Huckabee (right) with Maaleh Adumim mayor
Huckabee (right) with Maaleh Adumim mayorIsrael news photo (H.Fendel)

A first-person account of a US presidential candidate's trip to Israel by a prominent Jewish-American activist reveals a calm man with strong principles.

When I received the invitation from Shani Hikind at the Ateret Cohanim/Jerusalem Reclamation Project (JRP) to accompany Republican Presidential candidate and former  Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee on a mission to Israel, I agreed immediately.

Having listened to Huckabee speak at the many debates held amongst the candidates, and being a fan of his Fox television show and his ABC radio shows, I knew that traveling with Mike would be a unique and extraordinary experience. It was all that and more!!

I trust that the messages he brings back, which are strong contradictions of the Obama policies, will help educate the general public about the true situation that exists in Israel today, and the necessity of keeping Israel a viable ally of America.

I arrived at Newark Airport late Saturday night, August 15, and waited at the gate to board my El Al midnight flight to Israel. An unassuming man walked into the area all alone. There was no entourage, no guards, no secretaries, and no press. When I looked again, I realized it was Mike 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, agreed to take some books and materials that I had for him, and posed for a photo with me. From that time on, he greeted me as Helen whenever we met.

He had that same warm quality with everyone in the group, remembering each one's name and greeting each one with a smile. This calm, affable, genuine quality about him continued throughout our three-day trip in Israel, despite the constant pressure of the media surrounding him, pushing their way forward, shouting out questions, and following him everywhere.

The trip was under the tireless guidance of JRP Representative in Jerusalem, Daniel Luria. 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, mostly Arab but with a renewed Jewish presence as there was decades ago, a visit to Maaleh HaZeitim, a flourishing Jewish development on the Mount of Olives, and a delightful stop at Kidmat Tzion, another Jewish development, 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 Tzion, Mike Huckabee sat in the strong sunshine, in front of a stunning view of the Old City, while he gave interview after interview to the omnipresent press.

Huckabee's remarks to the press have been well-recorded, but there were some particular comments that stand out in my memory. He insisted that his visit was not meant to be a provocation. He believes that two sovereign nations cannot control the same piece of territory, and that though the PA deserves to have a state, "it can't be in Israel." 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. He also spoke about his experiences growing up in the deep South with segregated schools, which makes him very sensitive to issues of discrimination and prejudice.

When asked about the "occupation," Mike Huckabee responded brilliantly. He described Israel's government as one of  "accommodation, not occupation." He spoke about Israel's efforts to bring all types of services to the Arab communities such as schools, infra-structure development, hospitals, and welfare payments.

The Moskowitz family, owners of the Shepherd Hotel in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of eastern Jerusalem, hosted a lovely cocktail reception on Monday evening at the hotel. Although the hotel is located near the National Headquarters of the Israeli police, near the tomb of Shimon HaTzadik, and adjacent to the Hebrew University and Hadassah Hospital on Mt. Scopus, the purchase of the hotel by a Jewish family, with the purpose of converting it to apartments for Jews, had set off a storm of protest. As we arrived at the hotel, we saw the protestors from Peace Now screaming their opposition to Huckabee's presence. Huckabee's reaction to their insults and noise was that their ability to behave in that fashion simply demonstrated Israel's democratic character, where free speech, even if ugly and unwanted, was fully tolerated.

On Tuesday, the former governor was given a tour of Maaleh Adumim and the E1 corridor to Jerusalem. The town's mayor, Benny Kashriel, explained that the population of nearly 40,000 people in the city provided 2,000 jobs to Arabs, and that freezing construction meant putting Arabs out of work. Huckabee agreed that Obama's policies are not in sync with either his campaign promises, or his assurances made to AIPAC of his continued support for previous understandings regarding Israel's settlement situation. Huckabee asserted that Israelis must be allowed to make their own decisions.

