Senator L’Italien Talks About Her Trip to Israel, Pt. I


By: Tom Duggan – March, 2016

Massachusetts State Senator Barbara L’Italien was recently criticized in the daily paper for taking a trip to Israel. Anti-Semitic groups from the Boston area protested her trip. We wanted to give Senator L’Italien the opportunity to talk about her trip and the controversy. In part 1 of our discussion, Senator L’Italien talked about her personal experiences and what she learned from the trip. Next month she will talk about how the trip influences her as a state senator from Massachusetts.

What was this whole controversy about you going to Israel?

“There were some people who signed petitions, they were dropped at my office. They wanted to meet with us to say basically ‘don’t go to Israel.’ To which I say, everyone has the right to travel wherever they like. I think it’s better to learn firsthand what is going on over there as we have a real stake in what’s going on in the Middle East. The implications going forward of what’s happening with ISIS and all of that, we need to understand it because it’s coming to our soil. And the implications of terrorism is not just at the federal level, but at the state level as well.

We have to up the ante and restructure our definition of security. We have to find the balance between freedom and security. So, yes, we were asked not to go by a lot of people, none of whom lived in my district. It was all people from the Greater Boston area. I’m not sure why it was even a story.”

“What happened was, the Jewish Community Relations Council runs these groups on a regular basis. The senate president was asked to structure a trip to include senators interested in going. There were 10 senators that attended, including the senate president and the chair of ways and means. Senator Eileen Donoghue and myself were the two Merrimack Valley senators who attended. We were there for ten days and it was very beneficial.”


“When we landed, our tour guide said this was a very complex place. ‘If you leave here with more questions than answers then we’ve done our jobs,’ he told us. The approach was not to give us preconceived ideas like ‘this is what we want you to be thinking when you leave here.’ It was more ‘take your American hat and your American way of thinking off. Come in and look at all of the things that are going on and understand this is a very complex place to live.’”

“I had been to Israel before in 2008, with a group of house members. I was really glad I had gone before and this was my second trip because the second trip was vastly different.”

“Because there are random acts of violence going on in Israel, and in particular Jerusalem, there were areas of the old city that we were not able to go to. So, the first time I went in 2008, we were able to go to the Via Dolorosa and do the walk of Jesus on Good Friday. We were able to go the mountain where Palm Sunday took place. But, there were a lot of religious and cultural sites we couldn’t go to this time.”

“We went everywhere with an armed guard. A 23 year old young man, whom I would argue was going on 40 because he had finished serving 3 ½ years in the Israeli Defense Force. He had an unbelievable sense of maturity. We learned a lot from him. He took us around and it was very different. We don’t have to worry about terrorism here in the US when we go the store, or get in our cars, but that’s starting to change here too.

The balance is starting to change here as more things happen like the Boston Marathon, and San Bernardino. We are going to have to have some real discussions in this country about where we find that balance. Israel has been there for decades and it was fascinating to see how they handle it.”

“When I went to walk into a mall, we were subject to going through metal detectors, being searched, having your bags searched, you know, what we experience at the airport here. Over there you experience that every time you go into a store, or a night club, or a restaurant.”
Asked if she thinks that this is what the terrorists want, for America to worry about attacks in malls and restaurants, she said she didn’t.

“I don’t think they really much care what level of security we offer here. I think the young people engaging in this kind of terrorism, and willing to blow themselves up, just want to send a message and spread terror. I don’t think they are even considering the security ramifications are on this side. I think if you are so dedicated to a cause and you are willing to give up your life like that, it’s very difficult to stop those people. I think our strategy is about containment, because these things are so random when they are going to come up.”

“We are lucky as a country where we have been able to stop a lot of these things through surveillance or whatever, but their targets are not necessarily going to be the targets we think of, they are going to be the soft targets.”


“We were able to go into Bethlehem. We were there during Chanukah, in December. But, to go into Bethlehem you have to switch tour buses. Israeli citizens are not allowed to go behind the wall into the West Bank. So, you get off the tour bus and wait on the side of the road for a Palestinian tour bus to come get you. A lot of my colleagues were very nervous during that changeover.”

“Then we got on a Palestinian bus with a Palestinian tour guide and made our way through portions of the West Bank. We had lunch there and met with the mayor of Bethlehem.”

“The gentleman who was our tour guide in the West Bank is a New York Times reporter. He has traveled the world. He and his parents were educated in the United States. He lives and is raising his four children behind the wall. They allow him to come and go freely because they don’t consider him a security threat.”

“But, we watched while we were waiting for our transfer back to Israel from the West Bank. We were able to watch the security gates, and the whole security process of the workers who are given a pass to leave to go work in Jerusalem. If you have any sort of blemish on your record you are not allowed to leave the West Bank.”

“This NY Times reporter did say the economy has improved there. When I was there in 2008 it looked really bad, the buildings were in severe disrepair and most people were unemployed. But, I guess the economy has picked up. There’s a lot of new building going on in the Bethlehem, West Bank area. It was really interesting to go through that change and experience the reality of such a high level of security.”

“We were able to go through because we were tourists and they need every tourism dollar they can get. In that area, tourist dollars are really the only way people are making any money.”

“The mayor of Bethlehem was a Catholic woman. By law it has to be a Christian. Primarily behind the wall it is Christians and Muslims that are Palestinian. The Mayor of Bethlehem was talking to us as government officials about the challenges of getting anything done. She works direct with someone at the top of the Israeli government and she has to get the ok from Israel to get anything done. We think mayor’s here have it bad.”

“We also talked with several academics in the military. It felt like being back in school. It was like a geo political course on what is going on over there. We learned how the Israeli Parliament is set up where there are so many parties. Politically, everyone falls in one of two categories, conservative or reformed, and hawk or dove. So, everyone falls somewhere on that spectrum.

There are numerous parties and you usually win with about 30% of the vote. Whatever party wins the raw vote then has to go about building a coalition to be the leader of parliament. In fact, Netanyahu was not the guy who won the raw vote. It was a woman named Tzipi Livnik but she couldn’t effectively build a coalition to be the leader of the Knesset.”

“So, we got the message of how difficult it is to get anything done there on a daily basis. The only way to accomplish anything is to partner up with groups that are so diametrically opposed to everything you are fighting for, and how do you work with that? So, like they said take off your American hat and how you think about the way things work here in the US, because nothing is the same.”


“We talked to a Colonel who was in the Israeli Defense Force for 30 years. He told us a fascinating story that his mother had survived a concentration camp. She was a twin and she and his aunt had been subjected to medical experiments by Dr. Mengele. He told us how they went on forced marches just weeks before the Americans were to liberate those camps. His mother carried his aunt on her back because she had been so crippled and disfigured from the medical experiments they were doing.”

“So, he spent a great deal of time telling us how they take great care not to hurt innocent civilians when they are fighting. In the Gaza war last summer, if they found leaders of a terrorist group and they wanted to take them out, those leaders would have their family members go up on the roof. They did that because they know the Israelis won’t bomb if there are innocent people in that building. So, his point was that ‘my mother and my aunt were innocent and caught up in something beyond their control and our job, if we are doing it right, is not to do that to anyone else.’”

Next month: What Senator L’Italien learned that she can use in the legislature.