Op-Ed: The Golan Heights: History and Biblical Significance
Even as modern day Syria is convulsed in a murderous and bloody civil war with untold thousands dead and maimed; even as its tyrant, Bashir al-Assad, fights for his political and physical life; even with all this, he nevertheless spews forth his hatred of Israel and his call to take away the Golan Heights from the Jewish state.
But so do those "rebels" who are fighting him and thus remind us of the famous aphorism: "better the devil you know."
Those of us who have stood on the Golan's 1,700 foot steep escarpment, are struck by its immense strategic value overlooking Israel's fertile Hula Valley and the beautiful harp shaped lake below, called in Hebrew, Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee.)
But during Syria's occupation of the territory, no agriculture of any significance took place and no restoration of its terrain was ever undertaken. Instead, the Golan was a Syrian army artillery encampment whose sole purpose was to deliberately rain down upon Israeli farmers, fishermen and villagers an endless barrage of shells.
So what is the history of the Golan Heights and what is its overwhelming biblical significance to the reconstituted Jewish state? Perhaps we should return primarily to the biblical books of Joshua and Numbers.
Before the Tribes of Israel would cross the River Jordan and enter the Promised Land, the first among them had already taken possession of territory east of the River Jordan. These were the half tribes of Manasseh, Gad and Reuben who liberated the Bashan and Gilead from the Amorites.
Biblical Bashan incorporates today's Golan Heights. Gilead is the fertile land, which lies in what is the north eastern area of today's Kingdom of Jordan:
" ... a little balm, and a little honey, spices and myrrh, nuts and almonds" (Gen 43:11.)
It was Canaan, west of the Jordan, (including today's so-called West Bank) which would pose the formidable challenge to Joshua bin Nun, the general leading the Israelite tribes. So it was that Moses, the Lawgiver, spoke to the children of Gad and Reuben thus:
"Shall your brethren go to war, and shall you sit here?" (Numbers 32:6) The leaders of the two tribes replied that they would indeed send their combat men west into Canaan and fight alongside their brethren while their families would remain behind.
"We will build sheepfolds here for our cattle and cities for our little ones. But we ourselves will go ready armed before the children of Israel until we have brought them unto their place: and our little ones shall dwell in fenced cities because of the inhabitants of the land. We will not return unto our houses until the children of Israel have inherited every man his inheritance." (Numbers 32: 16-18)
The story of reconstituted Israel and its people is mirrored in the biblical story of those ancient ancestors. The young men and women of modern Israel have gone again and again from their homes; be they villages, towns or cities, to the borders and established communities there in times of danger and peril, just like those young men did from the biblical tribes of Gad and Reuben.
The Jewish pioneers of today in Judea and Samaria — the biblical heartland known today as the "West Bank" — are no different. But the world has chosen to demonize them as "obstacles to peace" and an impediment to the creation of a fraudulent Arab state to be called Palestine; a state that has never existed in all of recorded history; certainly not as a sovereign independent Arab state.
The pioneers are now called "settlers" and their homes and farms derisively called "settlements." It matters not to the infernal chorus that sings the international siren song of hate and ignorance that these pioneers are returned to their ancestral homesteads and seek to take up their ploughshares to sow, to plant and re-possess their homeland.
But the purpose of this article is also to learn about the biblical and post biblical history of the Jewish descendants of Gad, Reuben and Manasseh.
The Bashan region, now known as the Golan Heights, is a part of the biblical territory promised to the Patriarch Abraham and the people of Israel for an everlasting covenant — the Covenant of the Parts — recounted in Genesis 15. The city of Bashan was a refuge city (Deut, 4:43).
During the biblical period of the Jewish Kings, a battle high on the Golan took place between King Ahab and the army of Aram. A Jewish victory occurred at the present site of Kibbutz Afik, which lies a few miles east of Lake Kinneret, the Sea of Galilee.
After the end of the Babylonian Exile, and during the Second Temple Period, Jews returned to their homes on the Golan. Subsequently the returnees were attacked by gentiles and Judah Maccabee brought his forces up to the Heights to defend them.
At the conclusion of the Hasmonean Period, King Alexander Yannai finally re-conquered the Golan and Jews returned yet again. They rebuilt communities in central Golan, including the major cities of Banias and Susita, which formed part of the defense of the Golan.
