Perhaps we are too quick to criticize our elected officials who fly away on those expense-paid trips abroad that the press delights in calling junkets. Consider my example.
I'm a public official who took an international junket to Israel. Lest heads start shaking in dismay, let me say that I found my trip a valuable and informative way to travel. I saw and learned much more than I might ever have on my own -- which, of course, is how junkets are supposed to work.
I was thrilled when I received an invitation last year from the Jewish Community Council of Greater Washington to visit Israel for 10 days with a dozen other local government officials. I knew it would be a great opportunity. But, in truth, I did have some concerns.
Having worked at the national office of Common Cause for more than eight years, I had done my share of criticizing government officials for political junkets. The fact that the trip was labeled a "Political Leadership Seminar" provided little solace.
The requirement that we send a check to reserve our place made me feel better, even if it fell far short of the full tab. Real junkets don't require deposits, I assured myself. And, as a county councilman, I couldn't figure out what kind of conflict of interest I might have from a trip to Israel. In Montgomery County, we leave foreign policy issues to the Takoma Park City Council.
Now that I have returned, my main concern is that the Jewish Community Council could give junkets a good name, ruining the reputation of one of America's most dishonored political institutions. It was, as things turned out, run much more like a seminar than any of the junkets I had criticized.
In truth, it wasn't all exactly hardship duty. There was time for shopping, and I did manage to swim in the Mediterranean Sea and the Sea of Galilee, and float in the Dead Sea. But our superb guide, Lee Berlman, a Midwesterner who has lived in Israel for 20 years, ran the trip on a schedule that would have impressed a Marine drill sergeant. She packed 12 to 15 hours each day full of visits to historic sites and museums, supplemented by seminars with academics, news commentators and political leaders.
Short of moving to Israel for several years, I can't imagine how I might otherwise have met so many knowledgeable people willing to answer my questions about the country.
This definitely was not a propaganda show. Our hosts -- the Jewish Community Council and the Academic Services Bureau of the World Zionist Organization -- set out to expose us to Israel, Jewish culture and the reality of life in a Jewish state in the Middle East. Their admirable commitment to provide us with a broad range of viewpoints and not bar any subjects from our discussions impressed even the most skeptical politicians among us.
We had sharp exchanges with political leaders and provided some uncomfortable moments for our speakers. We were not exposed exclusively to Israeli points of view and cultures. In addition to the obvious spokesmen, we met with a Palestinian journalist and the mayor of Baga el Gharbiya, an Arab town. The journalist told us he is always impressed by Americans. In his view, we come to Israel with 2,000 questions and leave with 3,000.
One test of the value of a junket to a public official might be in how it benefits the official's constituents. Ideas are the travel souvenirs of a conscientious junketeer. I was so moved by the tree-planting ceremony at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Forest, for example, that soon after my return from Israel I contacted the suburban Maryland building industry. With the industry's assistance, volunteers were able to plant thousands of trees in parks and on school grounds as part of Montgomery County's first annual Community Service Day last October.
I returned from Israel with four strong personal observations:
Time. Almost immediately on arriving, I was struck with how incredible it is that America can be so cocky despite our relatively short history. In Israel, you visit the Mount of Olives, where Jesus was taken prisoner 2,000 years ago, and you see olive trees said to be direct offshoots of the trees that stood in biblical times. Then you realize Jerusalem was settled nearly 2,000 years before that.
By contrast, Jerusalem's Yad Vashem, the state memorial to the Jews who died at the hands of the Nazis, reminds one that the unimaginable Holocaust ended barely 40 years ago. We were fortunate to be among the very first visitors to the new children's memorial there.
Size. As a legislative junkie, I was amazed to find that the Knesset -- a body capable of dominating the headlines of major newspapers across the world and shaking the foundations of international politics -- is very much like one of America's average-sized state legislatures. Then it struck me that Israel, established as an independent nation in 1948, has only 4 million people, comparable to my own state of Maryland.
To understand the political tensions of the region, there is simply no substitute for seeing the geography. Israel is a very small country. In just 24 hours, we visited two of the kibbutzim at the Lebanon border, traveled through the Golan Heights, saw an intelligence station just 40 miles from Damascus, Syria, and drove through the West Bank to Jerusalem.
But even the most sophisticated Americans have difficulty understanding just how small the country is, and how unsettling it is for Israelis to live with such close and unsecured borders, according to Simcha Dinitz, a Labor member of Knesset who served as ambassador to the United States a decade ago. Dinitz recalled for us a briefing he once gave a high-ranking Carter administration official. The official told Dinitz he favored "minor" border adjustments from the 1967 Israel-Jordan cease-fire line. When Dinitz asked him what he considered minor, the official replied 25 to 30 miles.
You can imagine Dinitz's reaction when you realize that the entire West Bank area is only about 30 miles wide, and Israel's width is less than 20 miles at some points.
On a drive from Masada, Herod's fortress where the Jewish Zealots made their stand against the Romans in the 1st century, we stopped at the En Gedi spa. I floated for a while in the Dead Sea and suddenly realized it was so narrow that I was halfway to Jordan.
Contradictions. For me, the establishment of the state of Israel stands as one of the great and courageous stories in human history. But it is a nation of conflicts and contradictions -- ancient and modern, religious and secular.
