A World Away: Minnesota Politicos Reflect on Their Trip to Israel

This is a guest post by Mordecai Specktor, Editor and Publisher of the American Jewish World newspaper.  This article originally ran as “Local elected officials tour the Jewish state” in the October 14, 2011 print version of the newspaper.  

State Rep. Frank Hornstein (right) organized a tour of Israel last month for elected officials. Shown in Israel with Hornstein are (l to r) Rep. Greg Davids, R-Preston; Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park; and Minneapolis City Council members Lisa Goodman & Gary Schiff. (Photo: Gary Schiff)

Toward the end of a conversation in his Minneapolis City Council office last week, Gary Schiff, who represents the city’s Ninth Ward, recalled one of his favorite moments during his first-ever visit to Israel.
On Sept. 20, Schiff and a number of other local elected officials visited Tsfat (Safed), the fabled and picturesque city in the Upper Galilee. The center of medieval Jewish mysticism, Kabbala, caters to tourists these days, and Schiff purchased a shofar in one of Tsfat’s Old City shops.
“A highlight of the trip was getting a lesson from [state Sen.] Ron Latz’s son on how to blow the shofar… I was a fast learner,” Schiff remarked.
“Instant success,” agreed Rep. Frank Hornstein, who coordinated the trip for the Minnesota officials and some of their family members.
Sen. Ron Latz, told the Jewish World that he last visited Israel 25 years ago. He was part of the delegation, along with his wife, Julia Shmidlov Latz, and his son, Nathan, the shofar tutor.
“It was kind of special for us, because Nate will be a Bar Mitzva next year,” Latz commented. “We had a little prayer in the synagogue on Masada — the congregation was our tour group.”
The DFL state senator also mentioned that his family met Rabbi Robert Kahn, formerly of Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park, in the Old City of Jerusalem; and he led prayers at the Western Wall. Kahn and his family made aliya several years ago.
Also on the Sept. 13-23 tour of Israel, the Palestinian Territories and Petra in Jordan, were Rep. Greg Davids, R-Preston, and his wife, Bonnie; Minneapolis City Council member Lisa Goodman; Mary Beth Davidson, director of intergovernmental relations for Hennepin County; Jon Grebner, a political organizer with AFSCME Minnesota Council 5; and Sandy Neren, a lobbyist with the Messerli and Kramer law firm in Minneapolis.
The delegation stayed in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Kibbutz Ginosar on the Sea of Galilee and Eilat. In addition to visiting some of the major tourist attractions, the itinerary included discussions with Israeli and Palestinian government officials, political activists and business leaders. One day was spent in Bethlehem, where the group met with the deputy mayor. A different viewpoint was provided by the mayor of Efrat, a settlement in Gush Etzion near Jerusalem.
Asked if he learned anything that could be applied to his City Council work, Schiff replied, “Yes, everything from now on will be built with Jerusalem stone.”
On a serious note, Schiff said that his visit to the Middle East revealed the complexity of the issues related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Among his South Minneapolis constituents “are so many peace activists” and people “so involved in monitoring U.S. foreign policy.” As one of Schiff’s constituents, I can attest that many folks on the South Side hold views decidedly hostile to Israel, which are not necessarily rooted in knowledge of Middle East history, never mind a firsthand experience of the region.
“If peace was easy, it would have been achieved decades ago,” said Schiff, regarding the ongoing negotiations over the much discussed two-state solution. “Peace requires constant nurturing and constant education; and that’s a lesson that’s applicable all around the world. It’s not so simple to say you’re pro-Palestine or pro-Israel — it’s not a black and white issue, like the American political system likes to package everything.”
Schiff, whose ward includes many Somali immigrants, also traveled to refugee camps in Kenya, on the border with Somalia, in January.
The discussion in Schiff’s office turned to Israel’s ramped-up security regime.
“You go through the airport and they don’t care about your [carry-on] liquids or your shoes,” Schiff recalled, with some bemusement.
“It’s kind of amazing that you don’t take your shoes off,” Hornstein added.
Schiff said that Israel has compiled a national security database. “They know who they’re looking for, instead of randomly reviewing every grandmother trying to fly to Topeka, Kansas.”
The city council member got a taste of Israeli security vigilance.
“Apparently, there’s some guy named ‘Gary Schiff’ out there who’s been doing bad things; so everywhere I went, I got pulled out of line, my passport was seized and I got three times as many questions as anybody else, because my name matched someone in the database.”
It is a different Gary Schiff that the Israelis are after, the council member affirmed.
Schiff said he would prefer a system in this country that focuses resources and targets real dangers, rather than what he characterized as the U.S. approach: “We don’t know what we’re looking for, so we’re confiscating shampoo [in 3.5-ounce bottles].”
Minneapolis has become famous as bike-friendly city, and Schiff, apart from the group’s itinerary, took part in a midnight bike ride in Jerusalem.
Schiff, who is Catholic, also was affected by his visits to Christian pilgrimage sites in Jerusalem, Nazareth and the Galilee.
“I can’t wait to go back,” he said.