Their residents fought heroically against the Roman legions during the Great Revolt of 135 AD, known also as the Second Uprising. It was led by the charismatic Shimon Bar Kokhba, known as the "Son of a Star" and a Jewish folk hero as great as King Arthur. Some 10,000 residents of Gamla alone perished fighting against Rome.
Second century Jewish coins were found on the Golan after its liberation during the last days of the June, 1967 Six Day War. These ancient coins were inscribed with the words, "For the Redemption of Holy Jerusalem."
In the succeeding period of the Talmudic Period, Jewish communities flourished and expanded. Archaeologists have found the remains of 34 synagogues on the Golan. Jewish life on the Golan largely ended after the defeat of the Byzantine army by Arabs from Arabia carrying the new banner of Islam and the region descended into a long period of neglect.
But Jewish life returned yet again in the latter years of the 19th century when members of the Bnei Yehuda society from Safed purchased land on the Golan. In 1891, Baron Rothschild purchased around 18,000 acres in what is present day Ramat Magshimim.
The Jewish pioneers of the First Aliyah (immigration) began to farm land they had purchased in the Horan region until the Turkish Ottoman occupiers evicted them in 1898. Their land was then seized, and in 1923 the entire Golan was given away by Britain to the French Mandate over Syria and Lebanon.
Zionist leaders had earlier demanded the Golan be included within the new Jewish National Home because of its immense historical roots in biblical and post-biblical Jewish history. But Jewish liberation of the ancestral land was not possible until Israel was forced to fight for its very survival during the Six Day War.
The Golan is only 60 miles from Haifa and the slopes of Mount Hermon, the highest point in the region, are the present eyes and ears of Israel. The Golan Heights were officially annexed to Israel in 1980. But it was the left wing Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, who first offered to give the Heights away in 1994.
Since then, Israelis have winced at the wrenching offers made by subsequent left leaning Israeli governments and politicians who declared publicly their desire to give the entire Heights to the Syrians in return for a delusional peace. The overwhelming majority of Israelis are adamantly opposed to any such suggestion.
The Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group suggested that a way out for the United States from its Iraqi imbroglio would be for Israel to give the Golan Heights away to Syria. This, it was believed by the ISG, would bring Syria into responsible nationhood and wean her away from support of the "insurgents" attacking Iraqi and U.S assets. Of course this was before the successes of the "Surge" instituted by General Petraus made such a suggestion moot.
Obama's carrot to the Syrian dictator, should it ever be resurrected, inevitably will be the Golan Heights.
U.S. President Obama mistakenly renewed diplomatic relations with Syria as a way, he believed, of distancing the Arab dictatorship from its alliance with Iran. This was yet another delusional act by the current U.S. President whose foreign policy is now in tatters.
But Obama's carrot to the Syrian dictator, should it ever be resurrected, inevitably will be the Golan Heights. If he is re-elected and chooses yet again to appease Arab and Muslim dictatorships, brutal pressure will be applied against Israel to force it to give away yet more of its biblical patrimony.
But what would such pressure on Israel to withdraw from the Golan Heights mean? Bringing down the Israeli radar stations on the Hermon Massif to the valley floor below would seriously degrade any warning of future hostile Syrian attacks. It would further hamper Israel's ability to prevent attacks upon it by Syrian forces and by Hizbullah, now returned to even greater strength by Syria and Iran after the two wars in southern Lebanon.
Israelis have been ill served by too many of their leaders. The fact that any Israeli politician or military leader would even contemplate throwing away both ancestral and strategic territory is a recurring blight the Jewish state can ill afford.
And to put any trust in an Arab nation, especially the Iranian backed Syrian regime, is truly mind boggling. Besides which, the so-called rebels fighting the Syrian regime have already stated that their ambition is also to take the Golan from Israel at the same time that they plan on making Syria yet another Islamic Republic and a future part of an Islamic Caliphate.
And consider this. The British colonial power gave the Golan to France’s Syrian colony in 1923. Syria attacked Israel in 1967 and lost the Golan. Syria had occupied it for 44 years. Israel’s liberation of the Golan has lasted 45 years. Ask yourself then, who has possessed the Golan the longest?
Any thought of abandoning biblical Bashan (the Golan) to such Islamist foes as exist in Syria would be a betrayal of those first Jewish ancestors on the Golan who long ago "built sheepfolds for their cattle and cities for their little ones."