In 1994, the late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin – who had previously asserted that the Golan Heights, conquered during the 1967 Six Day War, would always remain a part of Israel – began talking about a possible withdrawal. Extremely disturbed by the very idea, the Golan Heights Residents Committee decided to find ways of explaining to as many tourists as possible the value of the Golan Heights to Israel.
“We did this by stationing tour guides at critical overlooks,” explains Avi Zeira, who was Committee Head at the time, “but this got really expensive. That’s when we explored the possibility of audio information systems so that at the push of a button every visitor to the Golan would learn about the different sites and their importance.”
The first audio information centers were set up soon afterwards and were crucial to the Golan residents’ effort. Then, when the concern had receded, Zeira decided to try dispersing similar information centers at popular sites all over the country, founding the nation-wide, private Masbiran Company.
Today 207 masbiranim (from the Hebrew word for “explanation”) provide in-depth and detailed information at natural and historic sites nationwide. The vast majority “speak” in both English and Hebrew, and quite a few feature relevant songs. Incredibly, the audio guides are almost always in working condition – truly a miracle in this country. Most of the unusually clear English texts are read by North American born Marla Van Meter.
On a recent trip to the eastern Galilee, we stopped at a number of wildly diverse sites in order to try out their audio guides. Here is just a taste; for more information head for them yourself the next time you visit Israel’s north – and just press the buttons.
Mitzpe (Lookout) Kinarti – just off Highway 90 at Menahamiya. (Wheelchair accessible)
Towering 500 meters above the Jordan Valley, the shaded lookout offers one of this country’s most stupendous views. Two sparkling reservoirs are found on either side of the overlook, and below on the left, Lake Kinneret shimmers in the sun. The Golan Heights and Gilad Mountain Range, divided by the Yarmuk River, loom above the Jordan Valley below.
Moshava Menahamiya, established in 1901 as the first Jewish settlement in the valley, is beneath the overlook. The audio guide describes the nearly insurmountable problems – from swamps to epidemics to Arab hostilities – faced by early settlers. Obviously, their hard work paid off, for today dozens of communities flourish in the peaceful valley.
This site was dedicated to Noah Kinerti, a member of Kibbutz Kinneret and one of the founders and managers of the Jordan Valley Water Association. In 1994, during peace treaty negotiations with Jordan, he was appointed by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin as the expert on water issues. Kinarty passed away in 2010.
The Degania Tank – off Highway 90 and next to the gate at Kibbutz Degania Aleph
Established in 1910 on the east bank of the Jordan, Degania Aleph was the very first kibbutz in Israel. General Moshe Dayan was born at Degana; poetess Rahel tilled its fields; so did Aharon David (A.D.) Gordon, an early 20th-century philosopher who believed that only physical labor could reconnect the Jews with their ancient homeland.
Degania has another claim to fame – a tank in its yard. During Israel’s War of Independence, Syrian troops tried to break through the kibbutz before heading further west into the Galilee. According to the audio guide, the battle began on May 18, 1948, and lasted three days. But, equipped only with small arms, some anti-tank launchers, 20-millimeter cannons and homemade Molotov cocktails, the stalwart defenders managed to halt the Syrian advance.
The Degania tank stands at the very spot where it was burned almost to a crisp by settlers’ Molotov cocktails.
Sylvia Rafael Schjødt Square — off Highway 90 at Migdal Junction.
Two audio guides: one talks about Sylvia, the second relates the stories of ancient Magdala and modern Migdal.
Sylvia Rafael Schjødt was a little-known Mossad agent born in South Africa in 1937; Sylvia’s father was Jewish and her mother was not.
Having decided early on that she wanted to connect to her Jewish heritage, she moved to Israel at the age of 26. While teaching English in Tel Aviv she was approached by the Mossad and was soon transformed into a capable and dedicated agent. As an active member of an elite operational unit, she participated in missions all over the world – most of them still secret.
In 1973, after Israeli athletes were massacred in Munich, she joined other agents in an effort to assassinate Ali Hassan Salameh, head of the Black September terrorist organization responsible for the murders. But the wrong man was shot and five of the agents were imprisoned – including Sylvia, who was travelling on a Canadian passport. They were released in 1975 (and Salameh was killed by the Mossad in 1979).
While in prison, Sylvia and her defense attorney Anneus Schjødt fell in love. They married after her release and moved to Ramat Hakovesh, a kibbutz whose members were in constant contact with Sylvia during her imprisonment.
Eventually the couple relocated to Norway, but ended up in Sylvia’s native South Africa. She died of leukemia in 2005, and, according to her wishes, was buried on Kibbutz Ramat Hakovesh.
Metzudat Koah – Koah Fortress/Citadel, located off highway 90, between Rosh Pina and Kiryat Shmona. (Wheelchair accessible)
Like the seven other northern police stations designed by Sir Charles Tegart, Metzudat Yesha was constructed by the British in the late 1930s as a defense against dangerous Arab gangs. With its thick concrete walls, narrow windows and a fortified courtyard topped by a six-sided tower, it was, indeed, explains the audio guide, a formidable citadel.
The fortress was situated on a hill 345 meters above sea level, and controlled two major strategic axes: the north to south Rosh Pina-Metulla highway, and the route from east to west between the northern road and the Naphtali mountain settlements.
Although originally known as Metzudat Yesha for its proximity to the traditional Moslem burial site of Joshua Ben Nun (Nebi Yusha), the fortress is now called Metzudat Koah. It was renamed for 28 brave soldiers who gave their lives in three bloody battles for the fortress during the War of Independence (the numeric meaning of Koah is 28 while the word itself translates as “strength”).
For decades, visitors to Metzudat Koah paid homage at a somber memorial wall, and enjoyed an extraordinarily lovely observation point and picnic area. In January, however, a unique museum – Museum HaReut, or Comradeship – opened inside the citadel.
The museum is a combination memorial and spectacular display. Utilizing innovative technology to explain the battles for the fortress and the real meaning of friendship between comrades, this is a “must see” on any trip up north.
Old Mishmar Hayarden – near the junction of Highway 91 and Route 918. (Wheelchair accessible)
In 1946, an abandoned pioneer colony near the Jordan River was settled by former members of the British army’s Jewish Brigade. Called Mishmar Hayarden, the new community flourished. Indeed, relates the audio guide, by the time the War of Independence broke out it consisted of 80 settlers living in 22 houses.
On May 17, 1948, Syrian troops began shelling the colony from higher positions on the Golan Heights. At the beginning of June the Syrians crossed the Jordan several times, hoping to capture Mishmar HaYarden and control its strategic position near the bridge.
Although at first the Syrian attacks were repulsed, on June 10, 1948 Syrian troops overran the settlement. During seven hours of hand- to-hand fighting almost every defender was either killed or taken captive. In November 1949 the prisoners were released, and soon afterward Kibbutz Mishmar HaYarden was re-established nearby.
Today Old Mishmar HaYarden serves as stirring memorial to fallen defenders. The spot has been developed as a recreation area and picnic site by the Jewish National Fund, filled with olive, terebinth, oak and cypress trees. Benches face a unique view of the Golan Heights.
Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel.
Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.