York County lawmakers return from Israeli fact-finding trip
Two York County lawmakers say the Middle East seen in the news is a far cry from what they experienced during a fact-finding trip to Israel last week.
Reps. Stan Saylor, R-Windsor Township, and Seth Grove, R-Dover Township, said they saw members of the world's three major religions — Judaism, Islam and Christianity — living peacefully and working together in the Jewish state.
"I think we, as Americans, get the wrong impression of Jews hating Muslims and Muslims hating Jews," said Saylor on Monday, a day after returning the from the trip. "But people are living together and getting along."
Grove and Saylor were two of seven Pennsylvania legislators, a mix of Republicans and Democrats, who went on the week-long trek organized by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.
The aim of the trip was to foster and build on the relationship between the Keystone State and the Jewish state and for the two to learn from each other, said Steve Rosenberg, spokesman for the federation.
"We do this every other year," he said of the trips. "It's got to be life changing."
Experiences: The lawmakers toured large swathes of the country, from the metropolitan cities of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem to more rural areas along Israel's borders with neighboring nations and Palestinian territory, Grove and Saylor said.
They also toured Urban Aeronautics, which is working to create a new line of vertical take-off and landing vehicles. Though similar to a helicopter, the vehicles have rotors built into the aircraft, such as in the fuselage, allowing them to land in smaller areas, such as on tight city streets, Grove said.
One version is unmanned and would be used to evaluate battlefield casualties.
The company has expressed interest in eventually opening a manufacturing facility in the United States, and Grove and Saylor said the company would be a great fit for Pennsylvania.
The lawmakers also met with high school students who are part of a robotics team. Though similar to robotics teams found in some local high schools, this group is comprised of Israelis and Muslims.
"It's for the next level and brings together two sects that have been warring with each other for millennia," Grove said.
The group also met younger Jewish and Muslim students who are brought together for joint art lessons.
"We got to see Jewish and Arab children in class painting and working together," Saylor said.
Talk of the recent nuclear deal between the U.S. and Iran came up at times during the trip, and Saylor said some Israelis expressed their support for the deal backed by President Barack Obama.
Scare: But the representatives were reminded of the fractured Arab-Israeli relationship while near the Palestinian border.
The group had to be ushered away from the border when a sniper was spotted about 50 yards away in the Gaza Strip, Grove and Saylor said, adding no one was hurt and no shots were fired.
"It was quite the experience," Saylor said. "It was interesting."
The group also saw Syrian military posts from their vantage point in the Israeli Golan Heights, Grove said.
That section of Israel is linked to Damascus, the Syrian capital, by a road that is roughly the distance between York and Harrisburg, Grove noted.
While touring the Dome of the Rock, one of the oldest works of Arab architecture, in the Old City of Jerusalem, Grove said he could feel the ire of Arabs even though the group wasn't physically threatened and didn't receive disparaging remarks. "I don't know why, but we just felt very uncomfortable," he said. "You could just feel the unwantedness for Americans."
Though that part of the world is deeply divided and has been for years, Grove and Saylor said they were impressed to see the two sides working together to live in peace.
"Some of the worst problems is the fanaticism" on both sides, Grove said.
Who paid: Each of the House representatives personally footed the lion's share of the bill for the trip, so no tax dollars were spent, Grove and Saylor said.
"We supplemented a small portion of the cost," Rosenberg, with the Philadelphia-based Jewish federation, said.
With state budget talks in full swing back home, Grove said the legislators were prepared to fly home if a deal between Republicans and Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf was struck.
With both lawmakers now back home, Grove and Saylor said they plan to make a presentation about their trip at the York Jewish Community Center.
But, they added, they'll use the knowledge they gained in their work in government.
"It will help us as well as we move forward in what we could be doing in our area," Saylor said. "It was an experience I'll remember the rest of my life."
— Reach Greg Gross at firstname.lastname@example.org.