By Noam A. Rotem
|A snowy Mount Hermon as seen from the summit of Mount Bental in the Golan Heights. (Wikimedia Commons)|
Psalm 133 opens with the iconic lyrics:
Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity.
הִנֵּ֣ה מַה־טּ֭וֹב וּמַה־נָּעִ֑ים שֶׁ֖בֶת אַחִ֣ים גַּם־יָֽחַד׃
The verse was popularized into one of the most famous Jewish folks song of the 20th century. That same psalm ends with a reference to Mt. Hermon (at the tip of the Golan Heights):
like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion! For there the Lord has commanded the blessing, life forevermore.
The Hasmonean King Alexander Jannaeus conquered the Golan in the first century BCE, and settled the city of Gamla. During that time, many Jewish settlements were established in the Golan. The remains of one of the earliest synagogues is situated inside the city walls of Gamla. The synagogue is thought to date from the late first century BCE, and is considered among the oldest synagogues in the world.
During the Great Jewish Revolt against the Romans, 66–73 CE, a major battle is described in detail by Josephus, between the Romans and the Jews of Gamla, whereupon the city was captured and destroyed by the Romans.
In the days of the Mishna and the Talmud, many Jewish settlements existed in the Golan as evidenced by sources of both Hazal (the Jewish sages of the Mishna and Talmud eras), and backed by archaeological findings.
But from the beginning of Ottoman rule until the middle of the 19th century, the Golan turned into mostly a desolate frontier region, with few permanent residents, and ruled by Bedouin tribes. Druze settlements were established in the northern Golan Heights, and exist there to this day.
At the end of the 19th century, several attempts were made by Jews to resettle in the Golan, including on lands purchased by the Baron Rothschild, as well as in several other locations, along the western slopes of the Golan overlooking the sea of Galilee.
At the height of World War I, a secret pact known as the Sykes-Picot agreement was reached between the British and French governments. The pact carved up the floundering Ottoman Empire into spheres of British and French influence. Borders were drawn on a map, in disregard of any historic, tribal, or ethnic considerations. In its wake, states like Syria and Iraq were created, without any nation-state coherency, setting the ground for the bloody rife and turmoil that has been going on in the region for over a century.
In 1946, Syria gained independence from France and with it control of the Golan Heights. Between 1949 and 1967, the Syrian army used the strategic Heights to shell Israeli civilian settlements along the border. There were many incidents of shooting at fishing boats on the Kinneret. As a result of these shelling, 140 civilians were killed and many more injured. Property was also damaged, and many fields of grain were burned. In the early 1950s, the Syrians did a land grab, and took control of Israel’s territory west of the international border, along the eastern shores of Lake Kinneret.
At the start of the Six Day War, the Syrians shelled the Hula Valley and Rosh Pina settlements, and Syrian tanks tried to advance towards the agricultural settlement of Kibbutz Dan. In the very last days of the war, following pressure from Jewish settlements in northern Israel, the Israeli government decided to conquer the Golan Heights and put an end to the threat of Syrian shelling on the Hula Valley communities.
Following several military coups in Syria, Hafez al-Assad came to power in 1970. In 1973, Assad launched a surprise attack against Israel, on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, in an attempt to capture back the Golan Heights. Some of the bravest battles in the annals of modern Israeli military history took place in defending the Golan, and the IDF turned that perilous and near fatal attack into a gallant victory.
In 1982, Assad conducted an infamous massacre in Hama Syria, which left 20,000 Syrian civilians dead, in response to a local uprising against his regime. At the time, it was considered one of the deadliest acts by any Arab government against its own people in the modern Middle East.
His son Bashar al-Assad would outdo him. Following an uprising against his regime in 2011, Bashar ruthlessly bombarded civilian populations en masse. His war crimes included the use of chemical weapons against his own civilian population, and his army conducted widespread ethnic cleansing. Syria spiraled into one of the bloodiest civil wars in modern history, with the overall death toll estimated at 500,000, and with an estimated 7 million internally displaced and 5 million refugees.
Given the long history that Jews have in the Golan Heights, going back 2 and 3 millennia, coupled with the belligerent, brutal and immoral Syrian regimes, Presidents Trump’s decision to recognize Israel’s sovereignty on the Golan Heights is a just one, both historically and morally.
This Op-Ed was originally published on The Times of Israel Blogs:
The moral case for recognizing Jewish sovereignty on the Golan Heights by Noam A. Rotem