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Arizona Legislators Take a Quick Trip to Israel ‘to Make up their own Minds’

Arizona legislators are pictured in Israel in March. Photo courtesy of House of Representatives via Bernadett Rochman

This story first appeared in Jewish News (greater Phoenix).

Last month, 17 Arizona state representatives, seven Democrats and 10 Republicans, went to Israel to meet with Israeli business, military and political leaders; learn about Israeli society; and speak with witnesses of the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel, including family members of hostages still in Gaza.

Rep. Alma Hernandez (D-20), Tucson’s outspoken Jewish Latina legislator and trip leader, saw the journey as a unique and important experience, one that allowed many of her colleagues a first glimpse of Israel and its people.

“I wanted people with different points of view to come, see the country for themselves and be able to ask their own questions,” she said.

Hernandez has been involved in Israel advocacy since she was 14; even her car’s personalized license plate reads “Zionist” in all caps. She has never shied away from her activism on behalf of the State of Israel but was frustrated by some critics of the trip who accused her of using it as a chance for “propaganda or brainwashing.”

“Everyone has the right to their own opinion,” she said. “At the end of the day, education was the purpose of the trip. If anything, we should be glad people want to learn about a topic they don’t know about and a lot of elected politicians don’t know that much about Israel.”

Rep. Seth Blattman (D-23), who is Jewish and has been to Israel “twice before but never during a war,” saw the trip as “an opportunity to see the situation firsthand and educate myself on what’s happening on the ground,” he told Jewish News in a text.

Daniel Hernandez, Alma’s brother and a former Arizona representative, proposed the March 5-11 trip, helped organize it and went along. Itrek, an organization that sends up-and-coming business and political leaders to Israel to learn about its “values and global contributions to the world,” paid all of the legislators’ expenses.

House Speaker Rep. Ben Toma (R-27), who was behind an unanimously adopted resolution in January voicing Arizona’s full support for Israel in its war against Hamas, worked with Hernandez to ensure the trip included a cross-section of representatives.

“A lot of people were excited to go, and many of those who were unable to go for a variety of reasons — let’s face it, Israel’s not just around the corner — were bummed that they couldn’t make it,” said Toma.

The March trip was the Peoria legislator’s third time in Israel and he watched as some of his colleagues experienced the country for the first time and “came to understand the reality on the ground in a way they couldn’t have done if they hadn’t gone.”

Itrek made sure the legislators heard from various people with different perspectives, which Toma thought was a net positive.

“We talked to Israeli Jews with different positions, Israeli Arabs and Palestinians living in the West Bank. Itrek didn’t shield us from blunt conversation, which was really valuable,” he said.

Rep. Alma Hernandez speaks to her colleagues in Israel. Photo courtesy of Alma Hernandez

Hernandez liked that her colleagues also held diverse views. “Not everyone agreed about the war and it was nice that they still joined us.”

Recalling her first taste of Israel advocacy in high school, Hernandez described herself as “an all-or-nothing activist. I was young and didn’t understand why people didn’t agree with my position.” Over her three terms in Arizona’s legislature, she’s learned to value bipartisanship and working together to find solutions.

It has paid off in her legislative career, making her one of the few Democrats in a chamber controlled by Republicans to get her bills heard, moved along and passed.

“I give people grace because we’ve all been there. We all started out as fiery activists, but I credit the pro-Israel movement for my bipartisanship and ability to work across the aisle. Israel is not a partisan issue and shouldn’t be,” she said.

Rep. Consuelo Hernandez (D-21), who is also Jewish, helped her brother and sister organize the trip and was pleased with the diversity of opinion.

During the conversations she and her colleagues had with Israeli officials, she observed that some “who have been on the fence showed a willingness to learn even though they were uncomfortable.”

Though the itinerary kept the legislators busy, the trip provided a unique opportunity for the politicians to get to know each other outside the office. Like many of her colleagues, she has a long drive to the capitol, where most of her time is spent in committee meetings.

This was the first time many people sat down for a coffee or meal together and got to know one another beyond a superficial greeting.

“Any time I can get to know someone, it’s worth the time,” she said.

Some government officials, including Governor Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, and Arizona Senate President Warren Peterson, a Republican, criticized the timing of the Israel trip, which came in the middle of the legislative session. The state Senate even voted to deny a request to let the House adjourn for its week-long trip, but that didn’t deter Toma or Hernandez.

“The trip didn’t harm our process and we were on track with the bills that needed to get out,” Toma said.

“We had to go now,” said Rep. Alexander Kolodin (R-03). “This is when our friends are going through their darkest time and the most important thing is to be there for them. We wanted to demonstrate that Arizonans stand with the people of Israel unequivocally.”

Kolodin, who is Jewish, wanted to represent “the strong feelings of people in my district who support Israel.”

The legislators stressed the importance of the trade relationship between Arizona and Israel and the importance of the ongoing collaboration on water issues.

“The timing criticism is ridiculous,” Alma Hernandez said. “Committees did not stop and the capitol didn’t shut down.”

“Arizona didn’t collapse,” Consuelo Hernandez agreed. “In fact, it was the best timing because once we get into budget negotiation, we’ll actually know each other better.”

Representatives Consuelo (left) and Alma Hernandez in Israel. Photo courtesy of Alma Hernandez

This was the first time the Hernandez siblings were in Israel together, something that made the trip extra special for each of them.

Meeting the family members of the hostages was emotional for Consuelo Hernandez, especially since one older man she encountered at a center to help families of hostages tell their stories reminded her of her own father, who was recently very ill.

Toma also noted that part of the trip was very difficult.

“Going to the site of the attacks and seeing videos of the attacks — you’d think you’d be desensitized by all the violence we see in the media, but this was really disturbing,” he said.

Kolodin said that seeing places where people were killed was awful and really shook up his colleagues.

“Everyone is used to the rough and tumble of politics, but people were just sobbing, people I’ve never seen cry before,” he said.

Blattman said that visiting the sites of the Oct. 7 attacks and speaking with victims’ families was very impactful.

“The conversations were heartbreaking but we were able to then take their sentiments to members of the Knesset and advocate on their behalf,” he said.

Alma Hernandez recounted a tearful day when everyone went to Yad Vashem, Jerusalem’s Holocaust museum.

“There was not one dry eye that day,” she said. It was a tough day all around since it was the same day they met with the hostages’ families. She was touched by the story of a mother whose son was killed but still advocated for peace.

“Even through all this pain and suffering, she was still advocating for Israelis and Palestinians to live side by side in peace. She still has hope in her heart there will be peace. Listening to her was deep, heavy,” she said.

Technically, the trip lasted seven days, but with travel time, the legislators only had five days to rush through a crowded itinerary before heading home. Those who went have publicly said it was a worthwhile trip.

“I’m glad I had the opportunity to show the people of my district’s support for the people of Israel in this existential struggle; I’m grateful I did it and I’d do it again,” Kolodin said.

The House Democrats on the trip were Seth Blattman, Nancy Gutierrez, Alma Hernandez, Consuelo Hernandez, Lydia Hernandez, Chris Mathis and Keith Seaman; the House Republicans were Leo Biasiucci, Michael Carbone, Neal Carter, David Cook, Alexander Kolodin, David Livingston, Quang Nguyen, Michele Peña, Ben Toma and Justin Wilmeth.