As our two cars wound their way towards the northern part of Israel, we took the scenic route along the border with Jordan. We enjoyed passing the mysterious cave-filled mountains, the stretches of golden grasses that looked as soft as a lion's mane and the occasional oases of date palm orchards. Just south of Beit She'an, we detoured to the west. We heard there was a natural spring that the kids could cool off in.
As we approached, we drove for a few miles in a pretty, country setting. Green grass, a kibbutz here and there, it seemed like a nice area and we were looking forward to the chance to relax and take a break from driving. We were totally unprepared for what we were about to experience.
We pulled into the parking lot at Gan Hashelosha (Park of the Three), paid, and received a brochure for the site. I read in it that Time magazine had called this place “one of the twenty most beautiful places in the world”. That’s high praise! Do they really mean it? Is it possible that such a place can exist and I knew nothing about it?
Our two families gathered up our towels, sunscreen, and many bags of food and began to walk through the parking lot toward the park. Before we even left the parking lot we realized that Gan Hashelosha is a major attraction for Arabs as well. A group of Arabs had set themselves up right near the parking lot and had loud Arabic music playing. We saw many other Arabs milling about.
Our friend Steven, only a few days away from New Jersey, was somewhat concerned about bringing our families into this park with so many Arabs. After all, aren’t we kind of at war with them? Don’t bad things happen when you put us side by side? While I couldn’t deny what he said, especially if we had been visiting Ramallah or Gaza, it simply is not so in a place like this. I can’t explain it, it is simply the case. And so, we proceeded to make our way – into Paradise.
The parking lot was fairly well shaded, thus blocking our view of the park. It was only when we had stepped into the park that we saw and could fully appreciate the beauty and splendor of this place. It was everything I imagined I would find in Paradise: tall, graceful palm trees providing shade on acres of lush, green grass, and in the center, deep, natural pools with beautiful azure waters connected to each other by dazzling waterfalls. As we walked through the site, taking in the majesty all around us, we began to notice something almost as fascinating: the people.
Here, lounging in Paradise was a complete mix of Israelis and Arabs; Jew, Christian and Muslim, side by side, enjoying the park together. Well, maybe not together, but side by side. In fact, with everyone in their swimming suits, splashing in the water, sometimes it was hard to tell who was who.
Of course, there were the religious women in long sleeves and below-the-knee garments, but of these, too, there were Jews and Arabs, only told apart by a head covering they might be wearing; Jewish women with baseball caps and bandanas and the Arab women with hijabs. A cross on a chain was a telltale religious sign as well. But really, all of these were incidental symbols on human beings, all enjoying the 82 degree water, the smooth natural rock carved into benches to relax on and steps leading into the six-meter deep, clear, refreshing pools, the natural Jacuzzi, and the 20-foot-high precipices for daring high jumps next to a sign that clearly said "No Jumping". (In Israel a sign like that is more of an invitation than a deterrent.)
As we staked a claim to our own piece of shady land, I couldn’t help but think that this is exactly what is happening in various parts of the country: Jews and Arabs are in a race, staking claim to land anywhere they can, trying to create facts on the ground. But we were simply creating a shady picnic spot, and no one seemed to mind that we had acquired a piece of prime, Gan Hashlosha real estate; at least for the next two hours or so.
As we enjoyed Paradise, we were continually reminded of the unique blend of humanity enjoying this pleasure together. When my son Ezra plunged into the water and hurt himself, an Arab teen came to assist him. As our friend’s teenaged daughter, Sarah, was preparing to jump off the 20-foot high ridge, and she got nervous, Arabs below cheered her on. In fact, the whole time Jews and Arabs were joyfully taking turns cannonballing off of the edge. It was at once unnatural, and yet it felt right. A truly surreal experience. Too bad this peaceful coexistence doesn’t seem likely once we leave this serene oasis in the fanatical desert known as The World.
I remember once, when I was 17 years old, walking through the Arab market in Jerusalem, and how I could see the hate in the eyes of the Arabs watching me. I experienced a fear like I’d never experienced before. I’d been in bad neighborhoods, like the South Bronx in New York. There, one might be afraid of being mugged. But it is nothing personal; they just want your money. Here it was different. They didn’t know me, yet they hated me. It was terribly unnerving and something I felt I could not change. What could I do to prove to them that I was not someone they should hate? Actually, it was not personal there either. I was Jewish, I was in Israel: therefore I should be hated. At Gan Hashlosha, on that one day, for a little while, I could almost – just almost - imagine Jews and Arabs, maybe even the world, living in peace.