While recognizing the inevitable tensions between Arabs and Jews, most in our group were surprised to learn of the gulf between secular and religious Jews. The ultra-orthodox Jews represent a minority of the population, but have a disproportionate political influence because of Israel's parliamentary electoral system. Any party with 1 percent of the vote gets a seat in the Knesset, where the votes of the small religious parties hold the key to control for the major political parties. Questions of personal status -- marriage, divorce, who is a Jew -- are decided by separate religious court systems.
Coming from a country where the emphasis in public schools is on integration by sex, race and creed, we were quite stunned by Israel's educational system, which provides separate schools for Arabs, secular Jews, Orthodox Jews and for males and females.
Comfort. Israel is in many ways more Western than Middle Eastern, which makes it a very comfortable place to visit. Virtually everyone a tourist comes across speaks English.
Our tour guides had lived in Chicago and Baltimore before immigrating to Israel. The political scientist from Tel Aviv University who briefed us on the political process at the start of the trip was a graduate of Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring. The young fellow who was selling camel rides near the Mount of Olives was wearing an "Annapolis, Md." T-shirt, and the man who sold me a few hand-painted bowls in the Arab market had just returned home after living in Hagerstown.
Hard as it is to believe, I had a far stronger sense of safety last summer than I expected. Israel lives with tension as a reality of daily life, and the soldiers with their machine guns provided a frequent reminder that we were in the Middle East. But, at that time, they seemed amazingly unthreatening.
Only once did I wonder about security. As I shaved one morning at the hotel at Kibbutz HaGosherim near the Golan Heights, I heard a low-flying plane pass over several times. It was a crop duster, I learned at breakfast.
There were a few disappointments along the way. Tel Aviv is Israel's largest city and financial center, but the flaking concrete on the buildings gives the entire city a shabby look. This is in sharp contrast to the classy Jerusalem stone mandated for all buildings in Jerusalem. To an official whose responsibilities include keeping watch over public buildings, it was a vivid lesson in the value of quality construction and good maintenance.
Jerusalem is spectacular in almost every way. Unfortunately, many of the Christian sites are heavily commercialized. The walk along the Stations of the Cross where Jesus made his way to the crucifixion is bound to disappoint, with unnecessary exploitation by some of the churches that now control the sites. Bethlehem, the town where Jesus was said to have been born, has a fine church seen on television every Christmas Eve but otherwise is little more than a tourist trap.
The point, of course, is not the specific sites but the fact that one is in the general area of Christendom's most sacred events. But somehow the disappointment is palpable. One of my colleagues sarcastically complained of having been offered a chance to buy a piece of the original cross by three separate peddlers. It was a lesson in the value of strong public protection for historic sites and buildings.
Overall, however, the disappointments pale in comparison with the high points of the trip. My personal choice for the most moving moment was seeing the new children's Holocaust memorial. Its main rival was our visit to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Forest for a tree-planting ceremony. Our Israeli host told us in his Scottish accent of the significance of tree planting: "A tree is more than a tree, it is a symbol of many things. If the Messiah comes you are to stop what you are doing, unless you are planting a tree, in which case you are to finish because the planting of a tree represents a commitment to future generations."
Among other highlights were visits to:
The Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock. On a Friday night we went to the 60-foot-high Western Wall, where thousands go to begin the Sabbath. It's a rich scene of scores of small prayer ceremonies going on simultaneously with a variety of tempos and religious garb. A few days later, we visited the golden Dome of the Rock and the Temple Mount in the Old City above the Western Wall. The breathtaking blue and yellow mosaics and elegant rugs make the Dome of the Rock the most magnificent building in this city of magnificent buildings.
Shmuel Hanavi, a Project Renewal neighborhood that has been "adopted" by Washington. In fact, Washingtonians donate far more than money to help revitalize this neighborhood and rehabilitate its housing. We met a Washington architect who visits several times a year and a lawyer who has moved to Jerusalem to live for several years; both donate their time to work with the community to determine what the neighborhood's residents want and to help them make certain it happens.
Kibbutz Dan in the Galilee along the Lebanon border. Here we had an opportunity to visit in groups of two with families. About 4 percent of Israel's residents live in the country's 250 kibbutzim. The young couple I visited showed me their modest home, the factory where the husband worked before returning to school recently, the bomb shelters and the houses where most children spend much of the day and night separate from their parents.
One of my great thrills was sneaking away from the hotel early one morning, before the day's official activities began, to see the sheep market near the northeast corner of the Old City. Take away the Ford Pintos and the Volkswagen buses, and it seems you are looking back into the 19th century. Hundreds of baa-ing sheep and bleating goats mill around under the direction of Arab men in heavy robes and traditional Bedouin headgear.
Junket or not, this trip was a seminal learning experience for me and the rest of our dozen local government officials. Our hosts provided us with a wealth of information and access to a wide variety of people, cultures and ideas. By creating an environment that promoted openness and candor, they gave us every opportunity to probe the issues that concerned us.
I came back with great admiration for Israel and her people -- which presumably is what the trip organizers had in mind -- but also with a far clearer knowledge of the country's shortcomings and the challenges it faces. I also gained an appreciation for the value of junkets -- at least for the serious ones. In this kind of travel, no matter what other people think, you do put in a good week's work.
Bruce Adams is a member of the Montgomery County Council.