He continued along these lines as we toured Shomron/Samaria with David HaIvri.  We visited Beit El, Mt. Gerizim overlooking Shechem (Nablus), Har Bracha, and Givot Olam. In each place he met hard-working, devoted people who love the Land of Israel and dedicate their lives to its preservation. Gershon Mesika, the head of the Shomron Regional Council, asked Huckabee to do what he could to encourage the Jewish people to love Israel and thus restore the Temple to Jerusalem.

Huckabee spoke about American Christians' very deep support for Israel. He believes there is more unity amongst Evangelicals for Israel than there is among Jews. He describes the Christian connection to Judaism as one that is totally genetic, "part of its DNA," and that because of this, Bible-believing Christians assert the right of the Jews  to their homeland.

Huckabee suggested that Obama's positions on Israel have brought anxiety to Congress, and that Democrats don't want to be seen to be in conflict with Israel. He reminded us of Reagan's bombing of Libya, and stated, "Abandoning the Israel/U.S. relationship would be the undoing  of  both countries." Responding to questions about defensible borders for Israel, Huckabee maintained that there would be none if control were turned over to Hamas.

Referring to the years of peace processes, he reminded us of Einstein's definition of insanity, namely, "doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results." Huckabee recommends starting with a blank slate and seeing what is realistically possible; "there is no point in talking about a plan that is a proven failure." Although he recognized that he is out of the mainstream in his beliefs, he says he prefers that to the position of always having to check the prevailing winds.

Asserting that Jews should have the right to live wherever they choose in their homeland, he commented, "If Arabs didn't want to lose land, they shouldn't have started wars." He reminded us that wars and history have caused so many lands to change hands and populations.

That evening, back in Jerusalem, there was a cocktail reception at the very beautiful home of Mr. Guma Aguiar in Yemin Moshe.  The former governor was awarded photos and plaques for his deep devotion to Israel as the Jewish homeland. Many Members of Knesset and other dignitaries were there, along with the press of course, and once again Huckabee  displayed his modesty, equanimity, and sincerity as he graciously accepted the awards and once again pledged his devotion to Israel.  

(Pictured below:) Huckabee with Rabbi Wolpe at Gush Katif Museum

 By Wednesday, August 19, work commitments began to intrude in the planned schedule. Though he did not make it to the Gush Katif "resettlement camp" in Nitzan (see below), Huckabee did get to 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 had been like to have led a useful and productive life in a beautiful home and community and then to have it all torn away and destroyed. Four years later, only 15 percent of the 400 farmers of Gush Katif have received proper compensation. There were 50 greenhouses in Gush Katif; today, the former residents have only three. People are still paying off the mortgages on their destroyed homes, and must pay rent for the caravans in which they live in the "refugee camps." Huckabee seemed deeply moved by what he heard, as well as by the vivid photos and powerfully emotional film of the expulsion.

He was unable to continue with us on our visit to Nitzan, the largest of the Jewish "refugee camps," where we met with Dror Vanunu and Rachel and Moshe Saperstein, former residents  of N'vei Dekalim. After a lovely lunch at the visitors' center, we traveled on to Hevron to enjoy the spirituality always present in this city of our Matriarchs and Patriarchs. David Wilder once again served as our valuable guide.

At our farewell dinner at the "Between the Arches" restaurant in the Old City, Huckabee was there to greet each one of us. He shook hands with us individually, and posed for photos. I spoke to him briefly about his plans to visit Israel again in late January/February with a Christian group. I reminded him that Herbert Zweibon, chairman of my organization, Americans for a Safe Israel/AFSI, has always worked closely with the Christian community and would work with him on his planned  visit. He indicated that he would look forward to discussing this further.

Mike Huckabee did not stay to dine with us; he fought the Jerusalem traffic that erev Rosh Chodesh Elul night simply to say farewell personally to each one of us who had accompanied him on this memorable trip. He then left for the airport and his return flight to New York. I look forward to watching his personal reports on Fox News and listening to his radio commentaries on Israel.

I trust that the messages he brings back, which are strong contradictions of the Obama policies, will help educate the general public about the true situation that exists in Israel today, and the necessity of keeping Israel a viable ally of America.

 Helen Freedman is Executive Director of Americans For a Safe Israel/AFSI - 212-828-2424; [email protected]