JTA reported that Congresswoman Giffords’s trip to Israel in 2001 with AJC’s Project Interchange cemented her commitment to Judaism. After that trip, Giffords wrote an account of her trip, which AJC published. As a tribute to her brave struggle for recovery, AJC republished her account of that trip today on www.ajc.org (see below). We are asking members to share their thoughts and messages for Representative Giffords on the Project Interchange Facebook page.
In 2002, shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Gabrielle Giffords, then a member of the Arizona House of Representatives, visited Israel on a trip organized by AJC’s Project Interchange. She wrote this insightful, moving account, which AJC is honored to republish nine years later, upon her return to the United States.
It is a land of contradiction, of complexity and simplicity. Its mountains and deserts were the backdrop for the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the Koran. Now journalists stand before this same landscape and transmit battle reports to viewers of BBC, CNN and Al Jazeera.
It is a land where Orthodox Jews wearing clothing that was fashionable 300 years ago pose for digital pictures taken by tourists wearing the most modern fashions.
And it is a place that offers the most ancient historical accounts, along with the most modern of lessons.
I was honored recently to sample the complexities of the Middle East as a member of a U.S. delegation invited to tour Israel through the American Jewish Committee’s Project Interchange.
Despite months of conflict that have lately erupted into open warfare, our group paid a visit in December amid gunfire and attacks that embroiled all of Israel and the West Bank.
Our delegation was diverse: three state Representatives from Arizona, Texas and Ohio, and five County Commissioners representing Arizona, Georgia, Minnesota, Missouri, Texas and Washington, three of whom also hold leadership positions within the National Association of Counties.
Like most travelers, we embarked amid all the fears that have become part of the airport experience following September 11. Our worries evaporated, however, during our check-in with Israel’s El Al, the airline that rightly has a reputation for state-of-the art security procedures.
All passengers were thoroughly interrogated. Our luggage was efficiently x-rayed and inspected. All bags were opened and often unpacked, and containers frequently were opened. Multiple identifications were required, unequivocally verifying every single passenger.
A contrast with our domestic flights was unavoidable. We rendezvoused at JFK International Airport in New York after arriving on a variety of U.S. air carriers, not one of which demonstrated even remotely the same degree of thoroughness or seriousness we experienced with El Al.
The difference seemed fundamental, and the lessons may be obvious: U.S. airline staffs are trained to detect potentially dangerous objects or people. El Al staff are virtually born with that awareness. Each Israeli newborn is given its first gas mask before he or she leaves the hospital with their parents.
Whether U.S. citizens yet have the will or the tolerance for a similar level of vigilance remains to be determined.
This was just one of several things that we learned from our visit. After touring Israel and meeting with high-ranking political and military figures, it became clear that the so-called Peace Process has shattered into fragments of bitterness and mistrust. What began in 1947 as a United Nations effort to placate Jews and Arabs by partitioning mandatory Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab states, has devolved into a situation of armed camps in which neither side trusts the other.
The process started going wrong when the Arabs rejected the plan which the Jews accepted leading to the inevitable uprooting of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians displaced from their homes into refugee camps as Arab neighbors took up arms to enforce their rejection of the 1947 UN Partition Plan. Those same camps fueled the 1967 Six-Day war and all the subsequent conflict.
Israel has repeatedly routed attacks by the surrounding Arab states, Syria, Jordan and Egypt. Instead of yielding territory to this Arab coalition, Israel has victoriously claimed land and control that it won in battle. Some of this land was exchanged in a search for peace. What Israel got instead was a campaign of violence and terrorism aimed at establishing an independent Palestinian homeland with Jerusalem as its capital.
The 1993 Oslo Accord between Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin was another effort along these lines. It was crafted to trade land and sovereignty once again, this time directly with the Palestinians, in exchange for co-existence. Unfortunately, the spirit of the Oslo Accord has disappeared.
