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Illinois legislators meet with nonprofits, Ukrainian refugees, judicial reform protesters in Israel

State politicians and the Israeli consul general to the Midwest see the trip as a sign of strengthening ties between a U.S. state and Israel, while still referring to visiting “Palestine.”

Speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives Emanuel (“Chris”) Welch (left) and his legislative leadership team at a stop on their tour at Netiv HaAsara, a moshav in southern Israel at the border with the Gaza Strip, September 2023. Credit: Jewish United Fund.
Speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives Emanuel (“Chris”) Welch (left) and his legislative leadership team at a stop on their tour at Netiv HaAsara, a moshav in southern Israel at the border with the Gaza Strip, September 2023. Credit: Jewish United Fund.

Members of the Illinois House of Representatives are hailing a recent working trip to Israel as an indication of the strength of ties between the Midwestern state and Israel, and Israeli diplomats in the Midwest say that relationship is deepening.

“The bilateral relationship between Illinois and Israel is strong,” Emanuel (“Chris”) Welch, speaker of the state House, told JNS. “This once-in-a-lifetime learning experience has allowed myself and my leadership team the chance to learn more about the fascinating history and complexities of the Middle East.”

In a similar statement posted on his website, the speaker added that he and his leadership team were traveling to Israel and “Palestine” from Aug. 31 to Sept. 9. In the version on his site, Welch stated that the “once-in-a-lifetime” experience would afford him and his colleagues “the chance to learn more about Israelis, Palestinians and the fascinating history of this area.”

“I look forward to building lasting relationships and getting a firsthand look at how Israel and Palestine approach some of the same issues we face in Illinois,” he added in the statement on his website.

Online and in materials related to the trip, legislators and their aides did not note the fact that “Palestine” is not a state.

Bob Morgan, an Illinois state representative who was part of the trip, posted on social media on Sept. 5 that the group “just finished a very important meeting with leaders of the protest movement who have been rallying against extreme judicial reforms here.”

Robyn Gabel, majority leader of the Illinois House, told JNS it has been “a privilege to help strengthen the ties that join Illinois with Israel as well as meet with foreign leaders to deepen our understanding of the people of a region with whom we share so much.”

“A direct look at the political and cultural complexities of a major trading partner is an issue of economic significance for all Illinoisans, as well as a thought-provoking experience that I will remember for years to come,” she added.

Illinois boasts a significant Jewish population, particularly around Chicagoland.

According to the 2020 Metropolitan Chicago Jewish Population Study undertaken by the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University, some 319,600 Jewish adults and children live in 175,800 Jewish households, figures that have grown slightly since 2010.

The group of Illinois legislators enjoys a Shabbat dinner at the Chicago home of Consul General of the Midwest Yinam Cohen (third from right) before leaving for Israel, Aug. 25, 2023. Credit: Consul General of the Midwest.

‘Partnership has grown significantly’

The state delegation got to “experience the reality on the ground in Israel,” Linda Haase, senior associate vice president of marketing and communications at the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, told JNS.

The itinerary included “geopolitical briefings and visits with elected and community leaders and pundits, to meeting recently arrived refugees from Ukraine and touring a state-of-the-art hospital,” she said.

Delegation members also visited the nonprofit NATAL-Israel Trauma and Resiliency Center; Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center; Peres Center for Peace and Innovation; Neve Hanna children’s home in Kiryat Gat; and the farm Hineni, where Ethiopian Jews grow crops. The group went to Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Ramallah and Bethlehem, according to Haase.

The group met with Israeli-Arab politician Mansour Abbas, leader of the United Arab List; medical equipment executive Ronit Harpaz; Israeli-Arab journalist Khaled Abu Toameh; and researcher Khalil Shikaki of the Ramallah-based Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research.

“The Illinois-Israel partnership has grown significantly over the past several years,” Yinam Cohen, consul general of Israel to the Midwest, told JNS.

“We work to generate more business collaborations between the Land of Lincoln and the Startup Nation in agricultural, water, food, medical and even quantum technologies,” he said. “On the community level, Israeli models and expertise are supporting the work that local community organizations

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