Seminar for US Mayors: Day One Blog

November 15th, 2011

Editor’s Note:  Elizabeth Planet, AJC’s Director of Regional Offices and the Assistant Executive Director of AJC, staffed  the Mayor’s Seminar.   She wrote a daily blog of her and her group’s experiences and shared them with us here. Photos of the Seminar can be found in our Facebook Gallery.

Monday, November 14, 2011

>> Shalom!  Welcome to Israel!

I arrived in Israel this afternoon with a bipartisan US delegation including the mayors of Cincinnati, Houston, Miami-Dade, Provo and St. Paul, and senior staffers from each of these cities plus Portland, OR and Minneapolis.  We are here to learn about Israeli politics and society, Israeli approaches to economic development, city administration and technology, environmental and water management, and absorption and integration of immigrant communities - all issues that these mayors face back home in the US.

>> First, Forget Everything You Think You Know

This trip will challenge our assumptions and raise many more questions than we can answer.  Although this is a small country with a population of only 7.5 million, it is impossible to fit Israel into a neat, tidy package.

Nothing here is simple; everything is neither black nor white.

>>Something Old, Something New

Israel makes you rethink what is old and what is new.  Israel is, of course, an ancient land.  But the modern State of Israel is so young only 63 years old.  The Jews who live here are for the most part recent immigrants.  But at the same time they are a continuation of Jewish life in this land dating back thousands of years.

The name of the city where we are today - Tel Aviv - is a reflection of the old/new conundrum in Israel.  The word “Tel” in Hebrew refers to an archeological dig, a symbol for the ancient roots of the city.  And the word “Aviv” means spring, a reference to the newness and the freshness of the modern Israeli city.

Tel Aviv was established in 1909, following the first waves of Zionist immigration in the 1880’s.  While it was the yearning to return to the ancient city of Jerusalem that fed the Jewish spirit for thousands of years, the beginnings of modern Jewish life took root in Tel Aviv - a modern, sophisticated, sexy, vibrant beachside city, the center of financial and cultural life in modern Israel.

>> Private Briefing with Miri Eisen

Over a delicious dinner at Nana Bar Restaurant in Tel Aviv (if you go, you must order the Nana chicken) we enjoyed a private briefing with Col. (res.) Miri Eisen, former Senior Advisor to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.  She is one of Israel’s most prominent speakers on regional geo-politics and security issues, and we had her all to ourselves for several hours tonight.

>>Balancing Security Needs with Domestic Policy Needs

Miri spoke candidly and passionately about the balance Israelis must strike between the proximity of danger and the urge to focus on their day to day lives and the building of their society.  The distance between Israel and Iran, for instance, is not much more than the width of Texas.  And sitting at dinner in the heart of cosmopolitan Tel Aviv, we were only about 40 miles from Gaza.

Nonetheless, while security concerns are a reality they cannot escape, Israelis are not consumed with the regional conflict.  Just like the citizens of the cities our US mayors lead, Israeli citizens are focused on local concerns such as education, economic opportunity and housing.

>>Israeli Social Unrest and the US “Occupy” Movement

Our mayoral delegation is very interested in the recent social unrest in Israel - it hits close to home for them as they grapple with the “Occupy” protests in their cities.  They were astonished to discover how large and peaceful the demonstrations in Israel were.  Several hundred thousand Israelis participated and 10,000 tents were erected in Tel Aviv, but the protests remained peaceful and controlled.

The protests signal a shift in Israeli priorities.  Israeli politics have been dominated out of necessity by the regional conflict, but after a period of relative calm the citizens are clamoring for an internal focus on the quality of the education system, the cost of housing and, of course, the cost of cottage cheese (an issue that I am pleased to report has been resolved, which bodes well for breakfast tomorrow).

>> Thinking of Home

Miri spoke poignantly about raising children in Israel, about the need to teach them about security and the urgency of finding the nearest bomb shelter when necessary.  She described her own efforts as a mother to balance caution with comfort, with compassion for other people, and with education.  I thought of my own sons and wondered if I could be that strong for them.

>> Laila Tov

It is raining tonight, bad news for tourists but good news for a land that sees no rain between Pesach (in April) and Sukkot (in October).  In between loud cracks of thunder I can hear the waves of the Mediterranean Sea right outside my hotel room.  It’s a privilege to be here and to share this experience with the leaders of some of America’s most important cities.

Laila tov (goodnight)!<–>

Day Two