Israel: Walking in History's Footsteps

I am blessed that I was able to join my colleagues from the Los Angeles City Council - Mike Bonin and Paul Koretz - on a trip to Israel this week sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.  This trip has the intended goal of giving policy makers a chance to visit this thriving nation; a place at the crossroads of the ancient world and the cutting edge of modern technology, a home to three of the world’s major religions, a place of great promise and great suffering, but bristling with the promise of a better tomorrow.  This trip has been a truly life-altering experience, and I would like to take this opportunity to share with you some of the highlights of my experiences in Israel.

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I would be remiss if I did not discuss the numerous historic sites throughout Israel.  Our delegation traveled across the historic Highway 1, a roadway used since ancient times for trade and for war, a road that travels past the location where it is believed David slew the Goliath, that Judas of Maccabees used in his rebellion now celebrated by Hanukkah,  and used by Israel in its war of independence in 1948.  I had a chance to travel to Bethlehem to see the Church of the Nativity built over the birthplace of Jesus.  It was humbling to travel to this sacred site, managed by the Greek Orthodox, Armenian, and Catholic faiths.  The church is relatively small, and requires pilgrims to walk on their hands and knees to enter the spot where it is held Jesus was brought into the world.  

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Following our trip to Bethlehem, we went to the City of Jerusalem, home to some of the holiest locations in Islam, Christianity, and Judaism.  We began at the Wailing Wall; which is all that remains of the ancient Temple, destroyed in a rebellion against the Roman Empire,  and the most sacred site in the Jewish faith. Although the crowds were thin due to the weather, one cannot help but feel the power emanating from this location, where people come to pray and leave slips of paper with the prayers of others in the spaces between the massive stones. We traveled to an archeological site, where researchers have uncovered the remnants of the streets used 2,000 years ago before the destruction of the city in Roman times. 

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As a Catholic, I was thrilled for the opportunity to visit some of the most sacred locations in the Christian faith; the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus prayed and waited for his arrest, the hill where he was crucified, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where he was buried and rose from the dead. Words fail to adequately describe walking on history and seeing these locations with my own eyes, to know what happened here, and to feel the energy coming from every sacred rock and stone.  It is an experience I will never forget.

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No trip to Israel would be complete without a tour to the Yad Vashem, the state museum dedicated to the atrocities committed during the Holocaust and to the non-Jewish people that risked their lives to save as many people as they could from annihilation at the hands of the Nazis.  The layout of the museum is designed to make you feel as uncomfortable as possible, to get an appreciation for how things got worse for the Jews of Europe as time progressed.  You start walking on carpet, and overtime start to walk on bare concrete, you see people who once had homes crammed into ghettos with multiple families living in small places, of the diseases that broke out in such close quarters, of the despair and horror of the death camps, of the brave resistance offered by those who could fight, and the hope of survivors that settled Israel after the war for a better tomorrow. You hear the stories of the survivors, see the names of the six million people exterminated by a world gone mad, and learn why the world must never forget and keep these lessons in mind for future generations to never repeat again.

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In spite of the close proximity of Jerusalem, and Israel as a whole, to such sacred places, Israel is a land of conflict; of war and hatred spanning several millennia.  Part of this trip was to learn more about the challenges Israel faces in determining its future, and its often contentious relations with its neighboring Arab states that outnumber it population-wise ten to one, and have fought two major wars in 50 years to bring Israel’s status as an independent nation to an end.  We drove past the controversial security walls being built along the West Bank, and looking at it I could not imagine what it must be like to have to live surrounded by such walls, regardless of which side of the wall you live on.  We went to Ramallah to speak with representatives of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), the governing entity of the Palestinian-controlled West Bank.  We heard their frustrations at the slowness of peace negotiations, of the discussions they are undertaking to transform their economy through partnership with venture capitalists to give their people economic opportunities they currently  lack thanks to decades of conflict.  

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Before leaving Jerusalem, our delegation had the opportunity to tour the Knesset (meaning House of Congregation) and speak to several of its members to hear their thoughts on major issues concerning Israel, the challenges of running such a diverse but thriving nation, and how immigration has and will continue to change the nature of their country.  We got their perspectives on the slow nature of negotiations with the Palestinians, of the threats to regional security and humanitarian tragedy that is unfolding in the Syrian Civil War, and the potential  danger posed to themselves and the world at large by a nuclear-armed Iran.  It is not easy to run a nation as diverse as Israel; where citizens range from Arab and Jewish families that have been there for hundreds of years, to newly arrived immigrants from the former Soviet Union that make up the largest wave of new Israelis since the end of World War II, to the very secular and deeply faithful - all of whom have an opinion on how the country should be governed.  With such a diverse group of people coming together to call one place home, and with widely diverging opinions on how to make things work, it is no small wonder that there are 13 political parties represented in the Knesset.

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Once we completed our tour of the ancient, it was time to visit modern Israel by way of traveling to Tel Aviv and the Port of Haifa. Both cities represent Israel’s bustling tech sector, home to ultra-modern semiconductor firms (companies that make chips that power computers, cell phones, and tablets) and manufacturing centers.  Tel Aviv, Israel’s second-largest city, breathes with the same energy I find here at home in Los Angeles; immigrants from all around the world, a thriving nightlife, beautiful views of the water and a warm Mediterranean-influenced climate. Tel Aviv is as modern as Jerusalem is ancient; it is a living monument to the industrious nature of Israel and one of the most dynamic cities in the world.  To the north of Tel Aviv is the Port of Haifa, Israel’s largest seaport and home to its naval forces.  Haifa was constructed in the early 20th Century to replace the ancient port of Acre, which had over-silted and could no longer accommodate increasingly large ships.  The port, which presently handles 24 million tons of cargo and nearly 300,000 passengers from cruise ships a year, is currently undergoing a massive modernization plan, similar to what we are doing at our own Port of Los Angeles, to improve its facilities and cargo capacity.  It is also the place where thousands of immigrants have taken their first glimpse of their new home, and as a child of immigrants myself I can fully appreciate what these people would have been feeling, their hopes and dreams for a better life for themselves and for the generations to follow them.  The Port of Haifa also serves as a reminder of Israel’s status as a strong ally of the United States, as the port services the ships of the Israeli Navy and the 6th Fleet of the United States Navy. 

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This has been the trip of a lifetime, and I am grateful to my colleagues who joined me, the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles for sponsoring our travels and arranging a great itinerary and meetings, and to the people of Israel for welcoming us as guests and as friends.  This trip has strengthened my understanding of the importance of America's full commitment to the safety and security of our partner Israel, and I look forward to doing my part to maintain that relationship down the road.