Beyond the headlines: Local politicos see Israel for themselves

Connie Conway knows something about dust in the wind.

On a 10-day visit to Israel late last year, the California State Assembly member thought the arid landscape looked a lot like her rural Tulare County district back home.

Israel’s dramatic desert vistas certainly impressed her. Israel’s agricultural innovations — from drip irrigation to desalinization plants — impressed her even more.

“I was ready to pick up that technology and move it to the USA,” Conway said recently. “I’m not sure everyone understands what an important trading partner Israel is for us. That was solidified even more with the visit. California needs all the partners we can get.”

Conway, a Republican whose district covers a vast area that includes Visalia, Death Valley and part of the Mojave Desert, is one of several elected officials and other community leaders to have joined study tours to Israel sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council, trips the JCRC has been leading for nearly 30 years.

Her redoubled commitment to strong bilateral relations is just what trip organizers hoped for.

Subsidized for nearly a decade by the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund, which concluded its grant-making operations in November 2011, the trips allow attendees (who pitch in approximately 15 percent of the costs) to see Israel up close and attempt to unravel knotty Middle East politics for themselves.

Organizers say the trips have had an impact on participants, both personally and in terms of policy.

“They’re in-depth study tours,” said JCRC associate director Abby Michelson Porth, who co-led a trip in March. “[They] expose the Bay Area’s influential opinion leaders to Israel beyond the headlines, with all the nuances and complexities. We expose them to their professional counterparts and to the issues they care most about.”

Porth said the best way to educate policymakers about the conflict is to give them firsthand experiences on the ground, where they have opportunities to question leading academics (such as Rabbi Donniel Hartman, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem), journalists (such as Israeli Arab Khaled Abu Toameh and Haaretz’s Palestinian and Arab Affairs correspondent Avi Issacharoff), entrepreneurs and politicians.

Scott Weiner visits with Ethiopian Israelis.

Before her trip to Israel three months ago, San Francisco County Supervisor Carmen Chu admitted most of what she knew about the region came from the news.

“One of the most compelling reasons for going was the fact that it offered an opportunity to see Israel in a way you would not get as a casual visitor,” said Chu. “[Meeting] with policymakers, and also folks on the ground, created a more nuanced view of what’s happening.”

A typical JCRC trip bears little resemblance to the Dead Sea–floating, Masada-climbing trips geared toward tourists. The itinerary is so packed, Porth joked that attendees have as much free time as they want “between 4 a.m. and 7 a.m.”

Chu, who represents the Sunset/Parkside neighborhoods of San Francisco, found the meetings with her counterparts in Israel’s municipal governments to be illuminating.

“We think of democracy as how the U.S. structures our legislative and electoral system,” she said. “We think of that as the standard, but there are many forms of democracy around the world. They have a different type of system, not a two-party system. From a nerdy policy point of view, it was very educational.”

Chu’s colleague on the Board of Supervisors, Scott Wiener, went on the same trip in March. One of the few Jewish members of the delegation, he said this first trip to Israel was satisfying both personally and professionally.

“I was raised observant,” he said. “Israel has a huge significance for me personally, so I was just ecstatic to have the opportunity to go.”

Wiener, 42, whose district includes the Castro, Noe Valley and Upper Market areas, was particularly touched by his experience at the Kotel. “I don’t consider myself a mystical person,” he said upon his return, “but the first time I went to the Wall, I put my hand on it and became very emotional. It was out of left field.”

Wiener wanted to learn more about the conflict, because it sometimes strikes close to home. In 2010, the Board of Supervisors voted down a BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) resolution against Israel.

He knows a similar resolution could be brought to the board sometime in the future.

“As soon as I took office, I knew I had this special responsibility to the Jewish people and Israel in addressing situations where we have anti-Israel sentiment,” said Wiener, who was elected in 2010. “It was particularly helpful for my colleagues to see [Israel]. I could see how eye-opening it was, and not in a whitewashing way.”

A trip highlight for him came during a meeting with young Ethiopian Jews at a kibbutz. He told them he remembered when he first heard about the famed airlift that saved thousands of Ethiopian Jews, adding, “I want you to know how proud I was as a Jew and proud of Israel for having saved these people.”