Ehud Barak (note: Rabin was assassinated by a Jewish extremist) and his government were voted out of office and replaced by a hard-line coalition led by Ariel Sharon, who brought tensions to a super-heated pitch with a deliberately provocative visit to the Temple Mount that touched off Palestinian rioting (note: after the Palestinian Authority turned down the most generous and far-reaching offer ever made or likely to be made by an Israeli government and began a campaign of violence instead). Now Sharon is responding by proclaiming that there is no possibility of compromise. Arafat languishes under house arrest and is dismissed as little more than a symbol of resistance even by his own people.
Now Israeli tanks and Palestinian suicide bombers exchange bullets and death, the U.S. is at war with an international terrorist network that demands Arab supremacy over Jerusalem and the rest of the Middle East, and neighbors cower behind walls, barbed wire and never-abating worries of new attacks.
Still, it was impossible not to be awed at the miracles seen in Israel, a nation whose history dates back to 1,000 BC, and the tough pioneering spirit of the Jewish People. Our delegation was equally impressed by the Palestinian struggle to sustain unity without a state of their own, against superior military technology that includes nuclear weapons.
Many members of our group contemplated the impact of the inexorable integration of nations that has sprung from the soul of Globalism, with its world markets and constantly evolving technologies. Has the shrinking world of the Internet, cell phones and other digital technologies helped or hindered the search for peace in this cradle of civilization?
It’s hard to escape the irony of free market capitalism found amidst tourist shops selling t-shirts, biblical trinkets and other souvenirs to tourists whose digital video cameras record scenes of Hassidic Jews praying at the Wailing Wall, Arabs answering five daily calls to prayer, and armed Israeli soldiers facing masked Palestinian boys armed with slings, stones and the occasional Soviet-era rifle.
The question was unavoidable. Does a rising tide truly raise all ships?
While meeting with local and national Israeli elected officials, we were struck by the similar tribulations we all faced as we planned the future of our respective communities.
Where will high-tech companies choose to build their new factories and offices? How can we facilitate high-paying jobs without destroying our uniquely indigenous cultures? What innovative practice can improve water conservation
– a topic of unique importance in the deserts of the Mid East, and the Sonoran Deserts of Arizona
– and how can our communities curb crime and drugs, especially among our youth? In these areas we all found much common ground.
Slowly and inevitably, however, the conversations always returned to the topic of violence.
Americans, unlike Israelis, operate under the presupposition that our mass transportation is safe and our water supply is clean, We think it is the birthright of our children to feel safe to play in public places, and our greatest concern when we visit a nightclub is an unwanted advance, not a suicide bomber. The normal hopes, fears and activities in our homes and neighborhoods are very different from those we experienced in Israel.
They were different, at any rate, until the morning of September 11, when two jet airliners collided with the World Trade Center, another flew into the Pentagon, and a fourth crashed into a Pennsylvania field amidst our newest mantra: “Let’s Roll.”
As we departed Tel Aviv to return to the town halls, legislative sessions and budgetary struggles we face back home, our delegation reflected on a profound educational experience that enabled us to understand the importance of Israel’s existence to the United States, Europe, the World Community and the very idea of Democracy.
We visited Jerusalem and the Knesset. We toured the Golan Heights, the scenes of mass suicide at Masada, and we stood on the shores of the Dead Sea and the Sea of Galilee that were dreamed of by Moses and traveled by Christ and Mohammad. All of it showed us a diversity of history, politics, geography and culture, but it also showed us that we all spring from a similar culture, worship similar gods, and harbor similar hopes for peace and security.
Our visits with Russian and Ethiopian immigrants in absorption centers, our tour of Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, the lunch we were served in the home of a woman who is an Arab-Israeli municipal official, and our discussions of the Palestinian perspective cracked a barrier of ignorance and allowed a ray of understanding to shine on the humanitarian and existential realities of the Middle East.
We left better informed about the difficulties which lay ahead in the Middle East, and better equipped to grapple with the struggles we face at home as our nation and our communities come to grips with the new realities of the struggle to build better lives while coming to grips with the national struggle against world terrorism.
Gabrielle Giffords is a member of the Arizona House of Representatives.
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