Cows are the first residents to greet curious visitors to the Golan Heights settlement that will eventually bear the name of U.S. President Donald Trump.
With the majestic Mount Hermon in the background, a placid group of four bovines chew the cud, lingering at the wire fence next to a gate and rusty sign that reads “Community settlement Beruchim: Founded 1991.”
Inside the gate is an abandoned guard station beside a road leading to a cluster of 10 modest houses, surrounded by trees and overgrown brush. Behind them are three large common buildings around a cracked concrete courtyard.
On a Friday morning, no one is in sight but there are signs of habitation: Cars parked on the dirt roads outside houses, backyard gardens, laundry lines and propped-up bicycles — evidence of the 14 retirees and five students who live in this tiny Golan Heights settlement.
But the larger buildings, which were once offices and community centers, look abandoned, some lacking walls or ceilings. A single room is kept in working order, with tables, chairs, desks and even air-conditioning. But the overall ambience is one of neglect — so much so that a decade ago, the place was deemed spooky enough to serve as the location for a television series, “Pillars of Smoke,” about a cult-like kibbutz whose residents had mysteriously vanished.
Welcome to Trumpville. Or as it will be known in Israel, Kfar Trump. Or Ramat Trump. Or, maybe, Kiryat Trump.
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The first step in the transformation of this tiny, dilapidated village boasting a magnificent view, currently known as Kela-Beruchim, took place on March 21 when the U.S. president announced in a tweet that the United States would formally recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. That was quickly followed by the president signing a proclamation at the White House on March 25, next to a beaming Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Trump’s announcement — just like his decision to relocate the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem — thrilled many Israelis but flew in the face of decades of U.S. policy and the international consensus, which views the Golan Heights as occupied Syrian territory.
Netanyahu wasted no time in showing his gratitude. On April 23, in the midst of his Passover vacation and basking in his successful reelection, Netanyahu released a surprise video in which, standing amid the rolling hills of the Golan Heights, he proudly announced that a town would bear the U.S. president’s name in honor of his historic decision.
Just three weeks later, on May 12, Netanyahu announced that a site had been located for the new community named for Trump, and it would initially comprise 110 plots for religious and secular families.
But the location chosen by the government is anything but new. Indeed, 63-year-old Nina Missin has been calling it home for well over 20 years.
On this quiet Friday morning, Missin is a rare human presence in Kela-Beruchim. A friendly woman with a thick Russian accent, she is wearing an apron as she gives her small home its weekly clean. She immigrated to Israel from Russia in 1990, when she and her family settled in the center of the country. Four years later, she saw an ad in an Israeli-Russian newspaper looking for families to move to the Golan Heights. It offered the opportunity to join a community of fellow immigrants from the former Soviet Union who were brought there three years earlier.
The group would not be the first — nor the first Israelis — to settle there. The original residents were the 480 or so inhabitants of the Syrian village of Qanaabé, who lived there until Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in 1967. In 1981, Israel took the controversial step of annexation, passing a law applying Israeli civil law and government to the region instead of military administration.
That move was accompanied by a major push to create new settlements and populate the Golan Heights with Israelis. One such effort was Kela-Beruchim (originally known as Kela). Between 1984 and 1988, the first major attempt at starting a community here took place in the form of Kibbutz Kela. But after four years the effort fell apart and the residents left.
The settlement’s next chapter began in 1991, when then-Construction and Housing Minister Ariel Sharon decided he would bring it back to life and populate the place with newcomers from the former Soviet Union.
A newspaper report about the settlement’s inauguration ceremony described the first Beruchim residents as “about 20 families of Soviet immigrants — most of them middle-aged professionals who have found it difficult to master Hebrew and who are either unemployed or working at menial labor. … The right-wing Likud party has promised the new residents free rent for at least a year on the former kibbutz and army base, where a family of four is allotted a one-room apartment the size of a college dormitory room.”
It was three years later when Missin and her family boarded a bus to the settlement to check it out. Out of the busload of prospective residents offered the chance to move there, only four families eventually made the leap, she says.
“Not everyone wanted to move so far away, and the Jewish Agency was selective about who they chose. We had to take psychological tests to make sure we were fit to live in a small community,” Missin recounts.
In their 40s at the time, Missin and her husband — and their two young kids — made the move. For more than two decades, she worked at a processing plant for fruit harvested on the Golan Heights. Today, newly retired, she says that while she enjoyed her job, she is happy to have the free time to tend the garden outside what appears to be the same dormitory-sized rooms the immigrants moved into in the 1990s.
The vast majority of the original immigrant group moved on long ago, she notes, dissatisfied with living in so remote a location and despite the free housing. Some returned to the center of the country, others stayed in the area, renting or buying homes in the “capital of the Golan,” Katzrin, about a half-hour’s drive away.
Missin admits a primary reason she has stayed is financial. She and her neighbors are retirees on fixed incomes, with few savings. “It’s not like we have a lot of alternatives. People ask if I wouldn’t rather live in Katzrin. Well, maybe, but if I wanted that, where would my rent come from?” she asks.
She hastens to add, though, that she likes living in the countryside: “Lots of people live in isolated places by choice. My son, who left for the United States and is a citizen there now, lives far away from everyone in Santa Rosa, California.”
She isn’t thrilled about the neglect and wishes the village was better kept and that more services were closer at hand. Every once in a while, she says, the local council takes pity on the residents and sends a tractor to cut the weeds and clear the paths. “But it’s getting overgrown again. I wish they’d come back,” she says.
It was a few years ago that five students joined the veteran residents, setting up home in some of the previously abandoned residences. A spokesman for the Rural Growth and Development Division of the World Zionist Organization (formerly known as the Settlement Division), which owns the buildings on the site, told Haaretz that “some of the residents pay for the ongoing expenses there and some do not.”
