A New Jersey State Assembly member from Freehold described her weeklong trip to Israel as “absolutely amazing.”
Caroline Casagrande (R-Dist. 11) was one of nine elected officials who took part in Project Interchange, an annual tour of Israel sponsored by the American Jewish Committee.
The trip, held earlier August, included five days of touring with a bipartisan entourage that included elected officials from eight other states.
“It was a wonderful experience for me as a policy maker to be able to see Israel so thoroughly and from all sides,” Casagrande told NJ Jewish News a few days after her return.
John Rosen, executive director of AJC’s Metro NJ Region, helped in the selection process that led to Casagrande’s being chosen for the excursion. The legislators invited to participated, he said, “are usually individuals who are decision-makers and come from a broad political spectrum.” The other delegates were from Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.
What impressed Casagrande the most were meetings with officials of Israeli high-tech companies.
“They have great incubator programs there that are subsidized by the government, and they encourage entrepreneurship br providing free educational seminars and free workspace,” she said. “I think that having those types of incentives and those types of programs combined with a heavy, heavy government subsidy on research and development has led to a tech-boom in Israel that I think is really driving their economy.” This is a scenario, she said, “that New Jersey can take tremendous lessons from to grow our own tech belt.”
She said she learned another lesson that could serve to boost her home state. “We have really failed to integrate our own research institutions with our business community, and that is something that Israel seems to have figured out, and we can replicate that here,” she told NJJN.
The officials were taken to Sderot, which has endured frequent rocket attacks form nearby Gaza.
“We looked over a hill, so we could very clearly see the Gaza Strip, and learned quite a bit about the security measures that had to be taken for the Israelis that are living in that area of the world,” Casagrande said.
In Jerusalem, they conferred with Mark Regev, a spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In Ramallah, they met his Palestinian counterpart, Xavier Abu Eid.
The delegation visited leaders of the religious council in the West Bank settlement bloc Gush Etzion.
And they had a conversation with a Palestinian journalist “who said something I thought was very poignant,” Casagrande recalled. “He said Israelis and Palestinians need to learn to divorce well. You know, this is not a marriage of Israel and Palestine — this is a divorce, and it needs to be a divorce where everybody is acting in an appropriate manner.”
After a week of days that began at 7 a.m. and ran until midnight, Casagrande said, she “came home optimistic.”
“Every single person I spoke with — whether it was a military person, whether it was a journalist, whether it was someone in Palestine — said to me the same thing: We want peace. We need peace,” she said. “And there’s also an incredible sense of optimism for the fact that even if this isn’t the time, there will be a time in the future where peace can be achieved because that is what the people on both sides want.”
Rosen said he hopes to continue the connection between Casagrande and the AJC.
“We would like to work with her moving forward on issues that are important to AJC,” he told NJJN. “Hopefully, her trip will show her those issues are also important to her and to her work in the State Assembly.”