This trip we added a few new places and this was one of them. As student Jessica Lothman reflects, this particular bridge was filled with history, symbolism, and hope.
Bridging Time and Space: The Gravity of Old Gesher
Einstein put forth his theory of relativity in 1915 having determined that massive objects cause a distortion in space and time—this force is felt as gravity. Traveling through two-thousand years of history in eight days exerted its own gravitational force, with each speaker and landmark along our route from Jerusalem to the ancient Jaffa port in Tel Aviv pulling and pushing my perspective on conflict resolution in the context of Israel. Reflecting on our visit to Old Gesher—a place ripe with symbolism and metaphor—provides a snapshot of how the themes of relativity and gravity wove throughout our journey, and the course of human events in Israel and the Middle East.
We stopped at Old Gesher as twilight fell over the valley of the Jordan River on our way to Tiberius. Standing on the grounds, we could see the fence demarcating the border between Jordan and Israel near the confluence of the Jordan and Yarmuk rivers, as well as the standing remains of three historic bridges (gesher is Hebrew for “bridge,” an obvious metaphor for conflict resolution). These bridges span not only vital terrain connecting the port city of Haifa to Jordan and Syria, but also epochs of strife-torn history from the Roman era to the Turkish era, and finally the British and modern eras.
It also is the site of a pre-Israeli state hydro-electric power station envisioned and orchestrated by “the old man from Naharayim,” Pinchas Ruttenberg in the late 1920’s This engineering feat operated for a short time providing electrical power throughout the region and serving as a symbol of cooperation between the early Zionists and the kingdom of Jordan. Jews manning the station built the only Kibbutz east of the Jordan. Prior to the Arab Legion attack on the compound during the 1948 War of Independence, Jordan took the unlikely step of alerting the people in the Kibbutz that danger was imminent, allowing all but the vital personnel to evacuate. 30 brave souls remained to protect the Kibbutz and power station, which was later destroyed during the war and was never to operate again—emblematic of the toll taken by armed conflict.
In 1994, Israel ceded the land east of the river to Jordan as part of the 1994 Israel-Jordan Treaty of Peace, and in return, Jordan agreed to lease the land back to Israeli farmers. But, this “Island of Peace” had its darkest day on March 13, 1997 when Ahmad Daqamseh, a Jordanian soldier opened fire with an M-16 rifle on a group of Israeli schoolchildren, killing seven girls, and wounding six others. The significance of this attacked on the delicate relationship between was the countries was illustrated by King Hussein. The Jordanian King suspended a planned visit to Spain and instead rushed to Israel so he could express condolences to each of the seven families–an unprecedented act of conciliation that took great courage in the midst of political turmoil.
Today, time and space continue to exert their gravitational force. One day prior to our visit to Old Gesher, an unrepentant Damqamseh was released after serving a 20-year sentence in prison for his murderous actions. He was warmly greeted home in Jordan, at the same time, injured survivors of the attack felt “wounded again,” Israeli families remembered King Hussein’s courageous visit, Jordan and Israel remain cooperative neighbors on security matters, and the 1994 peace treaty remains unpopular amongst Jordanians. This one place—with borders, historic bridges, and an Island of Peace—tells the story of the past, demonstrates the potential of cooperation, and is a symbol for peace in the future.