Building ties with the Jewish State

The Missouri delegation, including Gov. Jay Nixon (right) meets with Minister of Education Naftali Bennett (left). 

BY GIL HOFFMAN, Special to the Jewish Light

JERUSALEM — On May 14, 1948, President Harry S Truman recognized the State of Israel, just 11 minutes after Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, declared its independence.

Nearly 68 years later, another Missouri Democrat followed in the footsteps of the president from Independence when Gov. Jay Nixon visited Israel for the third time.

Nixon led a week-long trade mission on March 21-28, which included state leaders and local Jewish professionals and businessmen. While Truman’s declaration led to more countries around the world recognizing Israel, Nixon’s visit is expected to lead to more business for the country, as well as for Missouri.

In an interview with the Jewish Light ahead of his departure back home to Missouri, Nixon said he was proud to help build a stronger relationship between the Show-Me State and the Jewish State. He said he was aware of but unfazed by efforts to initiate political boycotts of Israel.

“Israel has been a great partner of ours, culturally and commercially,” he said. “[Calls for boycotts] have not been a problem for us in expanding our trade and relationships.”

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Israeli chief scientist Avi Hasson and the governor signed a Memorandum of Understanding during the trip that will lead to joint commercial research and development projects for a number of Israeli and Missouri companies. 

Nixon singled out as highlights of the trip meetings at the Israel offices of companies like Boeing and Amdocs that do much of their business in both Israel and Missouri.

Boeing Defense is headquartered in St Louis and is Missouri’s largest manufacturer. It has maintained offices in Israel since 1969, and the Israeli Air Force currently employs all versions of the Missouri-made F-15 Eagle.

Headquartered in Chesterfield, Amdocs is an Israeli founded and run software and services provider to more than 300 communications, media and entertainment service providers in more than 90 countries.

“We thanked them for their investments in our state and for being models for other companies who we hope will join them,” Nixon said.

Nixon said there were more companies he visited that made commitments to open offices in Missouri. He revealed on his Twitter account that Israeli agri-tech company Evogene decided to open an office in St Louis due to “its biotech ecosystem, affordability and talent.”

Jewish Federation of St. Louis has invested resources in recent years in trying to make the city a more attractive place for Israeli companies that are considering doing business in St. Louis. For example, the organization has a community concierge that helps new immigrants connect with the local Jewish community and a website in Hebrew with information about resources in St. Louis. Federation President and CEO Andrew Rehfeld was part of the trip and talked with Israeli business leaders about the city’s Jewish community.

“We were able to articulate the case that we have a strong Jewish community, and that will mater at the margins,” when a company is deciding between two cities, Rehfeld said.

The trip was important, Rehfeld said, not only because it helped strengthen Jewish identify with Israel, but also because it will hopefully spur economic development. 

“We are not going to have a future Jewish community in St. Louis unless the region is strong, unless there is economic growth, professional development and professional opportunites for our children and grandchildren,” said Rehfeld.

The trip also allowed Jewish leaders to counter the narrative promoted by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, said Rori Picker Neiss, executive director of Jewish Community Relations Council in St. Louis, who also attended the trip. 

“Instead of fighting a negative, it was really a positive of working to build bridges and really strengthen the ties through the relationship” between Israeli companies and Missouri, said Picker Neiss.

She also said Missouri’s elected officials were interested in learning more about the challenges Israel faces. 

“As we were riding around and seeing the different sights and talking, there was an openness in terms of really learning the depth of what is going on in Israel, and not just on a superficial level, but the history and the context of all that is going on,” Picker Neiss said.

The governor was a passenger in a self-driving car during his visit to the Jerusalem headquarters of Mobileye Vision Technologies, a global leader in advanced collision avoidance systems. The company is considering equipping Kansas City’s bus system.

Mobileye’s offer is part of the US Department of Transportation’s pledge of up to $40 million to one city to become the country’s first “Smart City,” which would fully integrate innovative technologies, including self-driving cars, connected vehicles, and smart sensors, into their transportation network. U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx announced Kansas City as one of seven finalists two weeks ago.

Nixon said he learned a lot from hearing presentations by five Israel-based cyber security companies at a forum hosted by Israel’s Startup Nation Central that was founded by former Jerusalem Post opinion editor and best-selling Start-Up Nation author Saul Singer.

The governor’s delegation met with four agri-technology companies and received a briefing on BioSTL’s business recruitment program in Israel called Global STL-Israel. Nixon and his group explored with the Israelis opportunities to grow their bio-science sectors through new partnerships.

“Based on the meetings, we will see more interacting in planet science, animal science and cyber-security between Israel and St Louis and Israel and Kansas City,” Nixon said. 

The efforts to build those partnerships will continue through the Missouri Trade and Investment Office in Tel Aviv, headed by Elysa Rapoport, who said the visit was very successful.

Nixon met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Ministry and Jewish Agency officials, but a meeting set with former president Shimon Peres was canceled.

“Israel is a vital ally and trading partner in a rapidly changing global economy,” Nixon wrote on Twitter after the meeting with Netanyahu.

Rehfeld said he enjoyed the meetings with Netanyahu and the U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro because, “you are able to see how things are made up-close, in a way that is always a useful and impressive thing to be part of.” 

Joining Nixon in the delegation were First Lady Georganne Nixon; Mike Downing, Director of the Missouri Department of Economic Development; Senate Minority Floor Leader Joseph Keaveny, House Majority Floor Leader Mike Cierpiot; and House Minority Floor Leader Jacob Hummel.

The delegation also included Roey Gilad, Consul General of Israel to the Midwest; Don Hannon, Chief Financial Officer, Jewish Federation of St. Louis; Guy Bouchard, President, Sinclair Research; Andrea Smithee, Assistant to the President, Sinclair Research; and Margaret Onken, Executive Director of the Hawthorn Foundation, one of the funders of the trip. The Millstone Family Foundation also provided funding.

The trip culminated with Nixon and his wife meeting with Theophilos III, Patriarch of the Holy City of Jerusalem, and attending Easter Services at Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Nixon is Methodist, though one of his paternal great-grandmothers was Jewish.

Although the Old City has suffered from terrorist attacks over the past six months, Nixon said he did not feel unsafe in any way there or anywhere else in Israel.

“We knew that safety was a matter of concern, especially after what happened in Brussels and Pakistan,” he said. “There is a history of challenges in the Middle East, but we never felt unsafe. We went to Masada [which is in the West Bank] and we interacted with folks. I never felt we were in any challenging situation.”

Nixon, who is not running for re-election due to term limits, said he wanted the visit to send a message of confidence in Israel back to the people of Missouri.

“Truman was the first to recognize Israel,” he said. “We are continuing nowadays with Truman’s tradition to make our ties even stronger.”

Light staff writer Eric Berger contributed information to this story.