Gavin Newsom in Jerusalem in 2008 photo/dan pine

Though JCRC could have kept the itinerary entirely focused on a pro-Israel message, Porth and other organizers took a side trip to Ramallah in the West Bank, the seat of Palestinian government.

The delegation met with Palestinian politicians including longtime legislator Hanan Ashrawi (a leader during the first intifada) and members of the Red Crescent Society (the Palestinian equivalent of the Red Cross).

“We met with Palestinians and with Jews who were very critical of Israeli security and settlement policy,” Wiener said. “Last month a bunch of anti-Israel folks attacked us for having gone, saying it was an indoctrination trip. What they didn’t understand was we heard every viewpoint.”

The JCRC is not the only local group to organize Israel trips. J Street, the left-leaning Jewish lobby, also sponsored a fact-finding trip in February. The itinerary ranged from Sderot, the southern Israeli city often targeted by Hamas rocket fire, to West Bank Jewish settlements, to Ramallah.

Barbara Lee (D-Oakland) and Jackie Speier (D-San Mateo), along with several other congresswomen, traveled to Israel and the Palestinian territories on that six-day J Street trip.

“I have traveled many times to Israel with different organizations,” Lee noted this week in an email interview with j., “and this latest trip just confirmed to me the strength of the Israeli people and the importance of the pro-peace message in the region.”

Among the Palestinians the group met in Ramallah was Sam Bahour, a Palestinian American entrepreneur who says he has had difficulty acquiring an Israeli residency permit.

“I really appreciate what J Street is doing — it’s a breath of fresh air that there is not one line of thought in the American Jewish community,” he told the delegation.

En route to the Kalandia checkpoint between Jerusalem and Ramallah, two women from Machsom Watch, a group of Israeli women who monitor Israeli soldiers at checkpoints, spoke to the group.

“We believe occupation is ruining our society and threatening our democracy and future existence,” Neta Efrony, director of a 2008 documentary about the Kalandia checkpoint, told the travelers. “We need your help and to hear your voice. Israelis don’t want to hear and don’t want to know what is happening.”

Reps. (from left) Yvette Clarke, Donna Edwards, Jackie Speier, Gwen Moore, Barbara Lee and Eddie Bernice Johnson at the Kalandia checkpoint

The J Street trip also included visits with Jewish settlers in the West Bank.

From Ramallah, the group drove to Shiloh, a Jewish town in the heart of the West Bank halfway between Ramallah and Nablus that likely will not be incorporated into Israel when and if a two-state agreement is reached.

A group of Jewish women from several area settlements met with the congresswomen and told them they have no intention of ever leaving their homes.

“I’m holding the Bible; Shiloh was our first capital before Jerusalem and it has layers and layers of history,” Tzofiah Dorot, the director of Ancient Shiloh, told the delegation. “This is the heart of Israel and I don’t see a future for the state if you take the heart out.”

All of the women said they were sure that their settlements would remain part of Israel.

“This is our homeland, the homeland of the Jewish nation —period,” one of the Jewish settlers, Tamar Aslaf, told the delegation. “A Palestinian who lives here is welcome to stay. It’s his home but it’s our homeland.”

And assuming those settlements would be part of Israel, several of the settlers described a scenario in which Palestinians could stay in their homes but not receive national or voting rights. That drew a sharp reply from the congresswomen.

“Some people would call that apartheid,” Speier said.

“It’s easy to sit in your comfortable house and decide what is good for the Jews,” Dorot responded. “I’m begging you to see that we’re not pieces of Lego you can move around. This is life and death. We all need to think out of the box. I’m asking you to forget about the two-state solution.”

It’s safe to say all attendees on the JCRC and J Street trips support the two-state solution as the best avenue to a lasting peace.

“I am very concerned for Israel’s well-being,” Lee wrote. “This concern is precisely why I think J Street’s message is so important now. Without a negotiated two-state solution, Israel endangers its ability to remain a democratic Jewish state. [The United States] is Israel’s closest ally and I believe firmly that we have a responsibility to stand with our allies when they are under threat. Ensuring Israel’s security is in America’s best interest.”