Asked what will happen to the current residents when the Trump plan advances, he said: “Any future plan will include solutions for the existing population on the site, and the issue has been raised with the government authorities who are drafting the official government decision to create a new community.”
Asked if she is worried — or perhaps excited — about what the new Trump plan will mean for her future, Missin gives a world-weary shrug.
“Really, I just don’t know what to think yet,” she replies. “It could go either way. It could get better for us, it could get worse. If I owned the house I live in, it could be a great thing. But I don’t know what’s going to happen. If we’re being honest, I don’t think anyone else knows what this means for us right now either.”
Some 200 meters (650 feet) from Beruchim lies a very different place: The well-tended, middle-class settlement of Kela Alon, home to 85 families. Officially, Kela Alon and Kela-Beruchim are part of the same municipal entity, known simply as Kela. This led to confusion among Kela Alon residents when they heard of the Trump plan through the media, believing their settlement would be expanded and renamed for the U.S. president.
Their unhappiness is still visible on the main road to the neighborhood: Two homemade signs, one leaning against a tractor, read “Kela Alon is not for sale” and “Ramat Trump — not here!”
Mene Ender, 72, says the initial opposition was based on a misunderstanding of the government’s plans.
Ender, who moved to the Golan 45 years ago “out of Zionist motivation — I’m not ashamed to admit it” — after fighting in the Yom Kippur War, has lived in Kela Alon for the past two years. He says members of his community were disturbed by initial details of the plan, about which they had not been consulted. They feared it would transform their town.
“It had nothing to do with politics — not with opposing Trump or Netanyahu,” he insists. ”It’s not a right-wing or a left-wing place. It’s a politically diverse community.”
In a damage-control effort, the regional council has sought to calm the community, explaining that any new development would take place in Beruchim, not Kela Alon.
On Sunday, leaders of the Golan Regional Council met with 150 concerned residents and assured them that the new “Trump town” would be a separate entity from their own and that they would only benefit from its presence.
Ender is a tour guide who specializes in showing evangelicals around the Galilee, pointing out where Jesus’ miracles were said to have taken place. He says he was thrilled about the announcement, pronouncing Beruchim “the perfect spot” for a future Trump town.
“It’s perfectly located between Kiryat Shmona and Katzrin,” he enthuses. “And our area really needs more people. It is hard to get services here when our population is so tiny.”
At the same time, he agrees with his neighbors that Kela Alon should retain its identity and name. “I love Trump and I’m not against living somewhere named after him,” Ender says. “But where I live is not a new place; we are an established community. Down the road in Beruchim, that is the right place to put it.”
From behind the counter at his spice store in the relatively new but modestly sized tourist and shopping center at nearby Wasset Junction, Eyal Puni explains that the secular community’s misgivings stemmed from the fact that the new community will include Orthodox Jews.
“It’s all about fear of the Orthodox,” says the 58-year-old resident of Matsok Orvim, another neighborhood in Kela Alon. “People are worried that the religious will take over as they have in other communities in Israel. They like our community the way it is. We have everything here. Life is good,” he says.
Puni was one of the first to settle in Kela Alon in 2003 — “Mine was the third house there” — and believes the establishment of the Trump community will ultimately be a positive development for the area.
Golan Regional Council spokesperson Batya Gottlieb says local officials are ecstatic over recent developments, and are even more thrilled by the rapid pace at which plans are proceeding.
No sooner had Netanyahu made his surprise announcement than his office had sent representatives to begin the process of selecting a location for the new Trump community. The council was asked to pull together a list of location options and present them “with the goal of making a decision as fast as possible,” she recalls. A list of eight potential locations was submitted, and Kela-Beruchim was chosen.
The only factor slowing things down has been Netanyahu’s inability to form a new government. Until that happens, no official decision can be made to approve the plans. Hopes for a planned cornerstone-laying ceremony on June 10 — symbolically marking the 52nd anniversary of Israel’s conquest of the Golan Heights — have disappeared. An alternative event, which will celebrate the U.S. announcement but won’t involve a cornerstone, has been scheduled for June 12 instead.
But nothing could dampen the excitement, Gottlieb says. “You have to understand that it’s been more than 20 years since a new settlement has been created in the Golan Heights. Our goal, before the announcement, had been to double the population in the next 10 years. So this was the biggest gift we could ever imagine receiving.
“The symbolic part was great: The recognition of the Golan by the Trump administration was historic and meaningful, sure. But on a real, practical, day-to-day level, this — the new town — will be the bigger and more important contribution for us. It’s truly historic. This is what counts. And we hope it will just be the beginning.”
In addition to boosting the local population, she says, government investment in infrastructure is crucial. “We really need to expand the options for employment and develop an infrastructure that can support tourism, which is our biggest industry. And if we get all of this because Prime Minister Netanyahu wants to make Donald Trump happy, then that is fine with us.”
Ender concurs. In the Golan Heights, he says, investment in development is not a political issue — both supporters and detractors of Netanyahu and Trump fervently hope this promise is kept. “It’s my right to say, ‘Thank you Mr. President and thank you Mr. Prime Minister. I’m no Likudnik. And when it comes to U.S. politics, for me both Bill Clinton and Donald Trump were great friends of Israel. They both did good things. And honestly, I’m just thrilled whenever the leader of the biggest superpower on Earth is paying attention to us here in the Golan Heights. From where we stand, that’s pretty miraculous — a dream come true,” says Ender.
This time, it is Gottlieb’s turn to agree. “In recent years, we’ve only been getting attention from the world for security reasons: Journalists come here to do stories about the conflict across the border with Syria and how Israel is responding,” she says. “Finally, we have something going on here that isn’t about war.”