Robert Bogle, longtime president and CEO of the Philadelphia Tribune, the African-American newspaper that has been around since 1884, has visited Israel several times and has not been shy about criticizing the Jewish state’s treatment of the Palestinians and the expansion of settlements.
Now, after spending time in the Jewish state with local black and Jewish leaders, Bogle said he hasn’t totally changed his thinking, but he’s developed a new appreciation for the complexity of the conflict. He’s also convinced that the Israelis are serious about making peace.
“I have an enormous amount of high regard and respect for Israel. It is a pity that we haven’t been able to solve the issues between Israel and its neighbors,” he said, noting that the July 16-21 trip coincided with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s announcement that Israeli-Palestinian peace talks would resume. Israelis and Palestinians were in Washington, D.C., earlier this week to establish a framework for those talks.
Bogle was part of a 13-member group of local African-American and Jewish leaders who spent a week in Israel exploring issues related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, visiting sites of historical and religious importance and learning about business developments and educational programs.
The trip was spearheaded by State Sen. Anthony Williams, a Democrat from Philadelphia who is seen as a possible candidate for mayor in 2015. Williams, who unsuccessfully ran for governor in 2010, has championed Jewish causes in recent years. He sponsored a Holocaust education bill in Harrisburg, spoke at a Friends of the IDF gala and expressed concern about anti-Israel activity on campus.
He also has stressed a need for a revival of the relationship between the Jewish and African-American communities, a relationship that largely deteriorated in the decades after the 1960s and the civil rights movement. Williams also has said he wished more black leaders were explicitly pro-Israel.
It was a private trip, with participants taking care of their own expenses but it was arranged with the help of the Israeli consulate in Philadelphia and the American Jewish Committee.
Jewish participants included American Jewish Committee board members David Hyman, Joseph Zuritsky and Harold Jaffe as well as Marty Weinberg, a former mayoral candidate. Steven Friedman, a major Republican donor and close friend to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, joined the group for a few days.
Some of the other African-American participants were: Raheem Islam, president and CEO of Universal Companies; City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson and his wife; and Dawn Chavous, an education advocate.
“We enjoyed each other’s company. People were honest,” Williams said in a phone interview the day after returning. “It gave me a deeper understanding of Israel and what it means.”
Williams acknowledged it was difficult to get some of the African-Americans to commit to the trip and that it took some cajoling.
“I told them that this relationship is very essential to the continued growth of the city and the region,” he said.
The trip came just a few weeks after the passing of William H. Gray, the former African-American congressman who co-founded Operation Understanding and focused his energies on black-Jewish relations.
It also came shortly before Johnson’s colleague, City Councilman Curtis Jones — who in 2011 opposed a pro-Israel resolution that passed in council — was expected to travel to the Jewish state on a different trip for lawmakers from around the country organized by AJC. Jones, who chairs City Council’s public safety committee, hopes to learn more about security measures in Israel, according to a spokeswoman. He’s also eager to delve into Israel’s venture capital sector.
Diversity within Israel was a major theme of the black-Jewish trip. The Philadelphia group had breakfast with Shlomo Molla, a former member of the Knesset who was born in Ethiopia and met with African-American leaders in Philadelphia last September. They also visited the home of Raslan Abu Rukun, who was the previous deputy consul general for Israel in the Philadelphia region. He is an Israeli Druze, a minority community that speaks Arabic and practices a distinct religion. Many Israeli Druze serve in the Israeli army and hold positions in government.
The local Israeli consulate arranged for the group to visit Bat Yam, the city near Tel Aviv where Israel’s current deputy consul general, Elad Strohmayer, grew up. His mother teaches in the public schools there. The group met with Mayor Shlomo Lahiani and learned about his efforts to improve public education in the city.
Islam, who runs the community development organization founded by record executive Kenny Gamble, said the inclusion and diversity he saw in Israel “is off the charts.”
As a Muslim, he said, he felt completely welcomed everywhere he went, except when he was questioned by security personnel at Ben-Gurion Airport before the flight home. Islam said he didn’t hold it against the Israelis and that, perhaps because of his name, he’s often stopped at American airports.
Islam said he learned in meeting Israelis that “almost everyone is amenable to a two-state solution, but nobody trusts anybody. The question is, how do you get a deal done?”
Both Jewish and African-Americans on the trip said that deep personal relationships were formed and they expected there to be follow-up discussions. Members even tossed around the possibility of visiting an African country next.
“I have felt for a while that the relationship between the Jewish and African-American communities isn’t what it should be,” Bogle said, adding that he thinks this group of people has the potential to change that, at least in Philadelphia.
Johnson, who represents South Philadelphia, said he was moved by his visits to Masada and the Western Wall as well as to Christian sites like Bethlehem and Nazareth.
“We share similar experiences historically,” said the councilman. “I definitely feel a bond in our relationship. The trip was another step.”