By Sheldon Silver
Last week’s diplomatic mission to Israel to express our solidarity with the Jewish homeland had a profound effect. The mission was important, which became abundantly clear when we boarded the El Al flight. The passengers on board, one after another, rose to thank Governor Cuomo,
fellow delegation members, and me for committing ourselves to demonstrating New York’s solidarity with Israel. Their outpouring of support reminded us that this trip was not only critical but also an extraordinary privilege.
Although our stay was short, our itinerary was packed with eye-opening experiences and unforgettable discussions. Our meetings with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Reuven Rivlin, former president Shimon Peres, and Defense Secretary Moshe Ya’alon exposed us to the immense challenge of leading a nation and protecting a people who are faced with relentless attacks from terrorist forces whose primary goal is to erase Israel from the map of the world. The most poignant lesson we learned was about the vast difference between international media accounts of the conflict and the “on the ground” reality of defending the Jewish State.
We viewed surveillance tapes showing Hamas militants firing missiles at Israel and then escaping in ambulances to protect themselves from Israeli defenses. The videos also show missiles being fired by Hamas militants from apartment houses, and they use hospitals and mosques as weapons storage areas and launching sites. We traveled to the Gaza border and climbed into a tunnel–one of dozens–uncovered by Israeli forces that enabled Hamas terrorists to sneak into Israeli communities to commit their vile acts. These tunnels are particularly heartbreaking when you consider the cost to build them could have gone to building schools, hospitals, and housing for those most truly in need.
We were shown the incredible Iron Dome defense system and came away feeling proud that it had been developed in partnership with the United States. It was also clear that Prime Minister Netanyahu is right: Israel uses rockets to protect civilians, while Hamas uses civilians to protect their rockets.
Over the course of our visit, we were also blessed to meet a number of Israeli soldiers. These young men and women were from Israel, America, and nations around the world. Looking into their young faces and listening to their stories touched our hearts and reminded us that freedom and democracy often come with a price, sometimes a terrible price.
Our trip was not all business all of the time. We also met a number of Israeli citizens and were greatly impressed by their optimism and energy despite living in a place where sirens warn them several times, day and night, of incoming Hamas rockets.
We left Israel both inspired and changed. Having visited there many times, I am always amazed at the beauty and the power of our Jewish homeland. The courage and devotion of its leaders and soldiers left an indelible mark on our minds and hearts. Surely, we had received as much as we had given, and left feeling that the ties that bind our respective states are stronger now than they have ever been.
We stand with Israel. May she endure, prosper, and stand strong for all of eternity. Ï–
Sheldon Silver, a Democrat from Manhattan, is the Speaker of the New York State Assembly.