When Rep. Brad Schneider (D-Deerfield) led a mission of 25 people to Israel last week for the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago (JUF), the group expected to get a special look at the country others do not often see.
What none of them expected was to observe was a battle in the Syrian civil war but that is exactly what happened when the group visited an Israeli observation point atop Mt. Hermon on the Golan Heights only 25 miles from Damascus.
Earlier: Schneider Experiences Role Reversal
Three Syrian towns were in clear view not too far from the Israeli border. “We were standing there as a battle broke out,” Schneider said.
“No one in our group had ever experienced live fire before in a military conflict,” David Golder of Glencoe, one of the people on the mission, said. “It was like people from Glencoe and Deerfield having a shootout,” he added referring to the proximity of the villages.
Watching three different groups fight below him highlighted the complexity of the Syrian conflict to Schneider, a member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.
“It’s a Gordian Knot,” Schneider said. “They (the rebels) are fighting the government and each other. Some of the rebel groups are affiliated with Al-Qaeda. This is a very complex situation.”
Terrorists Are Fighting Each Other
Two groups labeled terrorist organizations by the United States— Al-Qaeda and Hezbollah—are fighting each other on Syrian soil, according to a report on CBS News. These complicated circumstances are one reason Schneider urges caution for the United States.
“We have to be aware of radical involvement and (the difficulties) of arming either of the sides,” Schneider said referring to different rebel groups. “We should work with our allies in the region; Jordan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Israel.” He will be giving a firsthand account when he returns to Washington this week.
Though they did not know it, while the group was there Israel fired missiles into Syria Thursday and again Saturday to destroy weapons being shipped from Iran to Hezbollah in Lebanon, according to reports in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.
“As the President says, ‘Israel has a right to defend itself by itself,’” Schneider said about the attacks. “I (understand) it will keep game changing weapons from Hezbollah,” he added referring to the air strikes.
Trip Was Unique for Group
This was Schneider’s 10th JUF mission as well as a number of other trips starting with a job he took on a kibbutz his first year out of college. Those experiences gave a unique dimension to the trip both for Schneider the other members of the group.
“A lot of unique doors open on a Congressional mission that are not there on a normal tour,” Golder, who also took a visit with Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Evanston) two years ago, said. “It’s a unique opportunity. The tone of the conversation is different.”
Other parts of the trip left Schneider and his group with hope. He had the opportunity to go to Ramallah and meet with former Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, a trip he took without the group.
“He is a partner for peace,” Schneider said. “I hope he stays involved in some way.” Schneider talked about the economic progress of the Palestinians under Fayyad and believes that can help lead toward peace.
Schneider also found hope when his group toured Tel Hai College in northern Israel where classrooms double as bomb shelters. “The doors are heavier, the walls thicker and there are no windows,” Schneider said. “This is the foundation of Israel’s unbelievable belief in its future.”
In addition to Golder, some of those joining Schneider were Andy Hochberg, Dana Gordon, Naomi Senser, Rabbi Michael Schwab, Janna Berk, Arnie Harris and John Supera of Highland Park; Stephanie and Steve Victor of Lake Forest; Harry Pascal of Winnetka; Elliot Robinson and Rinni Robinson of Skokie; Linda Fisher, Buzz Ruttenberg and Dana Hirt of Chicago; Scott Happ of Milwaukee along with Jeff Kopin and Beth Kopin.