The Second Annual Latino-Jewish Alliance for a Secure America Trip to Israel

The second annual JINSA visit to Israel for American Latino leaders took place from March 17 to March 22, 2012. The six-day Israel trip is a component of JINSA’s Latino-Jewish Alliance for a Secure America, an initiative created to build upon the common interests of American Latino and Jewish communities in areas critical for the future of the United States. This includes a number of U.S.

The second annual JINSA visit to Israel for American Latino leaders took place from March 17 to March 22, 2012. The six-day Israel trip is a component of JINSA’s Latino-Jewish Alliance for a Secure America, an initiative created to build upon the common interests of American Latino and Jewish communities in areas critical for the future of the United States. This includes a number of U.S. national security topics ranging from the Middle East to America’s borders. This year, 21 American Latino leaders were invited to experience and explore the link between Israel and their communities and to build connections. The group boasted educators, entrepreneurs, lawyers, and a prominent pastor.

Dr. Simon Perry, a member of the Faculty of Law at Hebrew University and a retired Brigadier General in the Israel National Police, welcomed the participants at the orientation dinner and gave a brief, yet dense, historical overview. “Israel just became a lot smaller,” said Jesse Chaluh in response to Dr. Perry’s presentation. Chaluh is an entrepreneur and restaurateur from Houston.

Dr. Perry explained what only some already knew, just how close Israel is to its neighbors. For Chaluh and the others, however, being in Israel gave that knowledge new significance. Israel was no longer an abstract idea to support; Israel had become real. “We had never felt the similarities before between the plight of the Jews and the Latino community,” explained Oklahoma City residents and entrepreneurs John and Pat Lopez, “our stories have a lot in common.”

The Latino community’s understanding of Israel plays an integral role in the future of U.S.- Israel relations. “The initial JINSA program was conducted in 2011 and led to the establishment of a Latino-Jewish alliance to explore issues of common interest,” said JINSA Executive Director Larry Greenfield. “Since its inaugural conference and planning meeting on June 21, 2011, in Houston, the Latino-Jewish Alliance for a Secure America continues to evolve into an collaborative effort between JINSA and U.S. Latino community leaders.” Group coordinator and member of JINSA’s Board of Directors Jacob Montilijo Monty has known the value of this relationship for years. “My grandfather was even a member of the Zionist Organization of America in 1918 – we still have his membership card!” But for Jacob and his brother, Ike Monty, both of whom participated in the first Latino-Jewish Alliance trip to Israel last year, experiencing the trip with a new group has only served to substantiate the importance of this trip.

Sunday morning the group met for Mass at Our Lady of Peace chapel within the Vatican’s Notre Dame Center in Jerusalem. After the service, they headed up to the roof for the spectacular view looking over the Old City of Jerusalem that they soon would be exploring. “We never thought we would get to see this,” said Eduardo and Margarita Escudero. The Texas natives had long desired to visit Israel.

All 21 participants found themselves in a part of the world most never thought they would see and each was thankful they had decided to make the journey. Following tour guide Shlomo Carmel through the streets of the Arab, Jewish and Christian Quarters, Texas attorney Hector Longoria was moved by “how exciting it [was] to be in a place where all history lessons began.” One of the highlights of the trip for many of the participants was the opportunity to attend an early morning Mass in the crypt of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Those who opted to make the symbolic pilgrimage woke before dawn to meet Father Christoforo outside the Old City walls and were led through the silent, cobbled roads to the Church. In small groups, each person descended into the crypt and partook in a personal mass with Father Salerno and the Holy Relic.

On the second day of the trip, the group had the opportunity to hear Dr. Perry present once again, this time on the “Perception of the World through the Eyes of an Islamic Fundamentalist.”

The internationally acclaimed journalist Khaled Abu Toameh followed Dr. Perry. A self-proclaimed Israeli Arab Palestinian Muslim, Abu Toameh shared his views on peace in the Middle East and his early experiences writing for the PLO and ultimately as a columnist for the Jerusalem Post. His view of the current situation consumed the attention of the JINSA participants.

After lunch, the group arrived at the Knesset for a meeting with Dr. Uzi Landau, the Minister of National Infrastructure, and a tour of the Israeli Parliamentary Building. Dr. Landau spoke to the group about what the current situation in Iran means for Israel and emphasized the importance of continuing to educate the world on the global repercussions of a nuclear Iran. In his parting words to the group, Dr. Landau imbued a sense of solidarity, “Remember that when you leave Israel you are coming home from an island of democracy. We are all a part of the free world and we are all in the same boat, together.”

