A New York Olah and the Congressional Olive Branch Uproar

(l-r) Sarah Paley (co-founder, Yes! Israel Project), Mary McKinley, Rep. David McKinley, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Rep. Scott Tipton, Jean Tipton, Ruth Lieberman (co-founder, Yes! Israel Project).
(l-r) Ruth Lieberman (co-founder, Yes! Israel Project), Jean Tipton, Rep. Scott Tipton, Ambassador David Friedman, Rep. David McKinley, Mary McKinley, Sarah Paley (co-founder, Yes! Israel Project).

When our family made aliyah from Cedarhurst in 2004, I would never have dreamed I’d be privileged to host congressional leaders in meetings with the prime minister of Israel and to be charged with presenting Israel—the country and the people— in its best light. My associate, Ruth Lieberman, and I, met in a Ministry of Tourism tour-guiding course, and created the Yes! Israel Project, where we lead US Senators and Congressmen on an inspiring, educational and unforgettable weeklong excursion through the entire land of Israel. Our most recent clients were exposed to every dimension of the state of Israel and enjoyed a truly memorable week.

The Yes! Israel Project was born out of a realization that to understand the realities on the ground in all of Israel, one must see it firsthand. We recognized the value for U.S. Senators and Congressmen to venture over the Green Line and spend a day in Judea and Samaria, to allow them the opportunity to see the realities of life there and hear from both Israeli and Arab residents about their coexistence.

We understood that to generate a productive dialogue, lawmakers had to personally experience these realities firsthand. As Congressman McKinley put it best, he “hopes to encourage more of his colleagues to cross the Green Line” and have the genuine, fact-finding experiences that he recently had.

The trips are meticulously planned, touching all aspects of Israeli society, exploring the dynamics of the country in multiple arenas including academia, entrepreneurship, medicine, energy, security, social concerns and, of course, politics. Our guests zigzag through the country, from the Golan to the terror tunnels, from Hebron to Shilo and from the Kinneret to Derech Ha’avot… and of course throughout all of Jerusalem. They participate in high-level briefings from the prime minister, cabinet ministers and Knesset members, the IDF and Israeli police. They are introduced to innovative ideas by leading think tanks, celebrate traditional Shabbat meals with our families, explore ancient roots through archeology and walk in the footsteps of history. The goal is to educate them and impact their personal relationship with Israel and the relevant issues here.

We are careful to comply with the congressional ethics committee, which must approve each of our itineraries. Over the years, we have brought the congressmen to visit field hospitals to aid Syrian casualties of war, the commando units responsible for security of Israel’s most sensitive sites, border crossings into Gaza and houses in Sderot hit by rocket fire only days before. We have met the multifaceted student body in Ariel University and visited potential US Jerusalem embassy sites, long before the new administration made its historic announcement. We meet with all residents, Arabs and Jews, who provide their own insights and experiences so the congressmen understand what BDS really is and who suffers the most when factories in Judea and Samaria are targeted. Just this week, we learned of the 100 percent retention rate many of these factories have with their long-term Arab employees.

On this particular trip, the congressmen were guided on a tour of Har Habayit with Rabbi Chaim Richman. Every non-Muslim visitor must be accompanied by an official of the Wakf, the Jordanian management that maintains administrative control over the site. As we were completing our visit, Rep. McKinley, a committed Christian, reached down to pick up an olive branch. As he stood up, he was immediately scolded by the Wakf official who told the policewoman to take the branch away. As our group stepped off the Mount, the congressmen were separated and taken to the side, told they were being detained and were searched for the branch! Ruth, who was with them for the visit, tried to stay with them and at least maintain eye contact, but they were taken behind a large wall and separated from their hosts with little explanation. An olive branch—how fitting.

As Rep. Tipton remarked afterward, “I was dismayed. One of the holiest places ought to be a place where all, no matter your belief, should have the freedom to reflect and to express yourself and your faith.” He said, “The irony was not lost on us, that an olive branch, a symbol of peace,” was causing such an uproar. Word of the event received widespread media coverage worldwide.

Thankfully I was able to resolve the issue quickly with the help of the police, and the congressmen were able to continue to their next two meetings, one with PM Benjamin Netanyahu, and one with US Ambassador David Friedman and his chief of staff, Aryeh Lightstone. The congressional representatives returned home more informed and educated, enabling them to continue their work on behalf of America’s greatest ally in the region and the world.

The purpose of the the educational trips is to provide the Congressmen with the context of the reality of the land and its people, for them to understand the conflict Israel faces both internally and in the Middle East at large. They return home more informed and educated, offering them the ability to continue their work on behalf of America’s greatest ally in the region and the world.

Follow-up is the second critical aspect of our work, with continued contact through educational meetings and correspondence with our growing cadre of friends in Washington. We have been fortunate to partner with Bergen County residents Miriam Lightman and Miriam Pfeiffer, who serve a pivotal role in following up with these members of Congress, working to further educate and cultivate our relationships. Together, we keep on top of the issues, making relevant contributions with facts & information; providing research for committee meetings; and creating informed, insightful work that truly reflects the values that we share and that we can promote together. One recent example is our work behind the scenes on the issue of American recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving the embassy there. Delegations, materials and insights were all part of the educational process we were called upon by our friends on the Hill to help push this ahead in an informed, wise manner.

This effort is growing, and together we will work to make Israel and America stronger and more united. We are excited at the prospect of expanding our efforts to meet the growing demand now in Washington. If you are interested in receiving updated information and getting involved please check out www.yes-israel.org or contact sarah@jaffestrategies.com We welcome partners who can join us by supporting our educational efforts.

By Sarah Paley