The human spirit: There's gold in those hills

We need a revolution in tourist sites on the Golan, in the same way that the once standard and prosaic chicken has given way to gourmet delights in Israel’s hotels and restaurants.

Skiers ride a ski lift on Mount Hermon in the Golan Heights near the Israel-Syria border. (photo credit: NIR ELIAS / REUTERS)
Skiers ride a ski lift on Mount Hermon in the Golan Heights near the Israel-Syria border.
(photo credit: NIR ELIAS / REUTERS)
Ha’am im Hagolan. The once ubiquitous signs with this slogan, coined by the late writer and Knesset member Uri Orbach, are rare today. It means “The People [is] with the Golan Heights.”
Indeed, few issues in our quarrelsome country elicit as much agreement as this one. At least two-thirds of Israelis reject any concessions on the Golan Heights. Why would any sane country now consider yielding key strategic heights and water sources to the so-called government in Syria?
Not long ago, former US president Barack Obama’s secretary of state John Kerry was reportedly adamant that the Golan Heights were on the table for a peace deal, even as hundreds of thousands of Syrians were being slaughtered, with hundreds of thousands more fleeing the country.
Nonetheless, 50 years after the Six Day War, the world still refers to the Israeli-held Golan Heights as occupied Syrian territory. Take, for instance, the recent embarrassment of the Swiss government because government officials were visiting there in “contested land held by Israel.” Not tourists, they were testing Israeli-built Hermes 900 aircraft: reconnaissance drones.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pledged, despite his own presumed negotiations with Syria a decade ago, that the Golan Heights are a permanent part of Israel.
At the end of November, Amiram Levin, a retired IDF major- general, published an op-ed insisting that this was the ideal time to finally call for international recognition of the Golan Heights and security arrangements on our northern border. Levin, who was OC Northern Command, commander of the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit and deputy director of the Mossad, said that we needed to know that Israel wouldn’t be the only country pressed to make concessions by the government in Washington. Ten days later, his idea was upstaged when the US recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
STILL, ON a recent visit to the Golan, alarm bells were ringing for me. My concern isn’t about security, despite the area’s proximity to war-torn Syria and Hezbollah forces. The 1,154-square-kilometer area, with its 45,000 residents who are half Jews and half Druse, feels forgotten and neglected.
True, during my visit the winter weather was stormy. Golan Heights tourism is geared for sunshiny weather when the hillsides are carpeted in glorious red and purple anemones and the wild irises bloom. The heights offer hiking, biking, jeep and horseback riding. The low population density provides a breathing space. Still, tourism – booming in Israel this year – shouldn’t have to rely on weather. What would London do if that were so?
A rainy day in our far north shows off an unattractive side of the Golan Heights – huge potholes in neglected roads, uninterested service employees and tourist sites that are uninspiring.
On a weekday in the once-touted tourist center strip mall of Katzrin, the only urban center in the area, most of the shops are closed. The cluster of indoor sites in the area offers the same dismal format: an outdated promotional film, an abbreviated factory tour, some sort of minimal tasting and activity, and a chance to purchase pricey local products.
A boutique winery with an advertised tour promises to call us back to book a tour but doesn’t bother. The staff at a nearby chocolate factory tour is equally indifferent. Their “tour” is a single room.
We are the only tourists at the Golan Magic site in the city, until half a dozen UN observer forces in camouflage uniforms show up. Although we have planned around the one o’clock show in Hebrew, the language is switched to English for the soldiers. The once-innovative film, shown in the 180-degree theater, hasn’t changed since my children were young. One of our grandsons keeps asking why his chair doesn’t move. Wasn’t the site advertised as 6D?
When a tour bus pulls up to an olive oil and cosmetics factory, I actually feel embarrassed. Certainly the Europeans expect something better than a static winepress devoid of any history or context, a chance to wash your hands with olive detritus in ice-cold water, and tasting morsels of bread dipped in communal bowls of olive oil.
I ask a tour-guide friend about this site. He tells me that he always alerts the founder that he’s coming. When the founder tells his personal story and speaks of his vision, the humdrum venue becomes a thrilling tourist experience.
“Thrilling” is what’s missing. Maybe it’s the international ambivalence about the Golan that has held back development. We need a revolution in tourist sites on the Golan, in the same way that the once-standard and prosaic chicken has given way to gourmet delights in Israel’s hotels and restaurants. Israeli creativity, backed with government investment, needs to be manifested in the tourism industry. The government has invested in a new tourist center focused around an ancient synagogue. It is poised to open this spring at Ein Keshatot. Let’s hope it’s thrilling.
Sometimes outsiders can help us recognize the golden potential of our own treasures. At the top of the Golan Heights sit the Mount Hermon ski slopes. The site was recently featured in the award-winning skiers’ magazine Powder. It took editor John Clary Davies and photographer Kari Medig two years to arrange the visit. The local traffic was daunting. Still, they describe their delightful experience, not only great slopes, but skiing with armed IDF Alpinist Unit members in white, with Druse ski patrollers in red jackets, and newbie skiers wearing hijabs and shtreimels.
Writes the eloquent Davies, “The 1,200-acre resort regularly has 12,000 visitors a day, many of whom are seeing snow for the first time. Due to travel restrictions, Mount Hermon is the only place in the Middle East Israelis can find snow. It is a melting pot for a segregated country, a place where Jews, Muslims, and Druse all recreate together. While the area has a short, six- to eight-week season, the terrain is impressive, with long fall-line chutes between dolomite and limestone outcroppings. Placed somewhere in Vermont, it would be the best place to ski east of Colorado.”
The writer is the Israel director of public relations at Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. Her latest book is A Daughter of Many Mothers.