One of the ways I learn about things I know little about is to immerse myself in an issue or with a group. Such was the case recently when I was invited to be a part of the American Jewish Committee’s Global Forum in Washington, D.C.
There I found anti-Semitism to be on everyone’s mind. Here is what I learned.
First, being in a room with 2500 Jewish people was an experience in and of itself. Once a year, American Jewish Committee advocates and partners from around the world gather for a 3-day conference that features updates from Israel, reports on anti-Semitism from around the world, important policy initiatives and some fiery debate.
The experience certainly helped me understand how diverse the Jewish community is around the world. Diaspora, the dispersion of the Jews beyond Israel, was a new concept for me. Despite a trip to Israel in 2011, I haven’t had a lot of interaction with Jewish people. At the conference, I met Jews not only from Atlanta, but from Germany, Paris, South America, South Africa and many other places. I heard stories of anti-Semitism from high school kids, college students, and adults — including the rabbi from the Tree of Life Synagogue from Pittsburgh where 11 Jewish members were killed.
And while anti-Semitism seems to be on the rise around the world, in the State of Israel the concern I heard was equally as chilling — Survival. “Israel and the Prime Minister must look first and foremost to Israel’s security — even if the United States and Israel does not always agree,” said former Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Ron Prosor. “You make peace with former enemies — not your present enemies,” as the speaker referenced Iran. Clearly, Iran is enemy No. 1 of Israel and in fact other countries in the Middle East are uniting with Israel to reduce Iran’s influence and power.
President Trump pulled the United States out of the Iran deal — which thrilled Israeli citizens and political leaders and many others. And just before that, he moved the United States Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. President Trump’s approval rating in Israel was projected by the group at over 80 percent. For the American Jews in the room, the story was different. One speaker said he believed that about 75 percent of American Jews are Democratic Party voters — and most people I asked about this agreed. Obviously, I have some work to do as a Republican.
Regardless of party, Jewish people care deeply about their sovereign state. And rightly so. During my trip to Israel in 2011, I met Kobi Harush, a security officer with the Israeli Defense Force, who works in the border town of Sderot, which is just a couple of miles from the Gaza Strip — a coastal enclave filled with 1.5 million Palestinians under the control of Hamas. He showed me hundreds of rockets that had been fired from Gaza over into his town. When the alarm sounds, his residents have only about 15 seconds to find shelter. Kids play in a special playground — just in case.
Israel not only lives with hostile neighbors, but nearby regimes talk of destroying the tiny nation of Israel — a nation about the size of Georgia. That is why the American Jewish Committee advocates for pro-Israel policies and take officials like me, and thousands of others, to Israel to see first-hand the vulnerability of the country.
When the event was over, I had made many new friends, developed a more comprehensive understanding of Jewish issues, and deepened my commitment to the State of Israel. I hope you will join me in supporting this important friend of America, and speak out against anti-Semitism whenever it comes to your world.
• Tim G. Echols is a statewide elected official in Georgia serving as vice chair of the Public Service Commission.