There is much that we can learn from Josh Gottheimer’s first trip to Israel as a member of Congress.
Mr. Gottheimer of Wyckoff, the Democrat who is six months into his first term representing New Jersey’s Fifth District, was one of more than 20 Democrats who toured Israel for about four days; a similar group of Republicans had a similar, simultaneous tour. The two groups joined for another two days at the end. (The tours are sponsored by the American Israel Education Foundation, a nonprofit organization affiliated with AIPAC.)
Mr. Gottheimer was the only Jew on the Democratic side; there was only one Jewish Republican, fellow freshman David Kustoff of Tennessee, he reported. And altogether, Mr. Gottheimer added, the Democrats and Republicans combined represented about 12 percent of the Congress.
Although some of what Mr. Gottheimer learned is classified, as he told a meeting at Temple Emanu-El of Closter last Friday, some of it was not. But perhaps the most striking — and probably accidental — and definitely useful — information he released was the obvious but hard-to-grasp fact that members of Congress are people. Not automatons, not stuffed suits, not stiff officials, but actual people.
Those people, Mr. Gottheimer said, can and do have their views of Israel influenced by what they actually see, hear, smell, taste, and breathe there.
The trip included sessions with Israeli officials and representatives of a number of widely divergent groups, including, for example, Arab Israelis and settlers. The Americans discussed a range of subjects, including defense, terrorism, agriculture, water, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, democracy, technology, and such internal-and-external political issues as the debate roiling the liberal diaspora Jewish world over the question of women at the Kotel. The schedule was packed so full that “every day felt like a year,” Mr. Gottheimer said.
Although most of the speakers had their own deeply held, passionately presented points of view, the impression overall was of balance, Mr. Gottheimer said. The Israelis “went out of their way to present a balanced view” — to the point, he said, where it could feel frustrating, when the subject was an issue on which he already has a strong opinion — and in the end it helped, “because nobody felt pushed or arm-twisted.”
The trip began on Friday night, with a Shabbat dinner; the group split up and went to homes, where they sat around Shabbat tables, listened to the brachot, introduced themselves, talked, and listened.
The next days were spent touring and talking. There was a microphone on the bus, and each member of Congress was allotted five minutes to talk into it; that microphone, Mr. Gottheimer said, was a highly coveted object. These are people who love to talk.
But they also were open to what they were seeing.
Not everyone who was on the trip was pro-Israel, he said; in fact, he considered six or seven of them “iffy” on the Jewish state, he said. But they went for a variety of reasons, not least among them spiritual searching in the land where their religion, like his, first took root.
Many of the members of Congress were moved by what they saw. “There were different aha moments for everyone,” Mr. Gottheimer said. “A lot of different ‘I get its.’” The combination of the country’s stark beauty and its religious significance evoked deeply personal reactions in many of the Congressional travelers. For him, he added, “it all came together at Masada.”
Even though the politicians knew in the abstract how small Israel is, and how close to its borders its enemies are, they were surprised at how small it felt, and how close the borders seem to be. The sense of danger surprised them. They also were impressed by the risks that Israeli health care workers take to work with Syrians, who might be terrorists but whose need for help supersedes the dangers they might present.
They talked a great deal with Israeli officials about Iran. Although most of what he heard was classified, he said, he was able to tell us that “as we are getting ISIS, Iran is growing in power. From a threat perspective, we have to figure out what we will do to stop Iran’s growing hegemonic drive. I am very concerned about it.
“I was against the deal,” he added. That was the Iran deal, signed in 2015, that divided opinion in the Jewish world as well as outside it. Mr. Gottheimer was against it — a view that lost him a great deal of support, both financial and logistical, he said — but now “it is what it is.” The threat that Iran poses is real, whether or not the deal is effective in curtailing it for the next decade or so; to ignore it is to court disaster, he said.
The visiting representatives also heard a great deal about missiles, including the ones aimed at Israel and the American-made ones Israel deploys to shoot them down. Again, the threat Israel’s neighbors pose became clear. “If there are 1,000 missiles coming into Israel, where do they position their defenses?” he asked. “You can’t get them all. It’s a big question.”
One of the Republicans on the trip was Mr. Gottheimer’s colleague and friend Brian Mast, a conservative from Florida. Together, the two men co-sponsored the U.S.-Israel Joint Missile Defense Act, a bipartisan piece of legislation that helps fund Arrow 3, the long-range missile defense system that Israel and the United States have developed together.
The American politicians met with their Israeli counterparts, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. They also met David Friedman, the American ambassador to Israel. “You didn’t know what to expect,” Mr. Gottheimer said about Mr. Friedman, President Donald Trump’s controversial pick for the position. But, reassuringly, “he gave a good, focused address.”
The trip was so balanced, so propaganda-free, that of the six or seven representatives whom he knew to have been not particularly comfortable with Israel, only three had not changed their positions by the time it was over, Mr. Gottheimer said. The others “will become vocal champions.” As for the members of Congress who started out pro-Israel, their feelings have intensified. They will do more than they had before to promote the health of the Jewish state, not only for its own benefit but also because they see it as the lone bulwark of democracy in the Middle East, and therefore important for the health of the United States.
This Congressional trip to Israel, Mr. Gottheimer concluded, “is essential. If I could get everyone to go on it, I would.”