Vineyards, olive trees, avocado fields, kayaking and rafting on the Jordan river, driving up and down dry hills through hippie villages… There is something about northern Israel, near where Jesus used to hang out with his apostles buddies 2.000 years ago, that is timeless and “spaceless”.
“It’s like living in Napa”, said Tal Pelter to the Los Angeles Times recently. Born in L.A. and raised in Israel, this vintner who studied viniculture in Australia settled in the Golan in 2005. After taking on the family’s farm in central Israel, he moved with his brother and family to the Kibbutz Ein Zivan, on this lunar but fertile plateau nestled between the Sea of Galilee, the south of Lebanon and the southwest of Syria.
“The location offers unique advantages : volcanic basalt ground, a long cold winter, a dry and cool summer, a broad range of temperatures between day and night, and a strong solar radiation”, he writes. Overall, the Pelter winery makes a wide range of wines from Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay to Rosé, Semillon, Cabernet Sauvignon, etc.
In the region, the farming atmosphere seems quiet and peaceful… until you step into Israelian miradors and former trenches. The Golan, with a bit more than 50.000 inhabitants, has indeed been a disputed territory between Israel and Syria for decades, mostly because of its precious water supply that is vital to the people and the agricultural sector. A violent conflict erupted in 1964 over attempts to divert sources of the Jordan River. Israel then seized the Golan during the Six-Day war, in 1967, and has administered it since 1981. Since then, though, it has not been officially considered as Israel’s property.
Until Donald Trump came in, and put his name on it.
In June, the father-in-law of Jared Kushner, a descendant of Holocaust survivors raised in an Orthodox Jewish family, saw his name concretely attached to the Holy land, along with the American flag. It was a month after his daughter Ivanka officially opened the US embassy in Jerusalem.
But the omnipresent daughter, who had to convert to Judaism in order to marry Jared, with whom she “keeps a kosher home”, wasn’t present at the Golan’s future settlement inauguration ceremony. Otherwise, she would have probably caused another round of criticism, whether as an unwanted mark of nepotism or as a non diplomat keeping a smily face when dozens are killed in Gaza protests, like she did on the opening day of the new embassy.
In the middle of the desert, 10 minutes off the beautiful rural road 918, the “Trump Heights” sign was unveiled three weeks ago without a Trump family member by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. A thankful move after the White House resident unilaterally “fully recognized Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights” in March. And a birthday gift too, in a way, in the eyes of the US ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, just days after Trump turned 73.
No big fiesta exploded when all the suits left. I happened to be on that road a few days later. Not much seemed to have changed, and for a while, here. Time has stopped, or doesn’t care : the cattle grazes, locals hike near the Dan admiring the waterfalls, as do a fresh load of Americans traveling by bus.
Imperturbable, a little guy keeps selling his mozzarella-type of cheese and olives for a handful of shekels at Tel Dan Nature Reserve, on the Israeli-Syrian armistice line, and the old man at the entrance of the park welcomes tourists with a genuine kindness that I’m sure is ageless too.
It’s hard to see how these people, a mix of Israeli Jews and Arabs, would want to go back to a country torn by war and return to Bachar al-Assad’s regime.
In the LA Times article, a resident of Herzliya, outside Tel Aviv, said as she was visiting Pelter’s winery in the Golan : “It would be like [the U.S.] giving Texas or California back to Mexico. I wouldn’t give California back” (the Golden State was taken after the Mexican-American war, in 1848).
Of course, that depends on what side you’re on, Mexican or American, Israeli or Arab. But for sure, nowadays, the tensions appear less strong on the field than in the news. Because in the media, there is a bias towards radicalism or sensationalism, while in life, there’s a bias towards survivalism, or just the will to live. So people are doing business together, even sometimes helping each other, like apparently the Israelian army with some Syrian refugees and rebels.
The Golan’s situation isn’t perfect and needs some clarification, but it didn’t seem that the locals wanted or needed a Trump town to be built here, like their land was a skyscraping tower or a golf course. Or like they were the tiny toy of power-fueled men playing a geopolitical game for their own interests and obsessions.
In Beruchim, where the sign was planted, the very few residents, who were not consulted by the government, did not welcome the plan of this “Ramat Trump” (Trump Heights, in Hebrew), according to The Jewish Chronicle. In this somewhat surreal landscape cultivating a hippie vibe at the opposite side of the planet from the US, Trump’s name really seems to come out of nowhere.
That can explain why the left-wing newspaper Haaretz, headquartered in Tel Aviv, simply called it a “ridiculous event”. But it’s also because the project might lack a real potential.
First of all, not a lot of people seem willing to move in this area which is far from everything. Second of all, as the London-based Jewish Chronicle mentions, Bibi’s “government” isn’t really a government, since Netanyahu failed to build a coalition after April’s elections. His future depends on the new elections scheduled for September 17th, therefore possibly the future of “Trump Heights” as well. And let’s specify that even in Napa, in Trump’s own country, people have been spared such a “gift”…