While on the Golan Heights, Keep Calm and Keep Picking Cherries

Paradoxically, even as the civil war rumbles on in Syria, the mountainous region has experienced an uptick in English-speaking immigrants moving to the area.

ALONEI HABASHAN − For the 60 or so families living at the easternmost tip of the country here on the Syrian border, the sound of gunfire has been part of the background noise for years. After all, the Israeli army has quite a few bases up in the Golan Heights where soldiers train with live ammunition.

However, ever since the civil war erupted across the border over two years ago, there’s been one notable change. These days, the sounds of loud booms can also be heard on Saturdays. “When you hear gunfire on Shabbat, you know it’s coming from Syria − not from here,” says Yael Saperia, a real estate lawyer originally from Albany, New York, who has been living on this religious moshav for the past 25 years. Not that she feels any less safe these days, or even especially concerned about the misdirected Syrian shell that recently landed not far from her home in this communal settlement. “The army told us to stay in our homes and keep away from the windows until they dealt with the situation, because the shell hadn’t exploded,” recounts Saperia. “But aside from that, nothing much has changed. Our kids go to school as usual, and we go to work as usual.”

Earlier this month, when Austria began withdrawing its UN peacekeeping forces from the Golan − following clashes between Syrian rebels and government forces near the Quneitra border crossing − the news made headlines around the world. But based on recent conversations with residents of Alonei Habashan and other communal settlements in the Golan, it doesn’t seem to have shaken up those nearest to the action. “We had no connection to them before, and we have no connection to them now,” says Saperia, referring to the UN forces. “They certainly didn’t protect us.”

Or as David Spellman of Kibbutz Ein Zivan − a community of some 80 families − remarks: “Quite honestly, I don’t think their presence is particularly essential here.”

Saperia and Spellman are veteran members of a small but budding community of immigrants from English-speaking countries, who make their homes up in this mountainous area captured by Israel in the Six-Day War − some of them just walking distance from one of the most contentious spots on earth these days.

However, based on the number of transactions she’s recently overseen, Saperia reports that the local real estate market is surprisingly oblivious to the situation. “Business is booming,” she says, relaxing on her sofa after a particularly long day at the office. “There are Americans moving up here, and Canadians as well. It seems to me they’re coming because of the quality of life.”

Figures provided by Nefesh B’Nefesh, the organization that handles immigration from English-speaking countries on behalf of the government, would seem to bear that out. Since the organization launched its Go North project in 2009, the number of immigrants choosing to settle in the Golan has risen by nearly 70 percent, to 77 last year − certainly not a huge number, but considerably higher than in the past. These Anglo newcomers can be found today at Katzrin ‏(the so-called capital the Golan), Hispin ‏(an Orthodox community‏) and three moshavim: Alonei Habashan, Keshet and Yonatan.

Spellman, an organizational consultant active in recruiting new residents to the area, estimates that the Jewish population of the Golan totals about 20,000 today. “There’s been tremendous growth since 2000,” says the 69-year-old grandfather, who’s held various senior positions in the kibbutz movement over the years.

A native of Leeds in northern England, Spellman ended up in the Golan in a rather roundabout way. Born to parents of Irish-Catholic descent ‏(he’s a relative of the late Francis Spellman, the legendary cardinal of New York‏), Spellman moved to Germany in the 1960s, where he developed a strong interest in the Holocaust and the Jewish people. “In June 1967, when the war broke out, I decided I had to go to Israel to save the Jews. But by the time I arrived, they had already won the war,” he recalls. He spent 20 years in Israel, living on various kibbutzim, before undergoing conversion. After becoming Jewish, “I decided to go all the way,” as he puts it. Spellman is the only member of his secular kibbutz who sports a yarmulke.

As has been his habit for the past six years, ever since moving to Ein Zivan, Spellman starts his day at 5:30 A.M. with a 3.5-kilometer power walk to the Quneitra border crossing and back. “No, I’m still at it,” he says, when asked whether the UN peacekeeping force evacuation had caused him to rethink his morning route.

If anything, muses this unlikely kibbutznik over a tall beer and fries at the local pub, the Golan is now, for a change, just as unsafe as other parts of the country. “It used to be that people would flee the Hula Valley and come up here for safety when they felt threatened,” he observes. “So I guess here in the Golan, we’re kind of moving into the general Israeli reality.”

As a longtime opponent of any Israeli withdrawal from the Golan, Spellman is nonetheless happy that the instability across the border has turned what was once a hot issue in national politics into a complete nonissue − for now, at least.

David Herman of Kibbutz El-Rom was studying at the University of Maryland in 1973 when he dropped everything and boarded a flight to Israel to volunteer during the Yom Kippur War. He never went back. A member of this kibbutz since 1975, he describes the Golan “as one of the quietest parts of the country.”

Still, he wasn’t caught by surprise when things heated up across the border, just five kilometers from his home.

“I’ve always been saying that the Alawites are a small minority in Syria, and that this totalitarian regime run by an Alawite would end someday,” says Herman, a father of seven ‏(who waxes nostalgic for the days when children at the kibbutz slept in their own separate houses, away from their parents‏). “My opinion is that he [President Bashar Assad] won’t be there much longer, but whatever happens, I think both sides − Israel and Syria − have an interest in keeping the border quiet.”

To prove how nonchalantly he takes the whole situation, Herman volunteers that he doesn’t carry a gun with him, even when he heads out to work right near the border.

Neither does Roland Smith, another English-speaking immigrant from Ein Zivan, whose work at the kibbutz fruit orchards often brings him within 100 meters of the border. “I’ve never felt the need,” he says.

Smith − who grew up in a Christian family near Newcastle, in northeast England − was an “economic refugee,” as he describes himself, when he first set foot in Israel back in 1985. “I immediately fell in love with the country and decided to volunteer on the kibbutz.” He’s since married an Israeli woman, with whom he has two children, and converted to Judaism ‏(“Let’s not get into the conversion story,” he begs, apparently still traumatized by the experience‏).

During a short break from work at the height of the cherry-picking season, Smith acknowledges that something fundamental in the geopolitical situation near the border seems to have changed. “At the moment, though, I don’t feel any direct effect of that change,” he says. “Sure, there’s the occasional background gunfire, but our life continues as normal. I don’t feel any need to keep my children closer to me these days.”

Even if things in Syria do escalate, Smith doesn’t believe the Golan will be under direct threat. “If they decide to attack Israel, it will be with missiles, and those will go right over our heads,” he says. “My own personal opinion, though, is that it’s not going to happen.”

If pressed, Smith says that most of his neighbors would admit that, deep down, they’re rooting for Assad. “At least they know what they’re dealing with then,” he notes. “They certainly don’t want a bunch of fundamentalists sitting on the border.”

But he, for one, would rather the Syrians had never reached this situation. “I feel very sorry for all the people killing themselves over there,” says the tanned kibbutznik after a moment of introspection.

Yaron Kaminsky