Student Union opens ‘hasbara’ room in effort to fill public diplomacy vacuum.
In the less than two years since he gave up his full-time job as a print and radio journalist, Uri Orbach, 50, has distinguished himself as an indefatigable parliamentarian for the Religious Zionist Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home) party, which sits in Prime Minister Netanyahu’s coalition government.
Rather than wasting valuable time during the Knesset’s nearly three-month summer break, Orbach decided to spend several weeks in the U.S. studying American political history and meeting with members of Congress and everyday citizens.
The Jewish Press: Who invited you to the U.S. and why?
Orbach: The State Department invited four new Knesset members as part of a special program to host parliamentarians who wish to understand and learn about the inner workings of the American government. The four of us were invited to political history encounters in Washington, D.C., New York and North Carolina. We learned about the political powers associated with the federal and state governments.
Why was it important for you to participate in this event?
Most educational experiences provide you with something valuable. As a new politician, it is important for me to be given the tools and knowledge to understand how America looks at the world and at Israel. What’s interesting from my point of view is that the nature of American politics is very different from Israeli politics and is not suitable for our electoral system. However, it is important to understand the electoral and political process and perhaps adapt some of the ideas. I was particularly interested in the ongoing, direct relationship between the voting public and their congressmen.
Did you learn about U.S. history and politics before you became a journalist?
I thought I knew a lot about American history based on all of the reading I did as I kid. But when I went to America, I discovered how much I didn’t know about America. I still remembered central events in American history such as the Boston Tea Party, the Constitutional Convention, the Civil War and key points of American history during the 20th century.
You know, we see this big nation called America through an Israeli prism, which is only natural. But in order to truly understand America, you must see it through American eyes and that’s a completely different perspective. Despite the fact that Israelis are heavy consumers of American culture, movies, music, etc., there are other critical things to learn about America that cannot be understood just by focusing on the cultural aspects.
Who were the other parliamentarians who went with you?
Yariv Levin of Likud, Orit Zuaretz of Kadima and Hamed Amar of Yisrael Beitenu.
What struck you most in your encounters with America and Americans?
First of all, when traveling abroad with your colleagues away from the Knesset, you have an opportunity to understand them better within more relaxed surroundings. Rather than emphasizing our political differences on certain issues, we decided it was more important to focus on how we as a group of Knesset members can promote the image of Israel in a positive manner to our colleagues in Washington.
Congressman Dan Burton (R-Indiana), center, welcomes MK Uri Orbach, third from left, and other members of the Knesset delegation to his office on Capitol Hill.
I was left with some initial impressions and perceptions of the U.S. To me, America is a secular country with religious people. While there is a separation of church and state, the majority of the people I met are believers. Even American patriotism is based on an elemental core of religious belief. Israel, on the other hand, is a religious country where the majority of its citizens happen to be secular. The state of Israel is more involved in the personal religious affairs of its citizens (through the Chief Rabbinate, religious councils, etc.), even though most of the people are secular.
Where did you spend Shabbat, and did you have any trouble finding kosher food?
Though intense interaction with local Jewish communities was not a key goal of this trip, I spent my first Shabbat in Baltimore, where I had the chance to meet with members of the local National Religious [Modern Orthodox] community. My second Shabbat was spent in Manhattan, where I mingled with young members of the Carlebach shul and the Jewish Center on the Upper West Side. In the afternoon, I headed over to the Great Lawn in Central Park, where there were a great many kippah-wearing youngsters.
Getting kosher food in Baltimore and New York wasn’t a problem, but North Carolina was a bit more of a challenge. However, a friend of mine from Baltimore made sure I had kosher food so I wouldn’t be hungry for a moment.
How will your experience in the U.S. help you as an Israeli parliamentarian?
I’ll tell you something that might sound a bit weird. I’ve learned to appreciate the power of America, as well as the influence of the government. But I’m still left with the impression that America, with all due respect, cannot understand how our small country is surrounded by a range of enemies. America is this massive country that projects an image of power and being well defended. Thus, it is very difficult for Americans to actually understand what it means to be a small nation like Israel that is under constant threat and cannot afford to lose a single war. The notion of America and Israel both being democracies certainly creates a bond between us, but we cannot pin all our hopes on America.
Did you come to have a better understanding of President Obama during your time in America?
I’m afraid President Obama will be more committed to the peace process than to the fate of Israel. People who think peace alone will solve all the problems in the region just don’t understand the reality of things. I did not return from America with a more optimistic feeling in relation to the president, but I was left with positive feelings based on the discussions I had with members of the House and Senate.
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