Israel had long been on Mayor Kim Driscoll’s bucket list. So when she was invited to participate in the American Israel Education Foundation’s (AIEF) educational seminar to Israel for members of Congress and other politically influential people last February, she jumped at the chance.
“We think Salem, which is almost 400 years old, has an embarrassment of riches, from the birthplace of the National Guard to the Witch Trials to the great age of sail. We’re a babe in the woods compared to what’s over there,” she said.
Although she is a practicing Catholic, she was more drawn into the history of the sites she visited than the bible stories. “I really value the role history plays in the character of a place. The commitment to never lose sight of that, whether it’s good history or history that’s more tragic, like the Witch Trials — that’s definitely moving,” she said.
At the Kotel, or The Western Wall (an ancient limestone wall in the Old City of Jerusalem), she also felt the weight of the region’s history and the thousands of years during which there have been sometimes violent disagreements. She came away with an even stronger commitment towards peace. “It is so complicated and so hard to achieve, yet so necessary,” she said.
She was also on the look out for Israeli ideas she could bring back to Salem, and she found more than she expected. “I was struck by the drive for ingenuity and innovation in Israel,” she said more than once during the hour-long conversation.
In particular, she marveled at Israel’s ability to recycle 80 percent of its water in a sustainable, thoughtful way. “It’s amazing what you can do when you have to. Water scarcity is a big issue in the Middle East. They don’t have a choice,” she said.
Israeli engineering firms that have developed ways of monitoring water leaks to help with water loss also caught her attention. “When you think about a water system as old as ours, well theirs is a thousand times older. I think there could be some shared alignment,” she said.
Urban agriculture, also tied to water, is another area of potential transferability. “I think we’re all going to need to think about that as more folks move into cities. There’s already a farm-to-table sustainability food industry here. I think there’s a lot we could learn,” she said.
She also sees potential applicability for Salem to adapt the way Israeli law enforcement communicates with residents. In Jerusalem, for example, a system of colored lights signal the current level of concern about potential attacks from Israel’s enemies. Although Salem doesn’t fear that kind of attack, Mayor Driscoll came away with ideas about how to expand the system already in place that flashes a blue light when there is a snow-parking ban.
“I’m talking more about if trash is delayed a day, or if there is other information we want to get out,” she said. “Right now we rely on phone calls or web sites. Their simple lighting system communicated a universal message to a city where people were from many different backgrounds and spoke many different languages. It was very clear to everyone what was going on.”
According to 2015 Census Bureau information, 23.3 percent of Salem citizens speak a language other than English. That is higher than the national average of 21%.
The February itinerary included briefings at the Gaza Strip and Lebanese and Syrian borders, and visits to the Granot desalination plant and the Knesset as well as to top tourist sites in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Capernaum.
“I really felt like I was on a journey to better understand history and also how people interact in a time when there is trauma, stress and threats all around them. There is a real perseverance in Israel that you can see everyday,” she said in an interview soon after her return.
“We had immense opportunities to speak with everyone we met. We were told, ‘There is nothing you can’t ask. There is nothing out of bounds.’ That was very worthwhile,” she said.
The group was diverse, with members of state government, many of whom had been active in political campaigns and within different policymaking levels of government. “The discussions were really hearty. I appreciated being in a discussion with folks who had different lenses. I brought a lot of the local flavor, I would say,” she said.
What most impressed her, however, were two qualities she circled back to again and again: political consensus building and the perseverance of a people at perpetual risk.
“Israel has 26 different parties. It is very much a parliamentary form of government with lots of coalition building. Yet they can adopt a uniform policy that covers the whole country and it can have meaningful impact,” she said.
Although consensus building is harder in Israel than in the U.S., its power and effectiveness is greater. At the Knesset (Israel’s legislative body), she witnessed lots of party members expressing lots of opinions. “Yet I was struck by their ability to move something forward,” she said in reference to Israel’s policies of universal health insurance and national water conservation policy.
She contrasted that to the situation in the U.S. with our city, county, state and federal levels of government. “We get almost nothing done with two parties, yet with six parties influencing policies and legislation, they manage to get consensus,” she said, shaking her head.
On a more personal note, Mayor Driscoll described her visit to a kibbutz near the Gaza Strip where she met families who live under the constant threat of rocket attacks, yet would never consider living anywhere else.
“Seeing the bomb shelters, seeing the Egyptian border, and hearing first hand from individuals who lived there was very moving for me. The situation was normalized for them. It was normalized for their kids. If you heard the alarm, you had 19 seconds to get into a bomb shelter,” she said.
The impact that governmental actions can have on families’ everyday lives “hit me in the face. A peace process can be mind-boggling, trying to figure out who’s responsible for what and the role we Americans play in it. But the difficulties and complexities involved in that discussion didn’t matter to the kids sitting at the bus stop next to the bomb shelter,” she said.
The geography and diversity of the Israeli landscape, “mountains to coastline and everything in between” surprised Mayor Driscoll. So did the fact that she never felt unsafe for one minute. “I would encourage anyone who is remotely worried about safety to just go,” she said, pointing out that many Israelis she spoke to said they wouldn’t feel safe traveling to the U.S. with news reports of gun violence and school shootings. “We put into perspective the awful things that have happened here, normalizing them. We still haven’t passed gun control,” she added.
The AIEF trip was not all work and no play, and Mayor Driscoll thoroughly enjoyed getting better acquainted with Israel’s “awesome” food. “Shakshouka!” she exclaimed with a broad smile. “My new favorite, and they have it at Adea’s on Sunday right here in Salem!”
“I guess I had never thought of Middle Eastern food as the culmination of different places. It’s a little Syrian, a little Israeli, a little of everything. We were served small plates…but they just kept on coming,” she said with a laugh, adding, “we tried to walk as much as we ate.”
She was also surprised by the visit to a winery in the Golan Heights. “Who thought I’d be in a terrific winery in the Golan Heights? When I think Golan Heights, I think of ‘Duck for cover!’’ she said.
If invited back to Israel for a follow up trip, Mayor Driscoll would suggest the itinerary include digging deeper into Israel’s schooling and education. The February tour incorporated brief visits to schools that are trying to bridge Muslim and Arab and Jewish differences by bringing students and their families together in ways she found “smart and thoughtful”.
“We saw kids from different backgrounds being educated together and celebrating all holidays. This is sometimes under really difficult circumstances in neighborhoods where there may be a history of trauma or tragedy that exists between those with long-held beliefs or differences of opinion.
If they can figure that out, that younger generation might be the real key to achieving peace in the Middle East,” she said.
AIEF is the charitable organization affiliated with AIPAC, America’s pro-Israel lobby, and was created in 1990. For more information visit aiefdn.org.