Long before the world started to call Israel the “Start-up Nation” it was known by names more revealing of its essence. Gentiles refer to it as the “Holy Land,” while we Jews call it simply, Haaretz, “The Land” — no adjectives needed. Reflecting the centrality of Israel to the narrative of the world, many ancient and medieval maps place Israel as its epicenter. This makes good historic, if not geographic, sense. Appreciating this, it is clear that Israel’s legacy is not medical or computer technology nor agricultural wonders or military marvels. Israel is the focal point of world history.
Since Israel is a “pop-up” book of historical and archeological wonders, it should be no surprise that tourism is among Israel’s largest industries. Annually, the record for number of tourists visiting Israel is eclipsed, with more and more people coming from every corner of the world. In an attempt to share with visitors the land I love so much, I enrolled in a course to become a licensed tour guide. I perceive this to fulfill the role of an unofficial ambassador for Israel and Judaism. The course is demanding, with a weekly five-hour evening lecture and a day-long field trip. The itinerary for the trip will focus on a particular region of the country and/or sites with religious, natural, archeological or historical themes. The trips are generally challenging, physically or emotionally. Last week’s trip included a visit to Naharayim, a site most likely unfamiliar to you. It was there for the second time in some 45 trips that I cried.
Naharayim, translated, means “The Rivers.” It is aptly named because at this point the Yarmuk River joins the Jordan River. It was at this delta of land that a modern day miracle occurred in 1933 when Pinchas Rutenberg, in a testament to man’s ingenuity and perseverance, opened a hydroelectric power plant, supplying the young Yishuv with more than 90% of its electrical needs. But Naharayim is not merely the site of light and power nor the geographical confluence of the Yarmuk and the Jordan rivers; it is the confluence of a moment in time, March 13, 1997/4th Adar II 5757, when the light of pure good met the power of pure evil.
Naharayim is a fascinating site because of its unique legal status. In 1994, as part of the peace treaty with Jordan, Israel gave the area of Naharayim to Jordan. In a gesture hailed as a harbinger to growing ties between the two countries, Jordan agreed to lease the land back to the Israeli farmers from a local kibbutz, so they could continue to cultivate the fields. The agreement is a 25-year, automatically renewable lease for the farmers. So amicable was the peace process between Israel and Jordan, so great the hope for a better future between Israel and the Arab world that the area was renamed Peace Island. Peace Park was established there. Access to the area is simple without the usual bureaucratic hassles. Just present an identity card to the Jordanian guards at the border crossing and you are in Jordan.
Last Wednesday, February 13/3 Adar, was a remarkably beautiful spring day that somehow sprung two months early. The hillside of the small delta of land at Naharayim was lush green and almond blossoms sleeved the tree limbs. Tranquility permeated the landscape. We entered the area and were instructed to climb a small bump of land. At the top there was a rise of stairs leading to a guard tower. Midway up the stairs is a large poster of King Abdullah II, present monarch of Jordan and sovereign of Peace Island. Atop the stairs, with a commanding view of the hill and the valley below is a Jordanian Army guard tower. From that safe enclosure 16 years ago on the 3rd of Adar, Jordanian Army Corporal Ahmed Daqamseh shattered the tranquility of Peace Island with the staccato of his M-16 machine gun, firing on a group of 13- and 14-year-old girls from Beit Shemesh. Seven girls slaughtered; five more girls and a teacher injured.
Corporal Daqamseh was subdued and apprehended by other Jordanian soldiers when his gun malfunctioned. In 1997 he was tried and convicted but was spared the death penalty on the grounds that he was mentally unstable. He is presently serving a life sentence which by Jordanian law is actually 25 years, meaning he will have served his full term in 2022, fewer than ten years from now. Jordan’s Minister of Justice has demanded Daqamseh’s early release from prison and, like many in Jordan, views him as a national hero.
We visited Peace Island the day before the yahrtzeit of the seven kedoshim. On the Israeli side, at the base of a hill, interspersed amongst emerald green grass are seven hillocks, each dedicated to a girl, each with a name spelled out in flowers: Sivan Fathi; Karen Cohen; Ya’ala Meiri; Shiri Badayev; Natali Alkalai; Adi Malka; Nirit Cohen.
I sat in shul on Shabbos morning after the visit trip to Peace Island and saw reflections of the girls in parashas Terumah in the discussion of the menorah. Through my tears I see these seven girls forming the menorah Hashem instructs Moshe Rabbeinu to build. The girls, like the branches, number seven and, like the illuminating oil of the lamps, are pure and holy. Beneath the lamps of the menorah are flowers — almond blossoms like the pink-white trees in the meadows of Peace Island. The story of the seven girls is inseparable, their eternity forged together from a single ingot of memory.
A midrash teaches us that despite the greatness of Moshe, he could not devise how to construct the menorah with all its seven-branched intricacies from one ingot of gold, as Hashem commanded him. Eventually, Hashem instructed Moshe to throw the ingot into the fire and from the fire the menorah emerged, perfect. And at Peace Island, the seven girls, joined in an eternal moment, were returned to Hashem, the light of pure good triumphing over the power of pure evil.
Meir Solomon is a writer, analyst and commentator living in Alon Shvut, Israel, with his wife and two children. He can be contacted at msolomon@Hamodia.com.