From Sacramento to Safed &mdash lawmakers back from JCRC Israel trip

To all those on Capitol Hill who wondered why State Sen. Joe Simitian was toting around a copy of “Snow” by Turkish author (and possible political prisoner-to-be) Orhan Pamuk, here’s the answer: Shimon Peres recommended it.

The Palo Alto Democrat and seven other state senators or Assembly members returned earlier this month from a weeklong tour of Israel sponsored by both the local and Los Angeles-area Jewish Community Relations Councils.

And for Simitian, it was an eye-opening trip. For one, he knew Israel was small, but he didn’t realize it was that small.

“Intellectually, I understood the geography. But until you stand in the Golan Heights and take a look at Lebanon and Syria within your eyesight or look over the security fence at the Golan Heights and see the settlements that have just recently been razed or travel along the barrier of the West Bank and realize how physically proximate these two entities are, well, it’s hard to appreciate what close quarters all these challenges are in,” he said.

“No matter where you are in Israel, there’s a challenge nearby.”

More than any of the other representatives, Simitian was able to use his hometown — Palo Alto — as an ice-breaker with the Israelis he met. Many of them have racked up massive phone bills doing business with Silicon Valley partners and their eyes lit up when he said where he was from.

That included Peres (though he hasn’t racked up the phone bill). In an hour-long discussion, the state lawmakers quizzed the two-time former Israeli prime minister on everything from his recent defection from Labor to the newly minted Kadima Party to, of course, his favorite new books (at Peres’ suggestion, Simitian will next move to biographies of Stalin and Mao).

While some Californians would surely question the relevance of the Middle East in state politics, the JCRC is taking the long view. These state legislators might one day be players in the national political scene — in fact, one participant, Assemblyman Joe Nation (D-San Rafael) is challenging Rep. Lynne Woolsey (D-San Rafael) for her Congressional seat.

But some issues are more pressing. Trip attendee Gia Daniller, the JCRC’s director of legislative affairs, hopes the experiences will lead to the legislators pushing the University of California and State University systems to end their ban, enacted during the intifada, on sponsoring overseas programs in Israel.

“We have a group of legislators committed to doing what they can do to turn that around,” she said.

And, Simitian adds, California is one of the world’s hubs, and any state public servant should get to know the realities of other nations of the world.

And the state senator believes he’s learned a lot. He was surprised by the diversity he saw in Israel, and awed by Yad Vashem. He also found time to sneak away from the group and meet with the Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem (Simitian noted that “as you can probably tell from my name,” he’s of Armenian stock.)

The week the lawmakers were in Israel was a particularly tumultuous one. In addition to the political defections of Peres and others, a suicide bomber struck in Netanya and there were several fatal confrontations at Israeli checkpoints.

As a result of heightened security measures, a Palestinian Authority representative could not pass through a checkpoint to a scheduled East Jerusalem meeting with the group.

“That was a bit ironic,” Simitian said. “But we were not surprised.”

In addition to Simitian and Nation, the trip also included State Sen. George C. Runner (R-Lancaster), Assemblywoman Sharon Runner (R-Antelope Valley), Assemblywoman Carol Liu (D-La Cañada), Assemblywoman Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills), Assemblyman John J. Benoit (R-Riverside) and Assemblyman Todd Spitzer (R-Orange), a Jew making his first trip to Israel.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.