State lawmakers find political inspiration in Israel

Of all the things Bill Lockyer planned to bring back from a recent trip to Israel, a renewed appreciation for the separation of church and state wasn't one of them.

But along with a better understanding of Israel's political history and a new closeness to his Episcopalian roots, Lockyer came back to the Bay Area infused with a passion for American ideals.

"I've always had a general philosophy with respect to trying to not have religion and government commingle excessively. But there are large segments of the Israeli population where there is little distinction between the secular and the religious," said Lockyer, whose visit coincided with the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Lockyer, who is the Democratic state Senate president pro tem from Hayward, recently visited Israel with four other California state lawmakers — former Assembly majority leader Jim Brulte; Santa Cruz Assembly member Bruce McPherson; Marin Assembly member Kerry Mazzoni; and Kevin Sloat, chief legislative aide to Gov. Pete Wilson. The trip was sponsored by the Jewish Public Affairs Committee of California.

Lockyer is quick to note many positive aspects of Israeli life. For example, "It's impossible to be unmoved by a visit to the Western Wall on Shabbat, or [to] the birthplace of Jesus," he said. "And jumping in the Dead Sea mud was an extraordinary thing."

But the lack of separation between church and state — which Lockyer noted among segments of both the Islamic and Jewish populations — disturbed him. He points to Rabin's assassination as the most extreme example of how commingling religion and government can lead to trouble.

"A fringe segment…claimed religious justification for…the assassination," Lockyer said. "When people want to use the authority and power of government for religious purposes, it creates a danger."

Nonetheless, Lockyer returned home not only committed to church-state separation and religious tolerance, but also with a better understanding of Israel's politics, issues and geography.

The two-week trip was led by Jeff Santis, director of the Peninsula branch of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council. Its itinerary included Christian and Jewish tourist stops, including the Church of the Mosque and the Western Wall.

In addition, the lawmakers were briefed by Labor and Likud representatives, visited a West Bank settlement and a local council of the Fatah, and met with Israeli business, government and community leaders.

"This is all a part of efforts to make friends for Israel," Santis said. "It's also an opportunity [for lawmakers] to meet with Israelis, see how the country functions as a democracy and look at similarities in environmental and social problems."

Like Lockyer, Mazzoni also was a first-time visitor to the Jewish state. However, she focused on parallels between California and Israel rather than on differences between the two.

Both regions have high immigrant populations. And both regions face diminishing natural resources. Each can learn from the other while providing economic and investment opportunities, Mazzoni said.

For example, "Israel has been successful at integrating immigrants into its culture. California has been less so," she said. Conversely, "Israel could learn a lot from California about conservation, recycling and environmental issues."

Although Mazzoni cannot name specific ways the trip might affect her voting patterns and decisions, she is certain the tour has affected her as a policymaker.

In addition to gaining a better understanding for Israel's political and religious climate, Mazzoni "got to spend time with my colleagues and develop better relations.

"Better relations mean better policies in Sacramento," she said.