“Ha’am im haGolan.” “The nation is with the Golan.” Growing up in the 1990s, this phrase still reverberates throughout my head whenever I hear of the Golan. I grew up with a poster of this slogan in my bedroom (right next to posters of Michael Jordan dunking and Tupac rapping), and it was a huge part of my identity. But with the second intifada in the early 2000s and the failure of the Oslo Accords, the fight surrounding the Golan Heights fell into oblivion. It seemed clear to everyone that the Golan would remain with the Jewish state and that it would not return to the Syrians. It was self-evident that the Golan was as much a fixture of the Jewish state as Haifa, Netanya or Tel Aviv.
But the Golan has now made its way back into our conversations, thanks to President Donald Trump.
What happened? Why did it happen? How do Jewish groups view this , and how should we discuss it?
See below for our guide on this story and bringing Israel’s current events into your lives, as you make sure you explore the various perspectives.
With the Israeli elections looming large and the AIPAC policy conference in full swing, let’s focus on the Golan Heights.
In less than 280 characters, President Donald Trump made headlines by breaking with decades of US policy and declaring: “After 52 years it is time for the United States to fully recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which is of critical strategic and security importance to the State of Israel and regional stability!”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded with a tweet on his personal Twitter account: “At a time when Iran seeks to use Syria as a platform to destroy Israel, President Trump boldly recognizes Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. Thank you President Trump!”
How did the world respond?
FOR: The Wall Street Journal’s Editorial Board wrote a piece explaining how the “U.S.’s recognition of Israeli sovereignty sees the Middle East as it is.” They describe the Syrian regime as a “fractured cauldron of jihadist militias and Iranian proxies,” and expressed that “Mr. Trump’s guiding foreign-policy doctrine of ‘principled realism’ can be hard to discern or define amid his policy-by-Twitter, but recognizing the Golan is principled in its support for an ally and realistic in recognizing the Middle East as it is.”
AGAINST: After Trump made his announcement, the European Union (EU) issued a statement saying that it would not follow America’s lead here: “The European Union, in accordance with international law, does not recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the territories it occupied since July 1967, including the Golan Heights, and does not consider them as part of Israeli territory.” Syria, Russia, Iran and Turkey condemned Trump’s announcement.
How did the Jewish world respond?
Most Jewish and pro-Israel organizations responded with glee, according to Arutz Sheva.
- The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) tweeted: “Given current political and security circumstances in Syria, we have said it was inconceivable to imagine Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights. @realDonaldTrump’s statement marks a dramatic change in American policy, and we appreciate his leadership on this issue.”
- The American Jewish Committee (AJC) said: “We welcome President Trump’s recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which acknowledges the history of the region and the facts on the ground. The events in Syria have proven that the entire region is safer with Israel in control of this territory.”
- The Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) stated: “ZOA strongly and with great appreciation praises President Trump’s tweet this morning.”
J Street took a different view; its president, Jeremy Ben Ami, said in an official statement: “There’s no question that, at the present moment, maintaining control of the Golan Heights is of strategic and security importance to the state of Israel … “ However, he went on to call this move “needlessly provocative” and said the United States’ administration was playing “dangerous partisan games” in the Israeli-Arab conflict.
Why did President Trump do this now?
President Trump himself merely stated: “After 52 years it is time for the United States to fully recognize Israel’s Sovereignty over the Golan Heights.” If it has been 52 years, the logical question arises: why is now the time?
Haaretz columnist Anshel Pfeffer points to the imminent Israeli elections. “You don’t need to be a conspiracy theorist to speculate that given the extremely intimate level of coordination between Trump and Netanyahu’s teams, the timing is no coincidence,” he writes. “There is near-complete consensus among Israelis today that under no circumstances should Israel relinquish its control over the strategic Heights… Netanyahu’s political rivals have absolutely no choice but to praise Trump for helping the Likud campaign; anything else would be unpatriotic.” (See our last few posts on the upcoming elections for more background.)
Is Trump involving himself with internal Israeli politics? Pfeffer takes this as a given, but that isn’t necessarily the case. It’s certainly plausible that Trump’s timing was unrelated to the Israeli elections.
History of the Golan
→ In Biblical times, the Golan area, known as “Bashan,” belonged to the Jewish tribe Menashe. A strong Jewish presence remained there until the Islamic Conquest in year 636 C.E. Jews attempted to resettle the area in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; the territory passed hands from the British to the French and ultimately became part of Syria in 1944.
→ Upon Israel’s establishment in 1948, Syrian fire rained down on northern Israel frequently. This lasted for 19 years until the Six Day War, when Syria attacked Israel, and, in turn, Israel took control of the Golan Heights. It has been in Israeli hands since then. (The area is elevated and militarily advantageous, which is why it is so sought after.)
→ In 1981, Israel passed the Golan Law, unilaterally extending its sovereignty over the Golan Heights (which meant that Israeli civil law applied there, not just military rule). A furious President Ronald Reagan responded by suspending the strategic alliance memorandum that had just been signed between the United States and Israel. The no-less-furious Prime Minister Menachem Begin hit back, shouting at U.S. AmbassadorSam Lewis: “Are we a vassal state? Are we a Banana Republic? Are we 14-year-old boys who have to have our knuckles slapped if we misbehave?”
→ In 1993-4 then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin considered withdrawing from the Golan in exchange for quiet on the Syrian border, but these negotiations did not go anywhere.
→ Today, most Israelis believe Israel must hold onto the Golan Heights.
- Read these two articles, here and here, from Arutz Sheva about the significance of the Golan Heights for Israel. Why does the area matter strategically, and why does the area have religious and national significance for the Jewish people?
- Does the sacrifice Israelis made for the Golan Heights impact how you think about this moment from President Trump? In addition to the wars of 1948 and 1967, in the 1973 Yom Kippur war, over 700 Israelis were killed on the Golan. When Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was negotiating whether to return the Golan to Syria, the Israelis voted to keep the Golan as part of a national referendum in 1994.
Practical Classroom Tips
- Address this big question with your students: Should Israel also annex the West Bank? 28 Likud members think it should be annexed, or at least part of it should be. According to Michael Koplow of the Israel Policy Forum, “though only 15 percent of Jewish Israelis support annexing the West Bank, a core of right-wing activists are poised to overrun the preferences of a much larger but less ideologically dedicated majority.”
See this report by the Israel Policy Forum on why the West Bank should not be annexed, and research why Naftali Bennett and others support the idea of West Bank annexation or partial annexation.
- Poll your students anonymously:
- After learning more about the issue, are you happy or unhappy that President Trump recognized Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights?
- Do you believe that Israel should hand over the Golan Heights?
- Do you believe that Israel should annex the West Bank?
- Do you think President Trump’s announcement was timed to sway the upcoming Israeli elections?
After showing the class the poll results, discuss the implications of the outcomes together.