Monday, January 16, 2012

Angela Pospichal-Heublein

We began the day with breakfast at Kibbutz Gonen.  Between this meal and the previous night’s magnificent repast, all were in agreement that the food, produced fresh on the kibbutz, was quite a treat.   After breakfast, we heard from a member of the kibbutz who joined the movement in 1965.  He spoke of his experiences during the war in 1967, at which time the border with Syria was at a distance of only 500 meters from the kibbutz and the entire area was home to heavy fighting.  He also discussed the ways in which kibbutz life today differs from the early days; in modern times, individualism and capitalism have displaced the socialist ideology of yesteryear.  We concluded our time at the kibbutz with a brief tour of the grounds, culminating in a visit to one of the many bomb shelters scattered throughout. In this potentially volatile region, we were told, all buildings must be constructed in such a way that no one is ever more than 10 meters from the nearest shelter.  In a fascinating modern development, Israeli military intelligence now relies on text messaging to warn of impending missile attacks and direct residents to take cover.

Bomb shelter beneath the kibbutz doctor's office
After saying goodbye to the Kibbutz Gonen, we began driving through the Golan Heights, an area made famous by its annexation into Israel following the 1967 war.  Prior to that time, this area was part of Syria, and its ultimate fate remains a contentious issue.  We then took a slight detour to visit the Druze town of Buqaata. The Druze are a minority group that practice a largely mysterious religion; even within their own community, only a select few are allowed to read the sect’s holy books.  The Druze in Israel enjoy a position unique among Israeli Arabs; because they have no nationalistic aspirations, they are allowed to work in sensitive positions and have volunteered to be a part of the nationwide program of compulsory military service.  Those who live in the Golan Heights have the option to be Israeli citizens, but many have declined to become such in anticipation of a time at which the Golan Heights in which they live will be returned to Syria.  

A Druze woman in traditional religious attire
We continued the day’s journey with a stop high above the abandoned town of Kunetra, which was returned to Syrian hands.  Here, atop an ancient extinct volcano, we were able to peer across a strip of demilitarized land into Syria.  At this point, we were fewer than 40 kilometers from the city of Damascus. We listened to a lecture by Amir in a coffee shop located on the summit.  The name of the shop was Coffee Anan, a Hebrew play on words referencing the former head of the United Nations (a UN outpost is visible from the peak) and punning on the fact that the mountain’s height put us in the clouds (Hebrew: anan.)  The lecture concerned the fighting that has taken place over the Golan Heights and the continuing issues of security that make Israel all the more hesitant to cede the territory to Syria.  Following the lecture, we had a bit of free time in which to take in the view and explore a nearby army bunker.

The Syrian border lies beyond the lake in the center of the photo
Crossing the famous Jordan River proved somewhat anticlimactic; even at a very high stage due to the recent rains, it seemed to us native Minnesotans as little more than a small stream.  We stopped for lunch in the town of Kazerin, and then journeyed to the shores of the Sea of Galilee.  At over 200 feet below sea level, this body of water is the world’s lowest fresh-water lake.  Although the north of Israel is known as The Galilee, the sea itself is instead known as Kinneret, based on the Hebrew word for violin in reference to its shape.  We visited the old city of Capharnaum, the site which the Bible says Jesus moved to in order to begin his ministry.  Here we had another lecture by Amir concerning the birth of Christianity. The archeological site is home to the ruins of very simple dwellings that date from the first century as well as the remains of an ornate fourth-century synagogue.  According to Catholic doctrine, one simple foundation was once the home of Peter in which Jesus stayed.  The remains of a Byzantine church are on top of the old foundation, and a modern Catholic church has been built high above that, allowing access to the ruins beneath.  

Ruins of the synagogue (left) and simple homes (center, right)
The Sea of Galilee
The last destination for the day was Yardenit, a baptismal site along the Jordan River.  Christianity refers to the baptism of Jesus and his early followers in the Jordan, and today religious pilgrims flock from all over the world to be baptized here in that tradition.  To me, this location proved an enlightening glimpse into the commodification of religious fervor.  Vials of water from the river, as well as hundreds of other items of religious significance, were on sale at a gift shop though which visitors are compelled to exit. A prominent sign above a cash register read “Baptism Cashier.”  Finally, we ended our day’s journey at Kibbutz Ashdot Yaakov near Tiberias, which is the only city located on the Sea of Galilee.

Baptism at the River Jordan
Capitalism at work? 

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