Secretaries of State at the Western Wall. Alabama’s John Merrill is third from left.
by Richard Friedman
(Israel InSight) — “The trip was tremendous. It was something I always wanted to do. I think it is something everybody should do. This was my first trip. I hope it will not be my last.”
That’s how Alabama’s Secretary of State, John Merrill, summed up his recent trip to Israel in an interview with Israel InSight magazine.
Though in listening to Merrill rave about his experience, one gets the feeling that it was three trips in one: An affirmation of the important role that Israel plays as a key American ally in a critical part of the world; an understanding and appreciation of how a sister democracy operates, especially one that can be complex at times; and a profoundly spiritual encounter with Christianity and a deeper appreciation of Judaism.
Merrill, a Republican, was part of a bi-partisan group of 10 Secretaries of State from throughout the country who traveled together to Israel in December. The trip was a collaboration between the National Association of Secretaries of State and the American Jewish Committee’s Project Interchange.
“What struck me was knowing how impactful Israel is on the world stage and how significant it is religiously, but at the same time how small it is,” said Merrill. “You don’t think of Israel as being as small as New Jersey and having only 9 million people.”
As Americans, he added, ”we must make sure we continue to help Israel defend itself, support and advocate for Israel, and help the Israelis accomplish their goals.” Israelis, he went on to note, do not take this support for granted. “Every time we met with someone, they were so appreciative.”
Being with other Secretaries of State enhanced the visit for Merrill. They had meetings with members of the Knesset (parliament), educators, economic leaders, former and current government officials, and educators from different walks of life. “We were trying to get a handle on what was going on in Israel — that is what made our trip different.” Merrill and his fellow travelers delved into two areas in particular: the management of elections and cyber-security.
Then there was the religious impact. Speaking as a religious Christian, Merrill said, “It is really important to understand the difference between reading about Jesus and being where he walked. It really makes an impact. You see the Sea of Galilee, the Jordan River, the Mount of Olives…the things we read about.”
The trip also deepened his appreciation for Judaism. “It says in the Bible that the people of Israel are God’s chosen people. For those of us who believe in the Bible, we are compelled to support Israel.”
Merrill’s group also had a helicopter tour of the northern part of the country to help participants better understand the compact nature of the area and the close-by security challenges Israel faces from Hezbollah, Syria and Iran’s presence.
As the conversation with Israel InSight concluded, Alabama’s Secretary of State shared two of his most lasting takeaways:
“You come to realize what Israel has to be prepared for each and every day — most people have no concept. Anyone who doesn’t want to make supporting Israel a priority in their public service should not be an elected official in the U.S..”
The importance of the Secretaries trip was highlighted by Dov Wilker, the Atlanta-based regional director for the American Jewish Committee, which helped organize the trip. “We are always looking to take up and coming elected officials to Israel, and Secretaries of State fit into this category,” said Wilker.
“The delegation included Secretaries from Iowa, Michigan, New Jersey, Kansas, Montana, Wyoming, Alaska, Nevada, and Maine as well as Alabama. This group was able to connect especially well with Israel in terms of cyber-security and learning the inner details of election administration — a topic in the news since Israel has just completed its third election in less than a year.”
Merrill, 56, served in the Alabama House of Representatives from 2010 to 2014 and has served as Secretary of State since 2015.