Photos & text: Lydia Aisenberg
At the end of April – on not the friendliest of days with regard the weather - students participating in the fifth semester of the MASA-Givat Haviva Intensive Arabic Semester nevertheless managed to pack another interesting experience under their IAS travel and study belts with a tour of the Jordan Valley and Golan Heights.
Accompanied by staff members Lydia Aisenberg and Uri Barel, the first port of call was the Old Gesher site located on the banks of the River Jordan, the Gilead and Golan Mountain ranges looming high on the other side of the river wending its way through the valley.
For the first part of the morning neither mountain ranges visible through the dust-laden atmosphere but clearing up somewhat during the course of the day.
At Gesher, following an audio-visual presentation shown on the walls of what had been the dining-room of pre-1948 Kibbutz Gesher prior to evacuation and resettlement on higher-ground a short distance away, kibbutz born and bred guide Nirit Bagron, whose grandparents were founder members of the kibbutz, accompanied the students to the bunker that had become not only a place of defense during the Iraqi Army attacks of the 1940s but also the command center where Morse code messages sent out as well as being the treatment center for the wounded defenders of Gesher.
Nurit pointed out a rather tattered and stained book where the names of the patients and the treatment they received all recorded in clear handwriting by nurse Leah Kremer, a founder member of the kibbutz who died a year ago at the age of 93.
Opening up the gate in the security fence – having coordinated the visit with the security forces in the area – Nirit led the students and staff down to the banks of the Jordan River where the remains of 3 bridges over the river – built by the Romans, Turks and British and blown up by Israeli forces in 1948 to hamper the advances of the Iraqi army – straddle the narrow river. The old khan and customs house have been restored and on the banks of the river by the Roman era bridge is a wooden platform amongst the riverside reeds. Here the group sits and takes in the surrounding beauty, birds twittering in the background and the slap-slap sounds of the water gently connecting with the river bank whilst listening to the story of Israeli heroine Esther Arditti Bornstein in whose memory the “Bridges Viewpoint” was built.
Born in Bulgaria, Esther Arditti Bornstein and family fled to Italy in the Second World War. Aged 16 she and her brother arrived in Israel and despite being so young, joined the Israel Defense Forces, completed a medic’s course and was known to see serving the country as an honor and not a duty.
In 1954 - during her watch – a Mosquito plane was hit by lightening and crash landed nearby. Esther ran toward the burning plane – loaded with ammunition – and pulled the pilot from the wreckage before the craft blew up. In the recorded story of Esther Arditti Bornstein the pilot, Yaakov Shalmon tells the story of how she saved his life for which she was awarded a medal.
Upon completion of her army service Esther continued working as a nurse and was the first female ambulance driver in the State of Israel. She also became a tour guide and during the war of 1967 joined the paratroopers, tended the wounded and became known as the “Angel of the Paratroopers.” She also volunteered for the Yom Kippur War six years later.
Continuing on from Gesher to Kibbutz Ashdot Yaacov ISA students visited the memorial flower garden to 7 Israeli schoolgirls killed in 1997 by a deranged Jordanian soldier whilst visiting the ‘Peace Island’ nearby. With local guide Rachel – a tour of the area known as the ‘Peace Island’ under the jurisdiction of the Jordanians since the peace treaty and visits to the remains of the Naharayim hydroelectric power station and old railway station undertaken and also the opportunity to chat with Jordanian soldiers manning the archway – adorned with large posters of the late King Hussein and his son and present king, Abdullah – and opportunity to practice some Arabic was much appreciated by both the students and the soldiers!
The soldier explained that he was from Amman, stayed at this post for 10 days and then had 5 days home leave.
He had no relatives among the Arab population of Israel he said and also told everybody that he had signed along the dotted line to serve in the army for twenty years!
From the Jordan Valley the IAS students travelled on to the Golan Heights.
Travelling deep into the valley between the Gilead and Golan Mountain ranges, the River Yarmuk wending its way deep down below the narrow, twisting, turning road - even on a muggy day, great views over the pass, river and El-Hamma (Hammat Gader) mineral springs and ancient Roman baths as well as in present times, crocodile farm! From there only up – up, up and way to the top of the Golan Heights the road getting steeper by the meter and dangerous bends tackled. From an old bunker on the top, the opportunity to look back down from a great height over the area as well as take in the Kinneret and kibbutzim of the Jordan Valley.
At the base of the Ben-Tal mountains overlooking the headquarters of the United Nations on the Golan Heights; the old Syrian town of Kunetra and the Valley of the Tears, a spontaneous meeting and chat with a local Druze fruit and honey seller proved to be one of the highlights of the day.
A retired maths teacher who spoke excellent Hebrew as well as English, Ahmad Farhat considers himself Syrian although he holds an Israel identity card. The extremely friendly and jovial Druze, dressed in traditional clothing, explained about the old town of Kunetra and of the new one built in the near distance behind it.
“Before the 1967 war, there were 25,000 Syrians living in Kunetra and now in the new Kunetra there are over 100,000. I have family there and visit them from time to time – it isn’t such a problem to be able to pass through to the other side,” he said. These days the old town of Kunetra lies in ruins, a ghost town.
Ahmad was selling locally grown olives, apples, honey from his family beehives and an assortment of different jams at his roadside stall. He liberally handed out pieces of thin Druze bread for the students to dip in the honey pot.
Atop the Ben Tal Mountain and extensive bunker complex, Intensive Arabic Semester logistics and finance director Uri Barel shared with the students his experiences of the 1973 Yom Kippur War when he was 12 months in to serving his 3-year national service in the army.
Having prepared maps to show the students Uri walked and talked the students through a very difficult time for the nowadays 60 plus-year-old kibbutznik who was born and lived all his life at Kibbutz Barkai where the MASA-Givat Haviva Intensive Arabic Semester students reside.
A great deal achieved in one day with plenty more left to see for the next time.