Bob Linscheid, a Chico resident and chair of the California State University board of trustees, joined the JCRC’s March cohort. Though he, too, says previously he had only a rudimentary understanding of the region’s political complexities, the trip helped him gain perspective.

“I really believe the two-state solution is possible,” he said. “It may take generations to make it can happen but I have faith it will happen. It’s about peace and how we build a nation of peace-seekers.”

In his roles on the CSU board — he was vice chair from 2010-12 — Linscheid has been in a position to weigh in on important policy decisions regarding Israel. Last year he supported the chancellor’s call to end the ban on study abroad opportunities in Israel for Cal State students.

Currently, CSU students may participate in an exchange program with the University of Haifa, a campus Linscheid toured on his trip.

He was impressed with the entrepreneurial spirit he found in both Israel and the Palestinian territories.

“We met two individuals from Sadera Venture Capital,” he said. “One is Palestinian, the other is Israeli, joined together by capitalism. We saw the benefits of working together in Ramallah to commercialize ideas that came from the region.”

Bob Linscheid at a crossroads

Though many Jews naturally connect to Israel, so do the non-Jews who make up most of the trip attendees. Porth said visiting the holy places cements Christians to Israel and its commitment to religious pluralism.

“So many have said the trip is life-altering,” Porth said. “For some it comes from walking the Stations of Cross or in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. They realize what this land means to them, and they quickly gain a huge appreciation for what the land means to [Jews]. They have enormous gratitude for what Israel has done to preserve holy sites.”

Added Assembly Minority Leader Conway, “Jerusalem has such historical perspective for so many people in the world and you see it intersect in the city. I was fascinated by the layers of time. Now, anytime people tell me [about] an old building in California, I’ll say, ‘Are you kidding me?’ ”

How the trips will affect these office holders long-term is uncertain. However, for many, the trips never stop reverberating — such as for San Francisco’s then-Mayor Gavin Newsom, who was part of an Israel trip in May 2008.

Now lieutenant governor of California, Newsom, along with wife Jennifer Seibel, his fiancée at that time, took part in a mission sponsored by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation. In Israel, Newsom toured high-tech companies, met with counterparts in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa, and received security briefings at the Lebanese and West Bank borders.

He said this week he was struck by “how remarkably small Israel is. From a security perspective [the trip] reinforced what I always believed: Standing there right on the border, you understand the politics a lot better.”

Like other Bay Area politicians, Newsom said his pre-trip expectations were formed from exposure to media.

“Invariably that was framed in context of conflict, of stress, of friction,” he said. “I experienced something 180 degrees different. In the context of policymaking, it’s a reminder that one cannot substitute actual experience with an academic experience. It’s essential for anyone in positions of public life that they experience Israel first-hand.”

He said the trip helped him connect more deeply with the economic and cultural ties between Israel and the Bay Area. Along those lines, as lieutenant governor he has pushed for the opening of a permanent California trade office in Israel.

There used to be one there, and in other parts of the world, but all were eliminated in budget cuts in 2003.

“I thought this was an overreaction,” Newsom said. “Rather than reforming it, they eliminated it. California is competing with states like Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi, which all have foreign offices. California has none anywhere.”

Moreover, said Newsom, a onetime wine merchant and restaurateur, “I say this all the time: Some of the best food I ever had was in Israel.”

Porth and her JCRC colleagues see the trips as providing a bulwark against the anti-Israel pushback elected officials routinely face.

Soon after his trip, Weiner, who is gay, sponsored an April reception honoring Elinor Sidi of the Jerusalem Open House, one of Israel’s leading LGBT organizations.

After her J Street trip, Lee sponsored a House bill that would direct the administration to end the United States’ no-contact policy with Iran and appoint a special envoy to engage the Iranian regime in its quest for nuclear power.

“I believe that strong American leadership in applying a combination of diplomacy and sanctions represents our best chance for preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons,” she said in her email.

“I’ve always been pro-Israel, but this takes it to a different level,” said Conway about her JCRC trip. “Before it was just a family perspective, a historical perspective. But when you actually go and see it, it gives so much meaning to what you believe. I’d go back in a heartbeat.”

JTA correspondent Linda Gradstein contributed to this report.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.