Men’s Interfaith Mission – May 2019: Golan Heights and Tel Aviv

The Jewish Federation of Greater Phoenix is hosting an interfaith men’s mission of community leaders to Israel to develop a better understanding of our cultures and forge relationships that can benefit our local and global community.

Golan Heights and Tel Aviv
by Mark Briggs, CEO of Zenpo

I woke today with nervous excitement thinking about traveling by helicopter north from Jerusalem to the Golan Heights and then south to Tel Aviv. Helicopters are giant dragonflies — they look like they should not be able to fly but they do it beautifully. My cousin served in a UN peacekeeping force in the Golan Heights and told me many stories of humanity amidst almost random violence. We also learned yesterday of an American volunteer soldier in the IDF who was captured, tortured and murdered in the Golan Heights. To top off my nerves, Hamas began firing hundreds of rockets from Gaza into Israel yesterday for the first time in five years. Are you kidding me? I was definitely going to be hearing from my wife today.

We mounted our four choppers in Jerusalem and took a long last look at the old city before banking north.

From the air we could view and consider the scope of many important things we had seen on the ground in the past couple days: the verdant agricultural land impossibly springing from the desert; the barrier of the West Bank border crawling across the land as it morphed from a concrete wall to steel fence; Bedouin camps, ancient stone ruins and kibbutzim dotting hillsides and valleys. A small country from the air gets even smaller, and the Sea of Galilee looked like a beautiful medium-sized lake. I forgot all about being nervous about copter flight as the beauty of Israel unfolded before me.

We landed in the shadow of the Golan Heights and continued our tour with Col. Kobi Marom, with our first stop at a memorial for 73 soldiers who died in a horrific helicopter accident. Fear of flying in the giant dragonfly immediately back in full force.

We mounted up ATVs and ascended the Golan Heights to see where the Syrian forces held high ground above the Israeli settlers in the Valley below. It does not take a military genius to see why holding this high ground is critical for security of Israel’s citizens living in this slender northern top of the country, just a handful of miles across and well within range of many sniper rifles.

We transferred to SUVs for the long climb up Mount Hermon to the “Eyes of Israel”, which are a series of military outposts bristling with antennae, radar domes and electronic surveillance equipment. It resembles a moonscape with patches of snow still clinging to the sides of rock faces defying spring. There we met Nathan, a 20-year-old IDF soldier from Detroit who was assigned to the unit defending one of these mountain outposts. It was incredible to hear him talk about his willingness to defend and die for this country, even though he was not even a citizen. Nathan brought into clear focus for me what Israel represents to Jews all over the world and what they believe is at stake here: nothing short of the survival of Jews the world over.

After snaking down the mountain roads we were privileged to have a traditional meal in a Druse home, which was delicious. Afterward, we were honored to meet the Sheikh who is the leader of the Druse who live in the Golan Heights and were formerly citizens of Syria. These people live peacefully as Israeli citizens, serve in the military and their villages seemed to be prospering. The difference in standard of living between Palestinian controlled Bethlehem and these Druse villages was stark.

We once again boarded the choppers for a flight to the Galilee medical center to meet with their inspirational staff, led by a Christian Arab Israeli doctor who is committed to treating all who need medical attention. He also chillingly made clear his secondary motive for helping war wounded from the Syrian war was to prepare his team to be able to handle the many wounded he fears will come soon in a war with Hezbollah forces coming south from Lebanon. The hospital’s 500-bed underground emergency facility is testament to their belief that this war is coming.

Our final helicopter ride was a breeze down the coastline toward Tel Aviv, where we saw the beautiful beaches, kite surfers, sparkling new office buildings, massive power plants and desalinization plants that supply 75% of this country’s water. As we touched down and said goodbye to our pilot I was thankful for a safe return to earth, but was faced with the news on my phone: 690 rockets fired, 4 Israelis killed, 27 Palestinians killed and hundreds wounded, 350 buildings damaged. I had never received a rocket attack emergency plan briefing before, but we got one on the bus ride to the hotel. Then, my phone chirped and indeed it was time to hear from my wife about this.