AJC Westchester Blog

Project Interchange – Counter-Terrorism Trip – Day 1

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“Anybody going to Israel?”  That was the way that an NYPD detective charged with handling high profile, security sensitive projects for New York counter-terrorism officials, greeted the group as he confidently strode into the group room at Newark Airport.  The group was excited to be going – most of them for the first time.  It is a varied group of 14 people plus me.  Three NYPD, three LAPD, two from Seattle, one from Houston, two from Austin, two from Virginia and the Deputy Mayor of Washington, D.C. in charge of public safety.  Asian-American, African-American, Hispanic-American are represented in the group.  They are a polite group who are grateful for the opportunity.

The highlight of the flight over was an announcement from the pilot about the final score of the World Series – 6-2, Cardinals.

Our arrival was no secret.  As we exited the plane, a woman was holding a big sign that read “American Counter-Terrorism Officials.”  Each person exiting the plane now knows that they flew with an auspicious group, as we were in the back of the plane.  We were personally escorted through every step of the arrival process until we were out in the terminal and turned over to our Guide Gadi, an affable retired policeman.  He seems to know everything about the Country and can offer detailed insights related to security that other guides cannot.

While I have staffed many missions from Khabarovsk in the Russian Far East to Havana, and have been to Israel dozens of times, I have never led a group here.  Despite my knowledge and love of this place, I feel I am seeing the country anew as I see it through their eyes.  For example, I have to say that the new Airport coupled with the drive to Tel Aviv make a very strong and positive first impression.  The airport is gorgeous, gleaming, modern and comfortable.  The superhighways leading from the Airport to Tel Aviv are smooth, clean and dripping with flowering trees and bushes.  The Carlton Hotel is on the tayelet (boardwalk) on the beach, and many rooms have a view of the beach and the skyline.  We were greeted with glasses of peach iced tea and fresh fruit, while keys were handed out.  First impressions are important, and the first hour made a very positive first impression on this group that likely had a war-torn image of Israel.

Interestingly enough, despite getting the o.k. to jog on the beach from the Director during our orientation briefing call last week and despite Gadi’s remarks about the fact that Israel is a much safer country than the U.S., especially in terms of violent crimes, such as gang-related issues, I still was asked whether or not it was safe to run in the area of the hotel.  When questioned the run, this detective told me that he ran for two miles in either direction along the beach and that it was wonderful.  There is now a dedicated bike/running path along the beach.

Tonight’s activity was a welcome briefing from the Project Interchange Coordinator in Israel – the charming Keren Naveh, followed by a briefing by Herb Keinon, Editor of the Jerusalem Post, an oleh (immigrant) from Denver.  Project Interchange brings to life the concept that when it comes to understanding Israel, there is no substitute for first-hand experience, and it is PI’s job to deliver that to today’s most influential (or up and coming) leaders.  Since 1982, they have brought 5,500 military, civic, religious, media, business, high-tech, and university leaders from some 65 countries to Israel.  The programs are all week-long institutes and offer the participants broad exposure to the complex issues facing this country.  It also offers Israelis a chance to form bonds with leaders from around the world.  Some aspects of programs are similar, and some are tailored very specifically to the group going, such as tomorrow morning’s briefing on suicide bombers.  Something tells me not every group gets treated to that – at least not at 8:30 a.m.!

In exchange, all that PI asks of the group is that they are open minded to what they are hearing this week, which might not be the impression that they had of Israel, and that they will do their best to pass along what they learn.

Among other things, the group learned tonight how tied Israelis are to the news, and the three tones that they hear on the radio that means the news is coming.  It affects them so directly.  As the group heard, today’s news has the story of grad rockets falling on Gan Yavneh, near Ashdod, as we speak.  Gan Yavneh is no more than a 30-minute drive from where we were eating dinner.  These rockets are being fired by Islamic Jihad.  It seems that Islamic Jihad shot rockets on Thursday, and Israel retaliated by killing one of the Islamic Jihad leaders, so now they are retaliating.

Some things that seemed to intrigue the group during the dinner briefing:

  1. Living in Israel for many Jews is enough to say that they are living Jewishly.  This went along with a discussion about whether or not Judaism is a religion, culture, ethnicity, or nationality.
  2. How could Israel trade 1,000 convicted criminals for 1 Israeli?  The premium placed on bringing our soldiers back to their parents if at all possible was stressed several times.  As an example of the type of questions that the counter-terrorism officials can ask, they wanted to know if Israel feels confident that they extracted all of the intelligence that they could out of these prisoners before releasing them. Herb made it clear that that was very likely.  Nevertheless, he felt that this was definitely the most difficult decision Netanyahu had to make.  While acknowledging the concern that these criminals will go back to fighting Israel and will be inclined to capture more Israelis, he then he quoted a stat that I had not heard before.  Since Gilad was kidnapped, there were 15 other attempted kidnappings, and all failed.  Hamas will continue to do this, no matter what.  The answer is not forsaking Gilad; the answer is security.
  3. The degree to which guns are plentiful, because everyone is in the army vs. the very low level of crime associated with those guns.  Despite the many guns, they are limited to certain classes – military, West Bank dwellers, those who carry diamonds and a few others.
  4. The notion that 9% of the population is ultra-orthodox, and their males neither work nor serve in the army.  The reasons for this and how this manifests itself was discussed at length, given their clear fascination.  The New Yorkers tried to relate to this with their impression of Chasidim in New York, though, as they learned, it is different.
  5. In the face of all of the pressures, they wanted to know if people leave in droves.  The response was no, and it led to a positive ending to the evening, as Herb dwelled on the resilience of Israelis and their patience with inconveniences to their daily life in the name of security.  The DC Deputy Mayor acknowledged that if those inconveniences happened in DC, it would result in angry calls to his office.

Written by Scott Richman, AJC Westchester Director

October 29, 2011 at 5:23 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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