By: Sarah Paley
When my husband and I decided to make aliyah with our family from Cedarhurst in 2004, I would never have dreamed that over the last few years, I’d be privileged to enjoy hosting multiple Congressional leaders in meetings with the Prime Minister of Israel and to present Israel—the country and the people—in its best light. But we are the “Start-Up Nation,” where ideas are conceived and formed into action. My associate, Ruth Lieberman, and I, have created the “Yes! Israel Project,” where we lead US Senators and Congressmen on an inspiring, educational, and exhausting but most unforgettable weeklong excursion through the entire Land of Israel. We are two moms, building on a friendship forged from a Ministry of Tourism tour-guiding course, who have partnered to construct these extraordinary bilateral missions. Rep. David McKinley (WV) and his wife, Mary, and Rep. Scott Tipton (CO) and his wife Jean, our most recent participants, were exposed to every dimension of Israel this past week. I would like to share with you some of the experiences that made this particular mission truly memorable.
The Yes! Israel Project is an idea borne out of a realization that in order to understand the realities on the ground in all of Israel, one must go to visit those areas in person and meet the people there, seeing it firsthand. We recognized that there was no sponsored educational travel for US Senators and Congressmen to venture over the Green Line to areas of Judea and Samaria, and little opportunity for them to see the realities of life there and hear from both Israeli and Arab residents about their coexistence.
We understood that to move forward with a productive dialogue, especially regarding these sensitive areas, lawmakers could not accurately portray the realities if they did not personally experience them. As Congressman McKinley put it best, he “hopes to encourage more of his colleagues to cross the Green Line” and have the genuine, fact-finding experiences that he has had this week.
The trips are meticulously planned, touching all aspects of Israeli society, exploring the dynamics of the country in multiple arenas including academia, entrepreneurship, medicine, energy, security, social concerns, and politics. Our guests zigzag through the country, from the Golan to the terror tunnels, from Hebron to Shilo, and from the Kinneret to Derech HaAvot… and of course throughout all of Jerusalem. They participate in high level briefings from the Prime Minister, Cabinet Ministers and Knesset Members, the IDF, and Israeli police. They are introduced to innovative ideas by leading think tanks, celebrate traditional Shabbat meals with our families, explore ancient roots through archeology, and walk in the footsteps of history. The goal is to educate and impact their personal relationship with Israel and to the relevant issues here.
We are very careful to comply with the Congressional ethics committee that must approve each of our itineraries. Over the years, we have brought the Congressmen to visit the field hospital to aid Syrian casualties of war, the commando units responsible for security of Israel’s most sensitive sites, border crossings into Gaza, and houses in Sderot hit by rocket fire only days before their visit. We have met the multifaceted student body in Ariel University, Israel’s newest university, often neglected due to its location in Samaria, and have visited the potential new US Jerusalem embassy sites, long before the new administration made its historic announcement. We meet with all residents, Arabs and Jews, who provide their own insights and experiences so the congressmen understand what BDS really is and who suffers the most when factories in Judea and Samaria are targeted. Just this week we learned of the 100% retention rate many of these factories have with their long term Arab employees.
On this particular trip, the Congressmen were guided on a tour of Har Habayit with Rabbi Chaim Richman. Though some rabbanim do not proscribe visits to Har Habayit, others permit it, as long as one is ritually pure prior to ascending. Every non-Muslim visitor must be accompanied by an official of the Wakf, the Jordanian management that to this day maintains administrative control over the site. As the Congressmen were completing their visit, Rep. McKinley, a committed Christian, reached down to pick up an olive branch. As he stood up, he was immediately scolded by the Wakf official who told the policewoman to take the branch away. As our group stepped off the Mount, the Congressmen were separated and taken to the side, told they were being detained, and were searched for the branch! Ruth, who was with them for the visit, tried to stay with them and at least maintain eye contact, but they were taken behind a large wall and separated from their hosts with little explanation. An olive branch—how fitting.
As Rep. Tipton remarked afterward, “I was dismayed. One of the holiest places ought to be a place where all, no matter your belief, should have the freedom to reflect and to express yourself and your faith.” He said “the irony was not lost on us, that an olive branch, a symbol of peace” was causing such an uproar. Word of the event received widespread media coverage worldwide.
Thankfully, I was able to help resolve the issue quickly with the help of the police and the Congressmen were able to continue to their next meeting with PM Benjamin Netanyahu where they were warmly received and had a productive hour-long discussion on multiple issues facing Israel, most importantly the issue of Iran. Later that day, they enjoyed an in-depth, confidential briefing with our very own US Ambassador David Friedman and his Chief of Staff, Aryeh Lightstone. It’s clear from these meetings that the US-Israel connection is alive and well, and we can add a dimension to that cooperation through direct, open relationships and work.
The purpose of the educational trips is to provide the Congressmen with the context of the reality of the land and its people, for them to understand the conflict Israel faces both internally and in the Middle East at large. They return home more informed and educated, offering them the ability to continue their work on behalf of America’s greatest ally in the region and the world.
Followup and further efforts are the second critical aspect of our work, with continued contact through educational meetings and correspondence with our growing cadre of friends in Washington. Together, we keep on top of the issues, making relevant contributions with facts and information; providing research for committee meetings and creating informed, insightful work that truly reflects the values that we share and that we can promote together. One recent example is our work behind the scenes on the issue of American recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving the Embassy there. Delegations, materials, and insights were all part of the educational process we were called upon by our friends on the Hill, to help push this ahead in an informed, wise manner. We certainly aren’t the only voices heard on this issue but we are aware of the influence we’ve had and are proud of our quiet part, due largely to the relationships we’ve created and the position we’ve carved out for Yes! Israel Project voice to be heard—sometimes loudly and at times behind the scenes.
This effort is growing, and together we will work to make Israel and America stronger and more united. We are excited at the prospect of expanding our efforts to meet the growing demand now in Washington. If you are interested in receiving updated information and getting involved, visit Yes-Israel.org or contact firstname.lastname@example.org. We welcome partners who can join us by supporting our educational efforts.