My next two interviews in Katzrin on Wednesday were with two members of the Golan Regional Council (מועצה אזורית גולן), David Spellman, the head of the Absorption Department, and Michal Raikin, the head of the council’s Social and Education division. In these interviews, I focused on the administrative and organizational duties of the statutory body as compared with the explicitly political and activist role of the Golan Residents’ Committee. I, of course, also spoke to them about their personal thoughts on the place of the Golan as a “contentious” territory in the Israel-Arab conflict.
As with other regional governing bodies in Israel, the Jordan Valley Regional Council no less than the Shomron Regional Council, the Golan Regional Council is first and foremost the governing body of the region from which its thirty-three smaller communities receive municipal services, educational support and programming, social and community development, and business and resident services and regulation. As with other regional councils, it excludes larger municipal bodies such as Katzrin as well as the Druze villages which are large enough (and culturally self-isolated enough) to have their own governing councils.
The Social and Education division, where both David and Michal work, has five departments: formal education, informal education, social programming, transportation, and klita/absorption. The formal education department is responsible for overseeing daycare and classes from three months old to grade twelve. Here they handle the budgets, administration, and the educational programs themselves. Over and above what is required by the Ministry of Education, the Golan Regional Council works to bring more parents into the school, raise additional monies for their operation, and runs expanded programming. The informal education department then handles all after-school activities for children from daycares to community centers.
The social department manages not only community-wide social programming, but oversees psychiatric programs, provides economic and social assistance to economically disadvantaged families. It also runs community development programs in an effort to foster grassroots community leadership outside of the responsibilities of the council. The transportation department largely supplements the educational departments providing buses to and from school and other programs.
The klita/absorption division focuses on population growth, entrepreneurship, strengthening existing infrastructure, as well as promoting the image of the Golan as a calm, natural, beautiful, and healthy place for Israelis to live. One of their campaigns in development shows people living in cramped, concrete Tel Aviv contrasted to the green, open fields and mountains of the Golan with its slogan roughly translated “You can reside in Tel Aviv, but you can live in the Golan.”
Although Israeli settlement resumed immediately following the 1967 Six Day War with the establishment of Merom Golan, the region did not have its own regional authority until 1981. Until then, administration of the territory was divided between the Upper Golan and Jordan Valley Regional Councils. In this early period, the focus was on establishing new settlements, primarily agricultural communities in the form of kibbutzim and moshavim. This pattern of settlement was paralleled in the West Bank and Gaza following the ideological preferences of the Labor party which was then in power.
In the last two years, there has been a real effort to both expand domestic tourism as well as to double the Israeli population. Both have been quite successful. Today there are 27 active operations to build new neighborhoods and, since 2000, there has been an 85% growth in the local population. This, argues David Spellman, is not a political effort but rather a demographic issue. Unless the population will reach 50,000, he believes the region cannot provide the “tapestry of life” necessary for residents. Part of this effort is to bring, at the very least, even the smallest of communities up to 140 families.
Both David and Michal noted that the area is unusual for its excellent relations between dati (religious) and chiloni (secular). These communities are highly attuned to each other’s needs and great care is taken to ensure that community programming and development is inclusive. The council also is proud to host half a dozen special boarding schools for troubled children and to run a robust absorption program for new immigrants, primarily from the former Soviet Union.
Of course, however normalized the region is in daily Israeli life and political administration, there remains the looming political question of “what if?” Because of political uncertainty surrounding the region in the 1990s, there was very little building or development. Efforts of residents at this time were focused less on developing and expanding existing communities but petitioning the government and society at large to support them in making the Golan non-negotiable vis-à-vis Syria. For more on this, read my earlier post on the Golan Residents’ Committee.
On the issue of what the future political status of the Golan should be, David Spellman and Michal Raikin differed in important ways. David Spellman asserted that there are often rumors that circulate about whether Israel will evacuate the territory or only compensate residents who have lived there for a certain period of time for their lost homes. He unequivocally asserted that there is no such decision which has ever been made. Israelis have been building communities, planting trees, and having children in the region for 40 years and this is not going to change any time soon.
It is not that he is unconcerned, but he does see two major factors which he believes will ensure that the Golan stays in Israeli hands. First, in the eyes of most of the country, the Golan is simply put an integral part of Israel. Second, he has a great deal of faith in the Syrian leadership in the sense that they have consistently been more desirous of continuing the conflict than Israel has been in ending it. The military government of the Assad family is utterly dependent upon conflict with Israel to maintain its legitimacy. Should the conflict go away, so would they.
The Druze, he asserted, know what is happening north of the border. They live very well in Israel and, with regular travel to Syria, they see that families there do not. From time to time, they make the “correct noises” in deference to Syria and there is a Syrian nationalist minority, but most recognize that it is best to “keep their options open.” The question of “what would happen if” is ultimately more relevant for them than it is for Jewish Israelis.
As for why it is important for Israelis to live in the Golan, he does not see a difference between the Golan or any other part of the country. That said, in Israel’s history, population has always determined Israel’s borders. The kibbutz movement largely worked on this model. When the UN partition plan was conceived in 1947, the areas it allotted to the Jewish state were indeed largely congruous with where Jews were already living in relatively high concentrations (with the Negev as the obvious exception). As such, the Golan is a region which both needs development and a robust population.
Because of the conflict and because of its relative distance from the center of the country, David believes the Golan has to be twice as good in development as anybody else. If it failed in this regard, it would not be able to attract new residents here or keep the next generation in the neighborhood. As such, the Golan is first in the country for development of new neighborhoods and arguably spends more energy marketing itself than any other region in the country.
