Former New Rochelle City Councilman and Mayoral Candidate Richard St. Paul recently returned from Israel, a trip sponsored by the American Israel Education Foundation ("AIEF"), the charitable organization affiliated with AIPAC, America's pro-Israel lobby.
The Foundation funds educational seminars to Israel for members of Congress and other political influentials. These AIEF-sponsored trips help educate political leaders and influentials about the importance of the U.S. - Israel relationship through firsthand experiences in Israel, briefings by experts on Middle East affairs, and meetings with Israeli political elite.
We spoke with St. Paul soon after his return to the United States.
How did you get selected for the trip?
I was introduced to the outreach director for the American Israeli Public Affair Committee (AIPAC). After several conversations and attending several AIPAC sponsored events I was invited to the AIEF sponsored trip to Israel.
Where did you go in Israel?
We visited the old City of Jerusalem, the Golan Heights which borders Syria, parts of the West Bank, Tel Aviv, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Masada, the Dead Sea, the borders of Lebanon, Gaza Strip, and the Knesset.
What did you find most interesting about your trip?
Jerusalem is considered holy by Christians, Jews and Muslims. As a Christian one of the most remarkable experiences I had was visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the site of the crucifixion, tomb and resurrection of Jesus. The keys to the doors of the Church are held by a Muslim Family by the name of Nuseibeh. Every morning a member of the Nuseibeh family opens the church and in the evening locks the doors to the church.
What was the purpose of the trip?
While visiting Masada, a mountain top fortress known as the last Jewish stronghold against the Roman invasion, a young woman in rabbinical training asked me about my visit to Israel. I explained to her that I was here on an education tour coordinated by the American Israeli Public Affair Committee (AIPAC). She then asked did AIPAC as a pro-Israel organization try to influence my opinion to unquestionably support the position of the current political leadership in Israel. My answer to her was "no". In fact the trip was designed to allow each participant to make up his or her mind. While in Israel I heard from Arab Jews, Ethiopian Jews and Palestinians on their prospective of how they are treated as minorities to progress they have made as minorities.
How is life in Israel different then other places you have visited?
Security is a serious concern to the people of Israel, some people have bomb shelters attached to their houses like, a garage attachment to a home in America. Just this year, hundreds of rockets were fired into Israel, not at military targets but, any target (men, women, children, school, civilian buildings, etc.). These assaults require a military response by the Israel Defense Force (IDF). The IDF response triggers a response of the Hamas Palestinian coalition government and the cycle begins over again. Both sides have blood on their hands as innocent people have been killed during each response. It is easy to draw the conclusion that there can never be peace among the two neighbors.
Do you think the two sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can ever reconcile?
There have been consistent efforts by both sides to come to the table and work on a plan for peace. If fact some progress has been made. For example, in 2005 Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip, effectively handing over control to the Palestinians. One thing I learned from the visit is that the Palestinian people and the Israeli people want peace. I observed first hand that both people are driven by hope for peace. Hope is very strong, hope for change, hope for a better future helped America elect its first black president. With Hope, you never fail until you stop trying. I believe peace will come, it’s not a matter of when but a matter of how.
How does your time in elective office in New Rochelle inform your views of Israel having had a chance to see the country close up?
Israel is a young democracy (66 years-old) which like many young democracies have the challenge to develop and consolidate its government in order to fix economic and social problems as well as deal with ethnic groups with different values and interests and furthermore keeping the democracy intact. In fact, these concerns came to a head while I was in Israel. The coalition government (one in which several political parties make up the government and select the prime minister) lead by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fired his ministers and the legislative body voted to dissolve itself and hold new elections in March 2015. The major factor that lead to dissolving the government was a piece of legislation known as the Jewish state bill. A bill supported by the Prime Minister but not his coalition partners. The bill would essentially, call for the national rights only for the Jewish people; a flag, anthem, and Hebrew as the national language. One of the main issues with this is the rights of non-Jews living in Israel could be minimized. As we know in a democracy that’s not a good start. In America, we have a constitution that guarantees every American certain rights and we do not have an official language. Like Rome, that was not build in a day, it has taken America over 200 years to settle into our democracy and we still need to do better. We got here after fighting two wars against the oppressive British, a civil war and countless battles over social inequalities, like the treatment of Native Americans, slavery, Jim Crow, imprisonment of Japanese Americans, Woman Suffrage, etc. When the United States was founded there was no exact road map to becoming a successful democracy. Like all democracies, there is a delicate balancing act that must be maintained in order to create stability. While our democracy is not perfect (as an African-American, I know all too well the imperfections), it has provided us with the opportunity to be the largest economic and military power in the world. It is therefore, incumbent upon us to help other democracies like Israel. Imagine a world without democracy. Think about the atrocities committed by non-democratic governments and the inability to seek justice. How would a non-democratic governments react to protest in the streets because several government police officers killed ethnic minorities.
Any final thoughts?
Israel and its people are our ally and friend. In order to understand this bond, you cannot simply judge by reading a newspaper or watching TV you must visit Israel. Culturally, there is much to exchange, the commitment to support each other in Israel is resilient. The advancement in dealing with at risk youth, homelessness and tolerance is innovative. The agricultural and technological advancements are astonishing. The commitment to public service outside of Israel is laudable. As Dr. Martin Luther King said, “a threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”. A great injustice of our time would be to let a democracy like Israel fail.