Updated: 11:15 a.m., Aug. 16, 2018
Protests over a controversial new nation-state law. The denial of surrogacy rights to same-sex couples. Firebomb kites from Gaza. The shooting down of a Syrian jet.
Just another week in Israel.
However, all of the above happened to occur when nine California lawmakers — most of them first-time visitors — toured the Jewish state as part of a special delegation led by Assemblymember Marc Levine of San Rafael.
Funded by the American Jewish Committee’s Project Interchange, the legislators traveled the country from north to the south from July 21 to 27. Stops included Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Herzliya.
Back for his first visit in 18 years, Levine said, “Israel is a country that I feel a strong connection to. Creating a delegation of state lawmakers would create a meaningful, safe way to learn about issues and to ask questions about Israel and the Middle East.”
The group arrived at time when several high-profile issues hit the Israeli — and global Jewish — public sphere.
“These issues,” Levine noted, alluding mainly to the nation-state law and the denial of surrogacy rights for same-sex couples, “raise questions about what it means for Israel to be a democracy. This is a country on the forefront of civil rights for the LGBT community. Is this a step backward?”
On the other hand, he said, his colleagues were able to see tens of thousands of citizens, including Israelis Arabs and Druze, take to the streets in protest of two Knesset actions: blocking an effort to extend surrogacy rights to same-sex couples and passing a law that critics are calling undemocratic and a betrayal of the country’s minority communities.
Designed to strengthen interfaith and intercultural relationships, the Project Interchange trip also saw the California lawmakers meeting with their Israeli counterparts to discuss common issues such as water scarcity, solar energy and high tech.
While meetings among experts allowed for the exchange of ideas and state-of-the-art solutions, the trip also introduced the Californians to a Middle East that they thought they knew and understood.
Assembly members Blanca Rubio (San Gabriel Valley) and Al Muratsuchi (Torrance), both Democrats, returned home with new perspectives about daily life in Israel.
Expecting to have to look over her shoulder for signs of danger, Rubio instead said, “In Tel Aviv, I felt like I was in New York or San Francisco or Los Angeles. People are out, they go to dinner, have fun. Because the news is hell-bent on making the conflict the story, it scared me, but I will tell you there are more murders in areas of L.A. than in Tel Aviv.”
Muratsuchi, a Japanese-born Catholic UC Berkeley graduate, agreed.
“One of my strongest impressions, despite all of the news coverage of a seemingly constant state of conflict in the region, is that I felt extremely safe walking about town, in crowded food markets, in Jerusalem and in Tel Aviv,” he said. “Seeing young people playing volleyball on the beach well into the evening. It was such a happy, peaceful place.”
Still, the conflict was a big part of the mission, with a visit to Kibbutz Nahal Oz, situated close to Israel’s border with the Gaza Strip, and meetings with Palestinian Authority leadership in Ramallah.
“I thought I knew about Israel, about the conflict, but I knew nothing,” admitted Rubio, a former fourth-grade teacher whose 2003 election to her district’s board of education helped springboard her political career.
Levine, who chairs the California Legislative Jewish Caucus, described overlooking Gaza and seeing tanks and fences meant to deter terrorists. Near there, the lawmakers met with kibbutz residents who shared what it’s like to have their fields burned by the ongoing barrage of incendiary kites and balloons.
“The tanks positioned between Gaza and the kibbutz are a striking reminder of the daily reality for those who live on the kibbutz,” Muratsuchi said. “But the overall strength and will of the people living there, to defend the community that some had been born and raised in, surrounded by hostile people and nations, was amazing.”
Meeting with Nabil Shaath, a senior Palestinian official who served as the Palestinian Authority’s first foreign minister from 2003 to 2005, also made a lasting impression.
“Shaath has worked with Palestinian leadership to negotiate peace,” Levine explained. “It was fascinating to hear a Palestinian leader talk about the complications of how to govern all Palestinians, with no elections having been held in over a decade.”
Rubio said the talk with Shaath mirrored conversations the group had with Jewish leaders. “Both sides agree that there is a solution to this thousand-years-old conflict,” she said. “Everyone is rooting for peace and a resolution. It’s there, but people have to talk.”
On a day trip to Israel’s north, the travelers visited a local hospital in the Galilee, where Israelis provide treatment to Syrians wounded in their country’s civil war. Diverted from the Golan Heights (because of the downing of a Syrian fighter jet) the tour went next via helicopter to the town of Metula on the Lebanese border, before returning to Tel Aviv.
Rubio, who recently discovered she is “41 percent Jewish” and that her family left Spain in 1492 for Mexico, where she was born, said, “People there want what we want: clean water, a roof over our heads, kids that go to school. This was an amazing experience that will last a lifetime.”
Levine returned to California with no doubt of the trip’s influence on his colleagues. In fact, when he entered a weekly meeting of state caucuses recently, he heard a participant recounting his experience in Israel.
Said Levine: “For me to hear him do that shows that the afterglow of this trip will be with us for some time.”