Mayors Nancy Vaughan of Greensboro, N.C., and Greg Fischer of Louisville, Ky.
by Richard Friedman
“It was an amazing trip. It was an experience I will never forget. I know I want to go back. There is nothing like being there. I think I am a better person for having been on that trip.”
That’s how Greensboro, N.C., Mayor Nancy Vaughan summed up her late March trip to Israel as she spoke at the Greensboro Jewish Federation’s annual meeting on June 1.
Vaughan and a bipartisan delegation of mayors from throughout the country visited Israel through Project Interchange, an institute of the American Jewish Committee. The Israel educational seminar is a joint initiative of The United States Conference of Mayors and AJC.
What especially impressed Vaughan was “the spirit of optimism and perseverance” that she saw in the Israeli people despite the challenges they confront living in a country that continues to face formidable adversaries.
She reflected on her visit to a kibbutz. “I had the opportunity to visit the schools and the industry there. One thing that struck me was the number of bomb shelters, all painted beautiful colors. The reason they were there was pretty stunning — seeing how people have to live their life every day.”
The group, she said, learned about Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system, which, along with a helicopter tour of the country, helped her and her colleagues appreciate how small the country is.
While she was in Israel, there were two terror attacks, one relatively close to her hotel. “It was very upsetting for the country and upsetting for us… it is really shocking to see these acts of terrorism.”
Toward the end of the trip, the group visited Yad Vashem, Israel’s memorial to the victims of the Holocaust.
“I have to say that I was really not prepared for that. It is an amazing place. I know we all left different than when we walked through the doors… The world knew what was going on at the time and let it go on.”
The Greensboro mayor related the experience to the challenges our country is facing today with growing hatred and violence against targeted groups. “We talk about never forgetting. Yet we see the rise in antisemitism and other hate crimes. We have to remember all of the people who perished for no good reason.”
Another Southern mayor who participated, Louisville’s Greg Fischer, was impressed by Israel’s “all-consuming focus on protecting the Jewish state.”
In an email exchange after his trip, he also observed that “innovation is everywhere, and that Israel has demonstrated that innovation is transformative not just for a nation but for the entire psyche of the community.”
Particularly memorable for the Louisville mayor was the “security intensity around Gaza, the northern border and the Old City in Jerusalem.” During visits to a kibbutz near the Gaza border and communities in the north on the Lebanese border “we saw the resilience of Israelis but also the trauma of living on constant alert.”
Along with viewing Israel’s security challenge’s first-hand, the mayor said that “meeting a recently displaced Ukrainian family and seeing the trauma and pain in their eyes” had a big impact on him. “Israel is absorbing tens of thousands of Ukrainian refugees and that demonstrates that even in the midst of our own challenges, scarce resources, etc. we have to open our hearts, our homes, our countries to those fleeing violence and persecution.”
Fischer was touched by “the openness of both the Israeli and Palestinian people in sharing their histories and telling their stories.” However, he believes “the current Israeli-Palestinian situation is not sustainable for either side.”
The mayor was asked what he learned that he thinks could benefit Louisville. Two things he pointed to were “Israel’s enhanced techniques for public safety via camera systems” and “the value of mandatory national service to build a country.”
Over the years, Project Interchange, according to AJC, “has brought more than 6,000 leaders from over 115 countries to Israel, where they have gained in-depth insight through direct engagement with senior Israeli, Arab and Palestinian officials, business and civic leaders, and academics, and visits to historic and strategic sites.”
“Mayors are selected in partnership with The US Conference of Mayors, based on leadership, experience, location and whether there have been specific issues of antisemitism or anti-Israel activism in their cities,” according to Dov Wilker, AJC’s Regional Director for the Southeast.
Other mayors on the recent trip included Ravinder Bhalla, Hoboken, N.J.; James Brainard, Carmel, Ind.; Jane Castor, Tampa, Fla.; David Holt, Oklahoma City, Okla.; James Hovland, Edina, Minn.; Keith James, West Palm Beach, Fla.; Quinton Lucas, Kansas City, Mo.; Libby Schaaf, Oakland, Calif., and Acquanetta Warren, Fontana, Calif.