State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams has always been a fan of Operation Understanding, the program that got its start taking Jewish and African-American teens to Israel and West Africa. Now, it has a more domestic focus.
Still, the Democrat who represents West Philadelphia and part of Delaware County has long said he’s always wanted to take part in an adult version of the program.
He finally got his chance. Williams led a group of 13 local Jewish and African-American leaders on a weeklong trip to Israel as part of an effort to deepen ties between Jewish and black leaders. The group — which included several board members of the American Jewish Committee that, incidentally, had co-founded Operation Understanding in 1985 — was in the region from July 15-22.
“We enjoyed each other’s company. People were honest,” said Williams in a phone interview, sounding tired. “It gave me a deeper understanding of Israel and what it means.”
Williams first traveled to Israel more than a decade ago through a program run by AJC. A losing gubernatorial candidate in 2010 and a potential contender for mayor in 2015, Williams has championed Jewish causes in recent years. He’s sponsored a Holocaust education bill in Harrisburg, spoken at a Friends of the IDF gala and expressed concern about anti-Israel activity on campus.
He’s also spoken about how the historic alliance between the Jewish and African-American communities has soured, and that it’s a relationship he wants to revive in a contemporary manner.
“I was raised in fairness and about being fair,” he said, acknowledging that speaking on behalf of other ethnic or religious groups is “sometimes not expected” but wholly necessary.
The trip, which involved visits to religious and historical sites, as well meetings with Israeli and Palestinian officials, came just a few weeks after the passing of William H. Gray, the former African-American Congressman who co-founded Operation Understanding and focused his energies on black-Jewish relations.
Other African-American leaders on the trip included City Councilmen Kenyatta Johnson and Robert Bogle, publisher of the Philadelphia Tribune. Jewish leaders included AJC board members David Hyman, Harold Yaffe and Joseph Zuritsky.
Diversity within Israel was a major theme of the trip. The group met with Shlomo Molla, an Ethiopian Israeli who served in the previous Knesset and addressed Jewish and black audiences in the Philadelphia area last September. They also visited the home of Raslan Abu Rukun, who was the previous deputy consul general for Israel in the Philadelphia region. He is an Israeli Druze.
Williams acknowledged it was difficult to get some of the African-Americans to commit to the trip and that it took some cajoling.
“I told them that this relationship is very essential to the continued growth of the city and the region,” he said.
He also said that the two groups during the course of the trip had a debate about whether the Palestinians or the Israelis bore the brunt of the blame for the conflict. At the end, he said, both sides at least understood the opposing position a little better. “We came to some truths,” he said, including that many Palestinian Arabs who hold Israeli citizenship identify with the state and want to live there.
As a Christian, Williams said he was more deeply affected religiously this time than on his first trip. He also had the chance to attend the opening ceremony of the Maccabiah games.
For a more complete version of this story, including the perspectives of other participants, check back on the website or read the Aug. 1 print edition of the Jewish Exponent.