When I received the invitation from Shani Hikind at the Ateret Cohanim/Jerusalem Reclamation Project to accompany 2008 Republican presidential candidate and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee on a mission to Israel, I immediately accepted.
Having heard him speak during many campaign debates and being a fan of his FOX News television show, I knew that traveling with Huckabee was certain to be an extraordinary experience.
I arrived at Newark Liberty International Airport late Saturday night, August 15, and waited at the gate to board El Al’s midnight flight to Israel. An unassuming man walked into the area – no entourage, no guards, no secretaries, no press. When I looked a second time, I realized it was Huckabee.
I approached him, introduced myself, and told him I was part of the group with which he would be traveling. He was as gracious as could be, accepted some books and materials I’d brought for him, and agreed to have a photo taken with me.
From that time on, he called me “Helen” whenever we met. He had the same warm quality with everyone in the group, remembering each person’s name and always greeting each with a smile.
Our first day was concentrated in Jerusalem, with a fascinating tour of the City of David, where ancient excavations dating back 3,200 years have been discovered. This was followed by trips through the former Yemenite village in Silwan, now mostly Arab; a visit to Ma’aleh Hazeytim, a flourishing Jewish development on the Mount of Olives; and a delightful stop at Kidmat Zion, adjacent to the ugly wall that cuts through Jerusalem and separates Abu Dis from the rest of Jerusalem.
While most of us enjoyed a picnic lunch in the lovely shaded forest area adjacent to Kidmat Zion, Huckabee sat in the hot sun, in front of a stunning view of the Old City, and gave interview after interview to a seemingly endless procession of reporters.
Huckabee’s remarks to the press have been well reported, but there were some comments that stand out in my memory. He believes two sovereign nations cannot control the same piece of territory. He affirms the unique relationship between the U.S. and Israel, which he describes as organic, with both having experienced the same struggle and victory.
When asked about the “occupation,” he responded brilliantly, describing Israel’s government as one of accommodation rather than occupation. He spoke of Israel’s efforts to bring all types of services to the Arab communities such as schools, infrastructure development, hospitals, and welfare payments.
The Moskowitz family, which bought the Shepherd Hotel in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of Jerusalem, hosted a cocktail reception at the hotel on Monday evening. Although the hotel is adjacent to Hebrew University and Hadassah Hospital on Mt. Scopus, its purchase by a Jewish family, for the purpose of converting it into apartments for Jews, had set off a storm of protest in Israel.
As we arrived, we saw Peace Now protestors screaming their opposition to Huckabee’s presence. Huckabee responded to their insults and noise by noting that the fact they could freely behave in such a fashion simply demonstrated Israel’s democratic character.
On Tuesday, Huckabee was given a tour of Ma’aleh Adumim and the E1 corridor to Jerusalem and visited the Shomron – Beit El, Har Greezim overlooking Shechem, Har Bracha, and Givat Olam.
He spoke about the deep support for Israel among American evangelical Christians and declared that “Abandoning the Israel-U.S. relationship would be the undoing of both countries.” That evening, at a cocktail reception in Jerusalem attended by members of Knesset and other dignitaries, Huckabee was presented with photos and plaques for his deep devotion to Israel.
The next day, Huckabee visited the Gush Katif Museum in Jerusalem, where he met Rivka Goldschmidt, an evacuee from the destroyed Gush Katif communities. He spoke to her earnestly, listening to her description of what it was like to have led a useful and productive life in a beautiful home and community and then have it all torn away.
He seemed deeply moved by what he heard, and also by the vivid photos and emotional film of the expulsion.
Huckabee was on hand to greet us at our farewell dinner at the Between the Arches restaurant in the Old City, shaking hands and posing for photos. I spoke with him briefly about his plans to visit Israel again next winter with a Christian group and reminded him that Herbert Zweibon, chairman of my organization, Americans For a Safe Israel, has always worked closely with the Christian community and that he looked forward to working with him on his next visit.