US mayors travel to Israel
July 19, 2019
(JNS)—Turn on any cable-news channel and the majority of the focus will be on national leaders like U.S. President Donald Trump or Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. And while politicians on the national level indeed command attention, state and local politics move forward at the same time, often at a quicker pace in terms of legislation and reaction to crises. Citizens often feel a more direct impact from resulting policies: From helping local businesses and revitalizing a city’s downtown to basic trash pickup, mayors and local leaders serve as the backbone of getting things done across America.
International exchanges also occur among this set of legislators that doesn’t often get prime-time headlines. Just recently, in fact, a bipartisan delegation of U.S. mayors—four Democrats and one Republican—visited Israel with the American Jewish Committee’s (AJC) Project Interchange as part of an effort to enhance U.S.-Israel relations and learn practical tools at the municipal level.
Led by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, the trip included the following mayors: Shane Bemis of Gresham, Ore.; Michelle De La Isla of Topeka, Kan.; Rick Kriseman of St. Petersburg, Fla.; and Kathy Sheehan of Albany, N.Y.
“Los Angeles and Israel share so much—vibrant cultures, beautiful landscapes, diverse communities, ties of family and friends, our experiences as dreamers and our common belief in democracy,” said Garcetti in a statement by AJC. “Our delegation is showing how cities lead on the world stage, how mayors get things done and how urban centers can tackle everything from innovation and climate change to immigration and economic growth.”
While the mayors saw many of the aspects that make Israel special, one of the biggest takeaways was that no matter where they are—in small-town America or in the Middle East—many of the daily challenges remain comparable.
According to AJC, the visit is intended to provide these local policymakers with a firsthand understanding of Israel, and its economic and social entrepreneurship. AJC said that the goal is for these mayors to observe Israel’s democracy, diverse society and regional challenges.
During the visit, the mayors met with their Israeli counterparts to discuss best practices for their home communities on smart-city development, economic growth technology startups, urban revitalization and city administration. They also spoke with an executive from Intel in Israel.
“Part of the reason I travel outside of not only my city and state but our country is we see our city as an opportunity, especially in the technology area, where in Israel it is a startup capital of the world, really, in the largest hub of tech outside of Silicon Valley,” said Kriseman. “We think there are opportunities for companies that may have started in Israel to locate a branch of their business, their U.S. location, in our city, so we’re going to continue to look for opportunities.”
Kriseman mentioned meeting several times in the past with the Florida-Israel Business Alliance and an Israeli business called ECOncrete, which uses environmentally friendly concrete methods and first started in St. Petersburg.
Sheehan of Albany told JNS about a meeting with one Israeli startup that could help them better connect with their constituents.
This startup has “a new product that is focused solely on municipalities and helping us to better understand public sentiment, so that’s something that’s of interest to me to follow up on,” he said.
“AJC has worked closely with mayors and municipal leaders for decades on issues of mutual concern,” said Melanie Maron Pell, AJC managing director of regional offices, who joined the delegation in Israel. “The mayors learn a great deal about high-tech and economic development, immigration absorption, diversity and emergency services that will assist them in their governance of their respective cities.”
In addition to visiting significant historical and cultural sites, the delegation visited Tel Aviv; Haifa; Israel’s border areas, including up north near Lebanese; and Jerusalem, including the Old City. The delegation also met with Palestinian civic and business leaders in the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. Several sessions dealing with Israel’s strategic environment, diversity and coexistence, and interreligious cooperation were discussed, according to AJC.
Sheehan mentioned hearing about “some of the approaches around workforce development and workforce issues,” adding that while Israel currently has a low unemployment rate, the West Bank and Gaza exhibit the opposite.
On the trip, she did observe efforts in the West Bank to recruit engineers in improving the area’s technology sector and universities “to ensure that they’re accessing the full workforce that is available.”
The mayors also met with top leaders across the political and social spectrum, including Israel President Reuven Rivlin, U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, high-ranking government officials, leaders of Israel’s minority communities, and Jewish and Arab civil society leaders. They also received a briefing from Brig. Gen. Nitzan Nuriel regarding the security situation in neighborhoods near the Golan Heights and the Gaza Strip.
Bemis recalled that one of the most memorable moments of the trip was going to an event at a small community school in Kiryat Shmona.
“It felt exactly like I was in my own city. The parents were the same, videotaping... the kids. Parents had smiles on their face. The kids were singing the same way, albeit in a different language,” he described. “And the grandparents were there.”
He continued, saying “it was just so familiar to the mayors because it was like, ‘Kids are all the same, no matter where they are. Obviously, parents are still the same, no matter where they are.”
City issues are comparable
The delegation also observed how Israel balances the preservation of its heritage with modern municipal management and the provision of social services.
Sheehan said that Haifa, like Albany, is a diverse city, specifically in terms of religion.
“In looking at the differences even among communities we visited in Israel, it also sort of resonated because I look at New York State, for example, and you have New York City with its own issues,” she said. “And then you have the rest of New York State, which is very different.”
“You sort of see the same thing in Israel,” she continued. “There’s Tel Aviv, which is a very different place than some of the cities we visited that were clearly different from the cities we visited on the West Bank, but also different from some of the northern cities we visited.”
While the mayors saw many of the aspects that make Israel special, one of the biggest takeaways was that no matter whether they are in small-town America or in the Middle East, many of the daily challenges remain comparable.
“The issues of a mayor are not that dissimilar, no matter where they are in the world,” said Bemis, who cited garbage pickup and potholes as examples. “One of the other big takeaways that the mayors felt was that a mayor is a mayor, no matter where they’re at. The issues are almost always the same.”