After about two hours of driving northward, we finally emerged from Highway 90 at the shores of a fog-blanketed Kinneret, the Sea of Galilee, where a few rays of sunlight poked through the clouds and reflected off the waters on a chilly January morning.
Only two hours before, my boyfriend Lior had started up his mother’s Volvo as two of his closest friends piled into the backseat for the ride from Ra’anana to the mountainous region of Ramat HaGolan. Roni and I would be the only women with the four men — Lior and his army friends Raz and Zvika, with another army buddy, Eyal, driving separately. They were a band of brothers on a tour of their old army bases and we were along for the ride. The journey seemed possible only in Israel, where the personal and the political are so seamlessly braided.
I closed my eyes for the next 20 minutes as we lumbered along the small northern roads and tagged behind Eyal, who led the group through the Golan Heights in his European-sized Federal Express truck. Suddenly, Lior jolted me awake — we had arrived at a military base, where their friend Yuval was serving a few weeks of army reserve time. Though Yuval had served with them in the Israel Defense Forces from 2002 to 2005, the Gaza conflict had prompted a precautionary draft up north as well.
The guys huddled around Yuval, reuniting with their close-knit circle of army friends — a bond that, Lior later explained, is stronger than any other. These are the people you trained with, ate with and slept next to in the nighttime chill of the desert. I searched for a comparison out of my own life. They were more than just frat brothers; these guys had faced death together.
We couldn’t enter the active base, so we wandered around and came across an abandoned tank on the other side of the road. Naturally, we thought, let’s climb it. Eyal, who had operated tanks in the army, helped me down inside the vehicle, where he explained in detail how to operate the archaic controls of this 1970s dinosaur.
“Now, the tanks have LCD screens,” he said.
We hoisted ourselves back on top of the tank, where I stood — far longer than anyone else — staring at the green expanses and marveling that Syria was only 300 feet from me, a mere football field away. Thinking about how America and other Western nations are working toward peace in the Middle East, I felt all too afraid that this beautiful Golan Heights could be used as a bargaining chip with Syria. But it was a fleeting thought, and I quickly joined the others, who had already leaped off the tank and headed to the car. Of course, I botched the dismount, landing wrist-first on the rubble below.
As a steady rain began to fall, we abandoned our plans of hiking and decided to head toward Mount Ben Tal, the mountain peak famous for its signs that tell you the distances to major cities all over the world. But along the way, Raz and Zvika suddenly yelled “Stop!” from the backseat, and Lior pulled the car over into a dusty path.
We had come upon an abandoned army base, where paint crumbled off the barracks’ sides and dirt pathways were smooth from lack of footsteps. Only four years ago, Raz, Zvika, Eyal and Lior had spent a few weeks protecting this very place, in olive-green IDF uniforms with M16s casually slung over their shoulders.
A few miles later, we drove past another base, where they had spent nearly three years as teens learning to defend their country. Peering at the rows of barracks as we slowly rolled past, I could see Israel a bit more clearly, through Lior’s eyes. Sure, I had never served in the army myself, but that day in the Golan helped me understand what it was like to grow up Israeli, to shoulder such huge responsibility at such a young age.
At last, we arrived at Mount Ben Tal, where signs pointed to Washington, D.C., Baghdad and Damascus, almost as if this small peak of the Golan were the center of the world. Roni and I explored the hidden bunker below, averted our eyes as the guys performed synchronized urination off a cliff side and videotaped Zvika doing back flips. The day was completely genuine, completely Israeli — lighthearted, spontaneous and sometimes moving.
Perhaps my views of Israel are romanticized — after all, I don’t live there on a daily basis and see all its warts. But after hours of unbridled fun, I stood atop the mountain peak and looked at the outstretched greenery, the fertile land below. “Please never give this back to Syria,” were my thoughts at that moment. I shuddered at the idea that all this lush land — perhaps the most beautiful part of Israel — could be taken away with a simple signature, in the name of peace. And my mind went back to the band of brothers, who could never let go of the Golan.
Sharon Udasin is a staff writer.
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