Missouri legislators visit Israel on Federation mission

Missouri State Sen. Dave Sater, a Republican from Cassville, meets with Sharren Haskel, a Knesset member with the Likud Party, during a Jewish Federation-sponsored Israel mission trip for Missouri legislators.

By Eric Berger, Staff Writer

A group of Missouri legislators traveled to Israel last week amidst a cloud of uncertainty about the impact of a Donald Trump presidency on U.S.-Israel relations and American Jews.

The week-long trip, sponsored by Jewish Federation of St. Louis, included six Republican and two Democrat state senators and representatives. 

State Sen. Jill Schupp (D-St. Louis County) and State Rep. Jay Barnes (R-Cole County) participated in a discussion with members of the Caucus on Israel- U.S. relations in the Knesset.

The meeting occurred while some Jews were encouraged by Trump’s talk of dismantling the Iran nuclear deal and moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, while others disagree with those proposals and are concerned with Trump’s appointment as a top adviser of Steve Bannon, the longtime CEO of Breitbart, a media organization that has been linked with so-called alt-right views.

“Comments ranged from recognizing the implausibility of accurately predicting what a Trump administration would mean for Israel, to great fear over the overt and more subtle messages of anti-Semitism,” Schupp, who is Jewish, wrote in a Federation blog. “To a hopefulness that through marital connections (between Trumps daughter who converted to Judaism, and Jared Kushner, a Modern Orthodox Jew) and acknowledgement that campaigning is not necessarily indicative of governing, that our democracies’ shared values would move us forward positively.”

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During a discussion of hate crimes and the alt-right, Barnes, who is not Jewish, said that extremists are not representative of the general public, according to the Jerusalem Post.

“As with any change in administration, there is understandable angst in Israel at the unknown,” Barnes wrote on the blog. “Sen. Schupp and I shared examples from our state about the special relationship (between the two countries). American support for Israel is strong and I believe always will be.”

But others in the discussion expressed greater concern about the future of relations between the two countries. 

“We are witnessing a resurgence of anti-Semitism across the U.S.,” said Anti-Defamation League national director Jonathan Greenblatt, according to the Post. “Anti-Semitism has wound its way into mainstream conversations in a manner that many Jews who lived through Nazi Germany find terrifying,” he added, mentioning the numerous reports of hate crimes against Jews and other minorities since the November election. 

Despite the circumstances, the trip was not significantly different from past Federation-sponsored trips with legislators, said Andrew Rehfeld, president and CEO of Jewish Federation of St. Louis. In March, Rehfeld and others from Federation accompanied Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon and other state leaders on a week-long trade mission to Israel.

“The goals are really very similar in terms of wanting to help increase understanding and appreciation (among legislators) of Israel as a strong and stable democracy,” said Rehfeld, referring to the current trip.

The trip also included Reps. Lauren Arthur (D-Clay County), Denny Hoskins (R-Johnson & Pettis Counties), Kirk Mathews (R-St. Louis County), Holly Rehder (R-Scott and Mississippi Counties); and Sens. David Sater (R-Barry and Stone Counties) and Dave Schatz (R-Franklin and St. Louis Counties), legislators’ spouses and Federation officials. Federation spent $38,000 on the trip, which covered expense for the legislators — but not their spouses — as well as Rehfeld and David Winton,  a government relations consultant, according to the organization.

In addition to visiting the Knesset, the legislators visited the offices of two Israeli agricultural-technology companies — NRGene and Evogene — which have also recently opened operations in St. Louis. 

“To me, there has been one reoccurring thought with regard to their start-up successes: they are not afraid to fail,” wrote Rehder on the blog.

Rehfeld said Federation will follow-up with legislators after the trip about economic and social initiatives that could benefit Missouri, the U.S. Jewish community and Israel.

“I felt like bringing people together to understand each other, and the history of Jewish people and the values of the Jewish community, was invaluable,” said Rehfeld.