What is it like to live under threat of terrorist attack every day and night? Can civil liberties in a democratic state be maintained in that context? What is the definition of "normalcy" in a place constantly in the shadow of violent death, destruction and injury?
Those were just some of the questions confronted by City Councilman Ludwig Gaines during a recent 10-day trip to Israel sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council. The purpose is to give selected community leaders "a better perspective of Israel, both internationally and on domestic issues," said Ron Habler, executive director, JCRC.
"We subsidize a mission to Israel approximately once every 18 months for elected officials as well as civic and community leaders," Habler said. "While they are there, they get a chance to see first hand the things Israel is facing everyday."
Gaines said he went on the trip because he has been "intrigued" by the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians.
"I wanted to see how the Israelis live under this constant threat of terrorist attack," Gaines said. "How civil liberties are maintained in that situation."
"We had armed security guards with us throughout the trip. They were not obtrusive but they were constantly on the alert. During our bus trips they constantly scanned the landscape for any hint of danger. We had the opportunity see how they balance this extremely heightened level of security with maintaining civil liberties," he said.
"Americans talk about security at airports and elsewhere. What we have is nothing compared to there. Each time you enter your hotel you have to go through strict security. But, the people go about their daily routine and take it in stride," Gaines said.
"They have been dealing with many of the issues we now face for a very long time. I was almost overwhelmed with their preparedness," he said.
One of the things that impressed Gaines the most was just how "normal" daily life in Israel really is. "The only place I felt any real tension in the air was in the old city of Jerusalem. That is where so many of the conflicting cultures meet head on," Gaines said.
"This whole thing of terrorism is new to the United States. Israel has been facing it for 55 years," Habler said.
"There are many things to be learned from one another. How to balance security and civil liberties. How to maintain calm without harming those civil liberties for both Jews and Arabs," he said.
"This is very important. Israel is a democratic nation and we must maintain those civil liberties. They apply even to terrorists when they are caught. And Israeli courts strictly enforce those civil liberties," Habler said.
A 65-year-old organization, JCRC, based in Rockville, Md., serves as the "public relations/information arm of the Jewish community," according to Habler. They also have offices in Northern Virginia on Little River Turnpike.
JCRC HAS FOUR primary goals, according to Habler: government relations, advocacy for Israel, promoting inter-group relations and promoting social justice.
They have been sponsoring these trips for about 25 years. Each group is usually composed of eight to 12 individuals representing a cross section of elected officials and civic leaders. On Gaines' "Leadership Mission To Israel," from July 25 to Aug. 3, there were 13 plus Habler. Of that total, four were JCRC members.
Other government representatives, in addition to Gaines, included: Nancy Floreen, Montgomery County councilmember; Robert Garagiola, Maryland state senator; H. Morgan Griffith, majority leader, Virginia House of Delegates; Glenn Ivey, State's Attorney, Prince George County; Robert Janis, chair, House sub-committee on Homeland Security, Virginia House of Delegates; Michael Knapp, Montgomery County councilmember, chair, Homeland Security Committee; and Beverley Staley, budget director, Montgomery County.
During their 10-day odyssey, the group met with a variety of political and academic representatives as well as visited some of the most renowned sites in the region sacred to Judaism, Islam and Christianity. They also viewed first hand, many of the sites of conflict and the security measures in place to promote security.
"We met with both Palestinian leaders as well as two members of the Knesset [the Israeli Parliament]," Gaines said. "The Israeli political leaders represented both the liberal and conservative points of view."
Gaines went on to explain his goals for the trip.
"A priority of mine here is to make sure we are developing the security measures and safeguards we need to protect our citizens," he said. "We are now dealing with many of the same issues they have been facing for years."
One of those security tactics employed by the Israelis that impressed Gaines, but, as he noted, tests the boundary between civil liberty and security, was the video camera carried by ambulance crews to record the actual scene of violence where they make a call.
"This video history of what actually happened at a given incident helps not only the medical staff but also provides evidence," Gaines said. "This trip will enable me to serve my constituency better. I plan to share my experiences with synagogues and churches throughout the city," he said.