, a veteran defense correspondent and former head of Army Radio, mourned what they saw as a tendency to sacrifice details, and even accuracy, for speed and “ratings.”
Having been taught by Prof. Limor the importance of observation and paying attention to details, I too, worry that the Twitter culture leaves journalists spending more time looking at their mobile screens than at what is actually going on.
Life is not just a bowl of cherries, but I wish all the ethical dilemmas I come across could leave such a good taste in my mouth.