That evening, the JINSA group embarked on a tour of the Kotel tunnels. The tunnels, which run below the present day street level and follow the 2,000 year-old road bed at the base of the Western Wall of the Temple Mount, are the closest one may ever come to time travel. The tunnel tour transported the participants back to 19 BCE and allowed them to walk the streets of Jerusalem as they were during the rule of King Herod.

The morning of their last day in Jerusalem, the delegation took a guided tour of Yad Vashem. For Massey Villareal, CEO of Houston based Precision Task Group, the “emotional bombshell was Yad Vashem. I had been to the Holocaust Museums in Houston and D.C. but the significance didn’t really hit me until I went to Yad Vashem. I just kept imagining what I would have done if those children had been mine.” Even days later the experience resonated acutely with participants Javier and Lucinda Loya. “It is so easy to choose not to process what happened,” said Lucinda, “to know what happened but not think too much about it. After this experience we will never be able to forget.”

The group continued north stopping to meet with Oren Arar, Product Manager of the Intelligence Solutions Division for Israeli high tech company NICE Systems in the Tel Aviv suburb of Ra’anana.

The group was then introduced to Colonel Reuven Ben Shalom, who accompanied the JINSA group for a few days. Ben Shalom had recently retired from a long career in the Israeli Air Force. He was a candid and eloquent sounding board for a variety of curiosities ranging from the different sects of Judaism to his opinion on Iran.

The group arrived at the Kfar Blum kibbutz in the Northern Hula Valley for a brief one-night stay and left early the next morning to view the borders of Lebanon and Syria. They began at the Israel border with Lebanon where Lieutenant Tomer from the IDF, who also serves as a liaison to the UN, spent time briefing the group on Shebaa Farm issues, UN border policies, the divided town of Ghajar, and Hezbollah. Crossing the valley towards Syria, Col. Ben Shalom then further explained the state of the Israel-Syrian border. As they stood looking out over the rolling hills of the demilitarized zone, Ben Shalom fielded questions regarding Israel’s perpetually tentative peace and the dense history of the land they stood on.

At lunch the same day, Houston’s Pastor Rebecca Keenan spoke of the impact the JINSA participants could make in their communities to build Latino-Israel relations when they returned home. “We can make a difference,” she said. “If we are educated and speak with one mind and have one heart, we can make a difference. We only have to open our eyes to see what we can do about it.”

The group spent the rest of the afternoon at the Mount of Beatitudes overlooking the Sea of Galilee and stopped at the Jordan River baptismal site. They then returned to Tel Aviv for a festive evening hosted by the Sephardic Israeli Turkish community in the suburb of Petah Tikvah, which in English means “Opening of Hope.”

Members of the Israeli-Turkish community whose antecedents fled Spain during the Inquisition welcomed JINSA in languages familiar to both cultures— food and Spanish. Right at home across the world, the JINSA group was invited to eat, drink, dance, listen to Ladino folk songs and share their own stories. Ladino is the ancient language of the Sephardic community, primarily a mix of Old Spanish and Hebrew.

Trip participant Dr. Richard Vargas, an Associate Dean at the University of Southern California who also works with the Shoah Foundation, a non-profit organization established by Steven Spielberg and dedicated to recording the testimonies of Holocaust survivors, challenged his fellow participants to raise awareness not only of the Holocaust but to become better advocates for Israel. “The state is not only vital to the Jewish people,” he said “but also to the modern Christian identity.”

Closing up the short but solid six days of the trip, JINSA met with an Israeli National Police Bomb Squad Officer for an intense briefing on suicide bombers and the evolving Israeli methods for handling them. Next, they visited Better Place, a pioneering electric vehicle firm setting up battery swap stations to free electric cars from being tethered to charging stations or electrical outlets. All participants were encouraged to test drive the Better Place vehicles on their outdoor tracks, some going close to 90 mph!

Before their flights back to the U.S., some of the participants sat together to share stories. Florida resident and political consultant Jose Maella was struck by how much conflict is infused into the fabric of Israeli society. “It’s easier when you’re watching the conflict on TV and it seems to be on the other side of the world,” he said. “You sympathize but you go on about your business. But when you’re here and you actually see it, it changes your perspective and brings it all closer to home.”

This JINSA trip provided an opportunity for representatives of a dynamic American community to see Israel though their own eyes – instead of through the lens of a television camera. The short trip imparted a sense of camaraderie, creating personal connections between cultures and, as Pastor Keenan said, the trip “helped us understand the similarities between our cultures…may this be the first of many journeys to this land called Israel.”

Story by Sarah Mendelsohn