Updated: August 21, 2014 6:41PM
It was Friday night, the beginning of the Jewish Shabbat (Sabbath), and our host family had graciously invited us to join them for dinner.
Before the meal, the parents proudly welcomed their 20-year-old son, who was back from the Gaza front for the weekend. A member of the Israeli military, he faced death every day and was grieving his good friend, who was recently killed.
The parents prayed, sang and blessed their son as he headed back to the front to defend his country and protect his family. Like all parents, they love their child but worry for his future, and for the future of their nation.
Our dinner with this Jewish family in Jerusalem underlined the struggles, hopes and fears of modern-day Israelis whose heritage extends back thousands of years.
This meal was part of a whirlwind trip to Israel, sponsored by the American Israel Education Foundation, which I participated in this month along with several Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle.
So what did the group and I learn?
First, we saw the immense gratitude Israel had for the friendship between our two nations and for our willingness to travel there during grim circumstances in order to gain firsthand knowledge of their struggles. During such a difficult time in their nation’s history, our alliance is immeasurably important to the only truly free democracy in the Middle East. Although other nations in the region and in Europe have soured on their relationship with Israel, Israel urged us to tell those we represent to remember our close ties and long history as partners.
One example of this is our support for the innovative Iron Dome defense program, which has exceeded expectations in deflecting and destroying rockets from neighboring enemies like the U.S.-designated terrorist group Hamas. My colleagues in Congress and I were proud to have passed additional financial support for the program in July.
The Iron Dome’s technology has saved hundreds, if not thousands, of Israeli lives, which is incredible considering many of these rockets are launched only tens of miles away. This defensive program has also prevented a more drawn-out Israeli ground offensive, which would have increased causalities on both sides.
We met with many of the nation’s top leaders, including Prime Minister Netanyahu, members of his cabinet, military leaders and our counterparts in the legislature. Many are frustrated at the messages Western countries are sending to terrorist groups like Hamas who have no qualms about exploiting civilians in warfare. If these groups store weapons caches’ or launch rockets from a hospital or a school, any retaliation by Israel is criticized.
Israel tries to notify these targets, which house rockets or weapons, through “roof knocks” or leaflet drops ahead of time. Israel acts to get civilians out of harm’s way, while Hamas acts to put them in harm’s way.
By condemning Israel, Western nations are encouraging Hamas’ tactics because they are effective in influencing Western perception of the conflict.
While traveling throughout the country, it became clear that Israel faces existential threats every day. This country, barely larger than New Jersey, must be vigilant as Iran to the east and Hezbollah to the north, both of whom have called for the complete elimination of Israel, threaten nuclear and conventional warfare. It was again made crystal clear that the United States must never allow Iran to obtain nuclear weapons, for the sake of our ally Israel and for the stability of the region and beyond.
But we saw and heard about much more.
We saw Israeli doctors giving care to wounded Syrian refugees who have been injured in their own civil war. Syria has no love for Israel, but these doctors provide care and abide by their oaths to save lives.
We met with former President, Prime Minister and Nobel laureate Shimon Peres, now 91 years old, whose peace center lies just south of Tel Aviv. He aims to bring together young people on each side of the Israel-Gaza conflict to resolve hostilities and build bridges of understanding.
We saw a host of start-up companies doing very well in spite of the daily conflict raging around them. Israel’s citizens would love to be left alone so they can expand and spread their new ideas in the marketplace, but dangers on all sides hinder economic growth. While American entrepreneurs need certainty that the government won’t slap them with red tape, Israeli businesses need certainty that their neighbors won’t attack them at any turn and destroy their business entirely.
We saw the preservation of a rich cultural and religious heritage, and the protection of religious sites that are central to the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths. Israel protects pilgrims from across the world with reliable and safe access to these temples, churches, mosques and memorials.
Israeli leaders are forced every day to make hard choices about what needs to be done to protect their citizens and their way of life.
They face tough questions, like: How do you solve the Israeli-Gaza conflict when the actions of Hamas threaten relationships between Palestinian and Israeli leaders? What part does Israel play in the Middle East? How can they pursue productive and peaceful relations with their neighbors who share a common ancestor in Abraham?
There are no easy answers here.
But across the political spectrum of the leaders we met, all are united in their belief that they have a right to exist and thrive.
In Israel, I learned that this tiny nation isn’t looking to expand — just to survive. And they have been helped along by the friendship of the United States.
We must continue to strengthen our cultural, religious and economic ties that bind us together in common purpose.
Randy Hultgren represents Illinois’ 14th U.S. Congressional District.