By Julian Kritz

In many ways Israel is the center of the world—both spiritually and politically. The borders of the tiny nation contain the birthplace of monotheism, holy sites for Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, and unfortunately one of the most intractable conflicts of the past two centuries. As global citizens it is impossible not to be drawn by the centrality of Israel. Our delegation was no exception; the common thread interweaving our diverse delegation of Christians and Jews, Democrats and Republicans, Minnesotans in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s was a profound sense that the Holy Land needed to be experienced firsthand. We had decided that reading about ancient Israel in the Bible or modern Israel online was insufficient. Israel needed to be explored, it needed to be understood—and the only way to do so was to travel there.

Over the past six months, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas organized a week long trip for 28 Minnesotans to Israel and the West Bank. At the core of our delegation were Minnesota State Legislators, including five state Representatives from the Minnesota House, led by Majority Leader Joyce Peppin, as well as one state Senator. While all elected officials paid for the trip themselves, they left all aspects of the planning of the trip to the JCRC. This is why as the Founder of Student Supporting Israel at Augsburg College and a JCRC Intern, I was sponsored by the Minneapolis Jewish Federation to join the delegation.

Beginning our journey in Jerusalem, we explored the Old City, moved by the spiritual significance of holy sites such as the tomb of Jesus at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Western Wall of the Second Jewish Temple, which was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70 CE and is the holiest site in Judaism,  and the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque. At Yad Vashem, Israel’s National Memorial and Museum of the Holocaust, our professional tour guide explained how it is a misconception that Israel was created because of global post-Holocaust guilt. Israel was not established because of the Holocaust, it was created despite of it.  This is true both because the Holocaust would never occurred if there was a Jewish State for imperiled European Jewry to find refuge, but also because a considerable number of European Zionists were murdered by Hitler before they had the opportunity to immigrate to Israel. Finally, while in Jerusalem, we visited the Knesset where we met with a young parliamentarian and learned more about Israel’s vibrant democracy as we toured the seat of its government.

Our delegation also engaged deeply with the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people. We traversed the West Bank learning about powerful initiatives to improve the quality of life for the Palestinian people. One noble endeavor is Rawabi, the first planned Palestinian city which aims to bolster the Palestinian middle class through establishing a modernized and diverse living community. Later we visited Ramallah, the capital of the Palestinian Authority, to hear about the difficulties of living amidst a seemingly never-ending conflict. Two members of the JCRC staff and I also visited Bethlehem to spend an evening with our friend Walid Issa, a Palestinian who grew up in the city before moving to Minnesota for secondary and higher education. He showed us notable sites around the city, including the Church of Nativity where Jesus was born. We also enjoyed dinner with his family and friends at their home.  We also met on the first night of our trip with the United States Consul General for Jerusalem whose responsibilities largely consist of being the primary liaison between the State Department and the Palestinian Authority. 

Leaving Jerusalem, our group headed north along the Jordan River where according to Christian tradition, Jesus was baptized by John. In a moving ceremony, three members of our delegation were baptized in these same waters by another member of our group. Later we visited Capernaum, Jesus’ hometown along the shore of the Sea of Galilee.  As a Jew, seeing Israel through the eyes of the Christian members of our delegation was a moving experience which greatly added to my understanding of why so many people care about this small piece of land.   

We then traveled further north to examine the instability along Israel’s border with Lebanon and Syria and learned how despite long-standing hostility between the nations, Israeli soldiers have been rescuing thousands of injured Syrian and bringing them to Israeli hospitals for free life-saving treatment. Next we headed southeast and toured the mystical city of Tzfat, discovering how in the fifteenth century exiled Spanish Jews returned to their ancestral homeland and established a vibrant spiritual community. We also visited an Arab-Israeli town that houses an educational center bringing Jewish and Arab high school students together to work on robotics and high-tech equipment.

Inspired, we arrived in Tel Aviv and met with the mayor’s office for a presentation regarding Israel’s flourishing high-tech startup sector. Exploring the industry firsthand we then toured two Twin Cities companies that have campuses in Israel, Medtronic and Stratasys 3D Printing Solutions, which are located in Tel Aviv and Rehovot respectively. MK Lapid, who many have predicted will be the future prime minister of Israel, explained the imperative of continuing to work towards a two state solution by mutual compromise. Our trip concluded with a strategic briefing from an Israeli brigadier general and a tour of two academic institutions in Minneapolis’ sister city of Rehovot, the Weisman Institute and Hebrew University’s Agricultural campus.

From the technological to the political to the spiritual, our delegation experienced all aspects of Israeli society. We left only reluctantly, the transformative power of the holy land deeply ingrained in our collective psyche. Israel may be the center of the world, but it is also a bastion of hope and humanity. We learned that if we as Minnesotans wish to contribute to a peaceful holy land we must realistically invest in hope and humanity, equally so amongst Israelis and Palestinians. As David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel, once said “In Israel, in order to be a realist you must believe in miracles.” After spending a week amongst Israelis and Palestinians who are realistically working for a better future, I concur—the miracle of peace is possible.

Julian Kritz is the Founder of Students Supporting Israel at Augsburg College. In the past when Augsburg College Student Government did not let SSI to register on campus, Julian with the support of SSI members and activists overturned the student government decision after a week long campaign.   

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