Visit to Israel Opens Eyes of American Hispanic Leaders

Click here to view a photo gallery from the trip

Click here to view a photo gallery from the trip

JINSA brought twenty American Hispanic leaders representing business, politics and law enforcement to Israel for a visit lasting January 14 to 20. For all but three participants this was their first time in Israel. “We wanted to come and see the issues here in Israel, see what Israelis are facing. Three days into our trip, we are struck by the similarities between the Hispanic and Israeli experience,” trip chairman Jacob Montilijo Monty, a Houston-based Latino civil rights leader and immigration attorney, told the Israeli daily Haaretz, Jan. 21.

According to Executive Director Tom Neumann, “the trip was an unqualified success.” “It is important for the future of the U.S.-Israel relationship that we invest in American leaders coming from minority communities. JINSA will be at the forefront of that effort.”

During the trip, Israeli leaders, including President Shimon Peres, Knesset Member and former Director of the Israel Security Agency Avi Dicter, intelligence and IDF officials, law enforcement personnel and business leaders met with the delegation and offered a wide variety of perspectives on Israel’s past and future.

Monty said that the delegation “was struck by the similarities between the Hispanic and Israeli experience, got a beautiful briefing about the Sephardic communities in the world, and it reminded us of our own heritage, and those common experiences.”

The visit began in Jerusalem and included visits to the historic and religious sites of the Old City including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Via Dolorosa, the Jewish Quarter and the Western Wall, the Temple Mount and a nighttime tour of the Western Wall tunnel revealing Hasmonean-era Jerusalem.

Former Jerusalem District Police Chief Mickey Levy briefed the delegation at the Israel National Police’s Old City Closed Circuit Camera Security Network control room. Videos were shown revealing how the network plays a key role in thwarting terrorists and how it won over residents and shopkeepers alike through its success in deterring crime.

In a post-trip op-ed, participant Abel Maldonado, the 48th Lieutenant Governor of California and a long-serving California state assemblyman and senator, wrote, “Our Israeli hosts welcomed us with great enthusiasm to show us holy sites central to our Christian faith – protected from harm thanks to the vigilance of the Israel Defense Forces – as well as the modern business centers, technological incubators and cosmopolitan cities on the Mediterranean.”

The group enjoyed an evening lecture by the Hebrew University’s Dr. Shalom Tsabar on the “History of the Sephardic Community from 15th Century Spain to Present Day.”

A trip highlight was the January 17 meeting with President Shimon Peres at Beit Hanassi, the president’s official residence. President Peres discussed the growing economic interdependence of countries and the simultaneous growth in entrepreneurship, which is independent and individual/small group driven. He noted that Israel’s economic success was fueled by entrepreneurship within the intense pressure of Israeli society that is so preoccupied with security issues. He questioned if that drive would be tempered by the recent discoveries of significant natural gas deposits off Israel’s Mediterranean coast. A lively question and answer session ensued.

Soon after their meeting with President Peres, the delegation toured Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, and met with Knesset Member Avi Dicter. Dicter, a former head of the Israel Security Agency and a past government minister, discussed the security situation in Gaza among other topics of current interest.

That afternoon, award-winning journalist and documentary film maker Khaled Abu Toameh spoke to the group about life in Israel for Arabs and the situation with the Palestinians in Gaza, Judea and Samaria. A self-described Israeli Arab Palestinian Muslim, Abu Toameh is the West Bank and Gaza correspondent for the Jerusalem Post and U.S. News and World Report, and has been the Palestinian affairs producer for NBC News.

Abu Toameh broke many stories of corruption in the Palestinian Authority and has been an advocate for the rights of the Israeli Arab community. During his talk, he expressed ongoing frustration with the foreign press for refusing to report accurately on the corruption of the Palestinian Authority that siphoned off hundreds of millions of dollars meant to help the local Arab population in Gaza and the West Bank. Unlike in Israel, an open society where the media is free to operate, he said the international press was afraid of retribution from Palestinian leadership in the West Bank and Gaza. He also commented on the millions of dollars of Western aid money that was used by corrupt officials solely for purposes of incitement against Israel and the United States.

That evening, Dr. Simon Perry, Co-Director of Homeland Security Studies, Institute of Criminology, Faculty of Law at Hebrew University, lectured the group on “The World Perception Through the Eyes of the Islamic Fundamentalist.” Dr. Perry retired as a Brigadier General in the Israel National Police and served as Police Attaché at the Embassy of Israel in Washington, D.C.

The next day, the group visited Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial. Through innovative presentations and displays, Yad Vashem safeguards the memory of the past and impart its meaning for future generations.

In Tel Aviv later that day, former Mossad Global Operations chief Yoram Hessel briefed the group on the Intelligence Process and ongoing issues such as Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and societal trends in neighboring countries.

Next, Chief Superintendent of the Northern District Bomb Squad Kobi Preger discussed the evolution of the suicide bomber as faced by Israel from the early 1990s to today. Lessons learned by the Israeli security services were shared with the United States and are used today to better protect U.S. forces and facilities.

Following a night at Kibbutz HaGoshrim in the Upper Galilee, the group was given a security tour including a briefing by an IDF officer conducted at two posts overlooking Lebanese villages just across the border. Then the group ascended the Golan plateau and visited the town of Katzrin and met with the town’s mayor Sami Bar Lev and his wife Ramona. Later that day, descending to the Sea of Galilee (Kinneret), the group visited the ancient city of Capernaum, the Mount of Beatitudes and a First Century synagogue excavation at the site of the biblical era town of Magdal. Before departing the north, the delegation spent time at the Jordan River site where John baptized Jesus.

In his essay, Lt. Gov. Maldonado noted that, “Later I discovered that Jews, Arabs, Druze, Bedouins and Christians serve side by side in the military, that several minority parties are represented in the legislature and that the Supreme Court has minorities on the bench. It would be a farce to conclude that minority communities in Israel have anything less than a well-represented voice in their country. It is perhaps because of these liberal Western values that Israelis have not known a single day of peace in their 62-year history. Israel has been forced over the years to allocate an extraordinary sum of money towards defending against invading armies, suicide bombers, belligerent states, rocket attacks and all manner of terrorist plots. And yet, despite the economic and security challenges its enemies have heaved upon it, the people have given birth to a fertile land, rich with patriotism, that thrives on home grown technology and innovation. “

The following day, Thursday Jan. 20, the delegation received a briefing on the public-private partnerships fostered by The Weizmann Institute, a leading science institute, research facility and high-tech incubator, by Professor Emeritus David Mirelman. A tour of the campus included the iconic Solar Tower facility. It is the only facility of its type located on a campus of a research or academic institute and is solely dedicated to scientific work.

Later, at the Israeli Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor’s Investment Promotion Center, Joseph Abraham, Director for International Investments, briefed the delegation on how Israel attracts foreign investment focusing on the high tech sector. Following Mr. Abraham, Deputy Chief Scientist Shaul Freilich briefed the delegation on the Office of the Chief Scientist’s role in granting Research and Development funds to spur industrial growth with a focus on American companies investing in Israel.

Just hours before departure, the delegation were treated to a dinner party thrown in their honor by the leaders of Israel’s Sephardic community. The hosts were mostly from Turkey where their ancestors had fled to from Spain to escape the Inquisition after living in Spain for centuries. Their traditional language is Ladino (Judaeo-Spanish, a Romance language derived from Old Spanish). Delegation members took turns speaking to the large crowd about their experiences and the sense of kinship they felt with the Sephardic community, united through language and, in many ways, a history in Spain.

Click here to view a photo gallery from the trip