For a whirlwind seven days in November, an interfaith and bipartisan group of 10 Minnesota legislators and their guests toured Israel. They visited the country’s historical and political sites from Masada to Yad Vashem, its Christian holy sites in Bethlehem, social services organizations, and Israeli high tech companies. The met with Israelis and Palestinians on all sides of the political spectrum.
The group just got back last week, and I was recently able to speak at length with the organizer of the trip, Minnesota Representative Frank Hornstein, a Jewish legislator whose late father survived the Holocaust. As he told me:
“We organized this because we had a number of people who had been talking for years about going. Several Jewish legislators, but non-Jews as well. I sent an email to the entire legislature to see who wanted to join us.
There were seventeen of us total. We may do this again, there were so many who were interested but couldn’t go this time.
The legislators on the trip included: Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, Rep. Sarah Anderson, R-Plymouth, Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, Rep. Jeremy Kalin, DFL-North Branch, Rep. Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester, Rep. Bernie Lieder, DFL-Crookston, Rep. Sandra Masin, DFL-Eagan, Sen. Ann Rest, DFL-New Hope, and Rep. Steve Simon, DFL-St. Louis Park.
This was not your traditional trip. It was a little bit of everything.
We focused a lot on the peace process. We spent the better part of a day in Bethlehem on a trip organized by a group called Encounter, which organizes trips to the West Bank for Jewish leaders. We met with Palestinians and Israelis. It was a really important stop on the trip.
We met with a group called Friends of the Earth Middle East. They’re trying to clean up the Jordan River. What was really impactful about that afternoon on the Jordan River was crossing the Jordan. It’s a very peaceful border, although there is barbed fence and guards. But people come and go. There are joint ventures.
In the Golan Heights, along Israel’s border with Syria and Lebanon, the group received a briefing on security issues from a retired Israeli General. Rep. Hornstein explained, “The meeting helped people to understand how short the distances are between these three countries.”
We also met with a member of the Knesset, in the Meretz Party. The only openly gay member of the Knesset, a very progressive person. We met with Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator. We had dinner with Ethan Bronner, the Jerusalem Bureau Chief for the New York Times. We had a good and hopeful meeting with a group called the Geneva Initiative, which has proposed their own agreement for a peace process in the Middle East.
We had a meeting with captured soldier Gilad Shalit’s parents. It was really moving, and it was an act of gimilut hasadim. The family was really struggling, not knowing when they will see their son again. We delivered official proclamations to the family from the Cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul. Noam Shalit, the first thing out of his mouth was ‘people in Minnesota know about this?'”
The group visited companies and organizations with Twin Cities connections including a Minneapolis Jewish Federation-funded Ethiopian child care center and Israeli high tech companies. One of the companies, Cima Nanotech is actually headquartered in St. Paul, although its R & D operations are in Ceasaria, Israel.
They davened together last Friday night in Jerusalem.
We went to Kol HaNeshama for Shabbat Services, the Jews and non-Jews in our group together. It wasn’t that different from the hamish conservative services that you have at Beth Jacob, although Kol HaNeshama is reform. Before services, a member of the synagogue spoke to us and we got a sense of the challenges of non-Orthodox religious life in Israel.
We had an 86-year-old veteran member of the legislature with us, Bernie Lieder. He liberated several forced labor camps during World War II. We arranged for a special ceremony at Yad Vashem where he was honored. That day was amazing.
Overall, Rep. Hornstein described the trip as “successful,” and “really moving.” He said, “We may do it again. I’d be interested in organizing the same trip for Jews in their 20s.”