"It opens your mind": Rep. Dan Donovan recalls 'life-changing' trip to Israel
STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. -- Having recently returned from a "life-changing" trip to Israel, Rep. Daniel Donovan recalled his interaction with the determined Israeli people.
The congressman spent more than a week in the country with about 35 other members of Congress, courtesy of American Israel Education Foundation, touring historical and religious sites, chatting with ordinary citizens and getting to know their culture.
"It is a place that everyone ought to visit once in their lives," he said. "It's historic, it's religious. You get to see the constant threat the country and its people are under."
A little larger than the size of New Jersey, Israel's population is more than 8 million and is the only democracy in the Middle East.
It is surrounded by its enemies, which is something Donovan thinks helps mold Israelis' views of their country.
At the Golan Heights, he could see Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, "none of which like the Israelis," he noted. "It's like Staten Island having its enemies in Manhattan, Bayonne and Brooklyn. That's how close they are."
Israelis above age 18, with exceptions, serve in the military for two or three years, another component of life that the congressman thinks helps shape how the residents view their country with dedication and love.
"Everyone speaks about Israel with pride, the people who live there," he said.
He visited all areas of the country — the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, Bethlehem, Jerusalem, the Western Wall, the Sea of Galilee, the Mediterranean Sea, the Jordan River and the Dead Sea.
They visited a kibbutz, a communal settlement, on the Gaza border and "from the naked eye, you could see the city in Gaza that Hamas had taken over and that's where the rockets are launched."
The country's inhabitants are used to hearing the red alert system warn them of incoming missiles in which they have a few seconds to get to a bomb shelter.
"Our first reaction is: Why don't you move?" the congressman said.
"The devotion to their country, the love that the Israeli people have for Israel, the resolve they have to stay in the land that they won in three wars ... they are committed and dedicated to their country — they're not leaving."
FEAR OF IRAN
While they're dedicated, they're also afraid of the impending nuclear deal the United States is making with Iran, a country that declares hatred for Israel and America.
It's not just government officials who worry, but also residents, Donovan said he found.
He was expecting to find people angry about the deal but people are more puzzled that America would make such an agreement that gives much away to Iran for no gain for America, the congressman said.
Sanctions on Iran will be lifted, billions in assets will be unfrozen, Iran can block inspectors from accessing their facilities and, in some cases, do their own inspections, and "the United States is getting nothing from the deal," Donovan said. "Nothing."
As for the Israelis, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, although hoping for help from its ally, the United States, will go it alone if necessary to protect his country from Iranian attacks.
The congressman met Netanyahu, as well as President Reuven Rivlin, Israeli Opposition Leader Isaac Herzog and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during his visit.
Donovan argues that the United States should be further punishing Iran for developing nuclear power, not pulling back on sanctions.
"You don't remove that punishment, you impose further punishment; further restrictions was the answer to get them to stop their bad behavior, not lifting the restrictions."
As for Israel, the country shares intelligence with the United States to deter terrorist attacks and deserves America's help in keeping Iran at bay, Donovan argued.
"They've always been our supporter," he said of Israel. "It's always been a two-way street," but right now, "I don't think Israel is feeling the love from the United States."
A LIFE-CHANGING TRIP
As a Catholic, it was moving to see the places where Jesus Christ lived, Donovan said.
"In your mind, understanding the plight of the Israeli people, witnessing the devotion to their country ... and that opens your heart as well. But, as a Christian, to go to the place where Christ walked, where he was born."
The congressman floated in the Dead Sea and was re-baptized in the Jordan River. He brought back some water from the Jordan River to be used when his baby daughter, Aniella Rose, is baptized.
He was impressed with the "tolerant and welcoming" attitude toward people of other religions. He heard the Muslim call to prayer five times a day while there.
"For people of any religious persuasion, it's a remarkable place to go see."
So affected by his trip there, Donovan will be touring synagogues and other groups to speak about his experience.
"They told me it was going to be a life-changing trip, they just didn't tell me how life-changing it would be," he said. "It opens up your mind, it opens up your heart."