A day after five Pennsylvania lawmakers toured the Golan Heights in all-terrain vehicles and got a close look at the United Nations peacekeeping force along the border with Syria, 21 members of that U.N. squad were abducted by Syrian rebels.
Though the hostages were released three days later, the event, which made international headlines, served to underscore the volatility of Israel’s neighborhood — particularly how the civil war in Syria could have repercussions in the Jewish state.
State Rep. Brendan Boyle, a Democrat from Northeast Philadelphia who was on his first trip to Israel, said that “it does kind of hit home just how precarious the situation in Israel is.”
Boyle and his younger brother, State Rep. Kevin Boyle, who represents the neighboring district, were among the elected officials who took part in the March 2-9 mission to the Jewish state, jointly organized by the Pennsylvania Jewish Coalition and the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.
PJC and Federation last ran a lawmakers’ mission in January 2012. The plan now is to bring one every other year, according to PJC’s executive director, Hank Butler.
Federation typically splits the cost of the trip with the politicians, though two of the participants, State Sen. Tommy Tomlinson, a Republican from Bucks County, and State. Sen. Daylin Leach of Montgomery County, both went on prior missions so they paid the full cost. Tax dollars were not used to fund the mission.
State Rep. Ron Miller, a Republican from York County, also took part. Except for Leach, who is Jewish, all of the lawmakers that went are Christian.
Tomlinson said that he really admires the Israeli people and their spirit. “I wanted to go back” and see it all over again, he added.
The mission provided a rare setting for Democrats and Republicans to spend an extended period of time together.
“I got to know them pretty well,” Brendan Boyle said of his colleagues. “The fact that we shared this unique experience together does build a bond.”
The trip included a number of security briefings, meetings with retired and current military officials, and visits to sensitive sights, such as a Jewish settlement in the West Bank and the Negev town of Netivot, which is situated near the Gaza border.
They also heard a good deal about the Iranian nuclear threat. The PJC is pushing for Harrisburg to pass a new sanctions law that would prohibit a firm that provides goods, services or credit worth at least $20 million to Iran’s energy sector from winning a contract of $1 million or more with the Pennsylvania Department of General Services.
Several of the officials said they were deeply moved by a visit to Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust memorial.
“That was one of the most powerful moments of my life,” said Kevin Boyle. His brother has introduced a bill in the legislature calling for the state to mandate Holocaust education in public and private schools. Kevin Boyle promised to “quadruple my efforts” to get the bill passed.
The whole experience, he said, “underscores just how legitimate a claim Israelis have” on the land as a home for the Jewish people. “The fact that we are decades past Israel’s formation, for there still to be controversy about this, it has less to do with land than with just hatred.”