As to the legitimacy of Israeli control of the region, David highlights the arbitrariness of the recognized international border between Israel and Syria. As with most borders in the Middle East, this one has nothing to do with preexisting ethnic boundaries or even reasonable geographic considerations. Indeed, this was a territory was only assigned to the French Mandate in the 1920s, making it a part of Syria rather than the Israel. This border lasted about 40 years and so has the current arrangement. This change occurred as a result of Syrian aggression in 1967. So what makes the former border more legitimate than the latter?
He also highlighted his belief that the Golan is an integral part of the Land of Israel. “On the whole,” David argued, “I don’t think there are many who can justify the existence of Israel without mentioning the rights of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel. The rest is just politics and practical issues.” While the political realization of Israeli control of the whole of the land should not be pursued at all costs, the strategic importance of the region does elevate it significantly. Yet this is not enough. For him, the Golan is a special region in Israel whose community and social achievements make it important to keep in Israeli hands.
Michal Raikin’s perspective on many of these points was very similar. She too believes that the Golan is a special place in Israel with which most Israelis identify as an integral part of the country. With 3.5 million Israelis visiting every year, this much is quite clear. Yet as to a political resolution, she believes that Israel should be seeking more creative options than 100% control or 100% withdrawal. For her it is more important that the Jewish communities which live in the Golan be allowed to stay there under formal Syrian control than it is for Israel to exercise sovereignty.
For this she has two explanations. The first is that if Israeli citizens will continue to reside in the region, it would be legitimate for the Israeli military to intervene if the Syrians decided to take violent actions to harm the Jewish population. As a matter of state security, an Israel presence in the Golan has historically meant a lot for the population of the Hula and Kinneret valleys which surround the Heights. Here she compared the situation to Gaza. So long as there was a Jewish population in Gush Katif, the Israeli military was compelled to take serious action when its citizens were attacked. Upon withdrawal, Israel allowed the situation to smolder, taking multiple cross-border ambushes, the capture of Gilad Shalit, and hundreds of rockets before it responded.
The second is that Israel should not be deporting or transferring its citizens from their homes after 40 years living anywhere. It is something, she believes, that is found only in Israel and nowhere else in the world, that it is deemed acceptable that the state can remove citizens that lived, planted trees, and children there for political ends. This attitude has done tremendous damage to Israeli society and affected the willingness of people to fight for each other and to work together.
This was very strongly felt after the expulsion from Gaza, felt in the negative attitudes of religious youth and religious society in general toward the state, military, and much of secular society. What happened to 7000 people in Gush Katif will be all the more traumatic for Israeli society as a whole with the forced evacuation of 20,000. This, she believes, would have an enormous impact on Israelis’ willingness to serve in the army, give to society, and to believe in community and the country at large.
She therefore believes that Israel must seek much more creative solutions which do not involve expelling people from their homes. Perhaps the land could be given to the Syrians formally without a military presence, and after 20 years Syrians could also begin residing in the region. If Israel and Syria are to ever have a real peace, the borders should be open and people should be able to live together. This would be an example of peace in the deep meaning, not just a peace of paper symbolized by a political agreement. Note the parallels between this approach and that taken by Eretz Shalom.
It is important, Michal insists, that Israel bring something to the table with the Syrians other than “only saying no” to their conditions. As in any relationship, you can never get everything you desire, so you should try to get what is most important to you. In a peace agreement with Syria, she believes there would be real benefits: economic cooperation, greater regional goodwill, and general coexistence.
Of course, many Israelis counter (David among them) that the Syrians are not really interested in peace with Israel, and quiet along the border is ultimately preferable. Yet Michal insists that Israelis are publically less and less willing to fight to maintain their claims. Even if they are just in claiming the Golan on historical, religious, or legal grounds, Israelis do not want to engage in endless war. Today there may be a quiet and safe border, but this situation will not last forever. As such, Israel cannot rest and simply wait for things to change. It must be proactive and offer creative solutions to such difficult challenges.
In this, the United States has an important role to play. The country needs to leave behind the peace=land mentality. Because of American (and international) myopia on this issue, Israelis too have come to believe that peace must mean another traumatic evacuation. “If the American (leadership) will open their minds, it would have a great affect on our leadership.”
In some ways, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s push over the last two years for international and Arab recognition of Israel as a Jewish state is thinking in this mold. The recent American statement that it supports the “existence of the state of Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people” may lessen Israeli existential concerns and open it to more meaningful negotiations should the Palestinians concur. A similar move from the land for peace framework, in Michal’s estimation, might have a similarly important impact.
Clearly each of the three people I interviewed in Katzrin, despite all being longtime residents of the region, had slightly different perspectives on the status of the Golan and its political future. However, all prioritized the achievements of hityashvut (settlement) over most other concerns as the reason why the Golan should remain in Israeli hands, politically or demographically. This does contrast with general Israeli polling data who see the Golan, first and foremost, as a critical strategic asset. Given that the former are actually residents and latter are not, it should come as no surprise that they value these lands differently.
However, the sentiments of Golan residents also draws interesting contrasts with my conversations with former and current Jewish residents of Gaza and the West Bank. They too express much pride in their communities and are or were unwilling to leave. However, in these circles, their justificatory language turned much more so around the place of the West Bank and (to a more limited extent) Gaza in Jewish history and identity, a sentiment which many Israelis, even those who support withdrawal, also strongly identify.