A visit to Israel is a trip most American politicians save for after their election. But after my recent experience in Israel as a first-time candidate for Congress, I can only wonder why.
This is a critical time for Israel and Israeli-US relations. For nearly 70 years — since its creation — the United States has stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Israel and its people, and it’s crucial for this relationship to continue. Yet too many American politicians give lip service to support for Israel without ever taking the next step of experiencing the situation first hand.
It is not that I approach the issues facing Israel, and the Middle East, in a vacuum. My family’s experience is very much a parallel. My parents immigrated to America from South Korea, and I have extended family who live in the shadow of a belligerent neighbor, North Korea, that speaks openly of South Korea’s destruction and which which also has the means to inflict terror on innocent civilians on a moment’s notice.
But even with that unique and personal perspective, I knew I had to do more to fully understand Israel and its connection with the United States. The 5th Congressional District of New Jersey, which I hope to represent, has approximately 67,000 Jewish residents — 9% of its population. Of the 435 constituent districts that comprise the United States House of Representatives, only 23 have a greater Jewish population.
As I have walked door-to-door in my campaign, I have heard time and again that the number-one issue on the minds of many residents and voters is the security of Israel. Many have visited Israel themselves, have family who live in Israel, or have sent their children to Israel for birthright or study missions. If I am to be able to discuss Israel with my future constituents, it was imperative that I see Israel with my own eyes.
Certainly, I took time to visit the cultural treasures that make Israel so special, including the chance to pray at the Western Wall. But what really moved me was meeting people who have relatives serving in the Israel Defense Forces, people who have lost loved ones, or people who have to live in constant fear of the air-raid sirens signaling a Hamas rocket attack.
I met with people from Bergen County, New Jersey, where I live, and talked about our shared wishes for a secure Israel. And, I had the honor to sit with Knesset Deputy Speaker Pnina Tamano-Shata, who, like me, comes from an immigrant family, and who looks to make a positive change in the future of her adopted home.
Yet, it was my visit to Sderot that crystalized the importance of visiting Israel now. In the United States, no family has ever had a thought of requiring their children to play inside a bomb shelter — even after the terror of September 11. It signified, perhaps better than anything else, the resiliency of the people I met. Seeing an Iron Dome battery on the hillside, and speaking with the IDF members manning it, also reminded me of the important role I hope to play in the United States Congress in ensuring the ability of Israel to defend itself and keep its families safe.
American political campaigns are hard, exhausting and expensive. There are, of course, detractors back home who question my visit on purely political grounds. And there are those who support me who wonder why I’d give up crucial campaign days — days that could be spent raising money — to travel half-way around the world. But they are just missing the point.
Israel needs our support now. You’ve never given up hope, no matter what happens. And now I know why, whether as a private citizen or member of the United States Congress, I can’t give up, either.