TRURO — State Sen. Julian Cyr (D-Truro) was among six Massachusetts senators on a 10-day study tour of Israel in December. He defended his participation, paid for by a pro-Israel lobbying group, against criticism from Middle East peace activists.
Cyr told the Independent last week that the trip gave him a greater understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “We were exposed to a lot more perspectives than I had assumed,” Cyr said. “The trip solidified my feelings about the conflict — that it’s problematic, and we need a two-state solution.”
Cyr said he visited Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa, the Dead Sea, and the Palestinian-controlled West Bank, including Ramallah and a peace village near Bethlehem. His stops included LGBTQ community centers and he spoke with business owners and government officials, focusing on transportation policy, he said. The group also met with several Palestinian leaders, including journalist Rami Nazzal and Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, the leader of the Palestinian National Initiative.
Sen. Adam Hinds (D-Pittsfield), who also participated in the trip, lived and worked in Israel for the United Nations for two years. Hinds has a “whole network of people living in Jerusalem with an international perspective and some with substantial ties to people in occupied territories,” Cyr said. Through his friendship with Hinds, Cyr said, he was able to experience Israel outside of the trip’s scheduled itinerary.
The Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) of Greater Boston, a lobbying group, organized the trip, which ran from Dec. 5 to 15.
The legislators were exposed to a variety of perspectives, painting a complex picture of Israel, said JCRC executive director Jeremy Burton. They met with Palestinian journalists, public officials, and peace groups like Roots.
“We support a two-state solution,” Burton said. “It’s not about supporting [the Israeli] government.”
But the JCRC has been criticized for paying for these trips, which are organized annually.
Jeff Klein, a board member of Mass. Peace Action, said the JCRC Israel trips are one-sided. “They want to educate people on Israel and Palestine in a certain way, promoting U.S. ties to and support for Israel,” he said.
“Did Palestinians have any say in the trip’s schedule?” Klein asked. “If public officials want to learn about Israel, they shouldn’t do it on the dime of a lobbying group.”
Klein is skeptical of JCRC’s claims of promoting peace. He said that war constitutes daily life for many Palestinians.
When asked why he chose to participate, knowing that the trip was sponsored by a pro-Israel lobbying group, Cyr said that he grew up with a joy of learning through travel.
“If I have an opportunity to learn something about the world, I want to take it,” he said. “It benefits me individually, but it also gives me richer perspective in decision-making.”
Cyr said that about half of the trip schedule was devoted to discussing the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. “You can’t learn about Israel without talking about Palestine,” he said. The group crossed the militarized border into the West Bank, said Cyr.
A Loophole for Travel
Although under State Ethics Commission rules legislators cannot accept gifts worth more than $50, free travel is allowed if it “serves a legitimate public interest.” Mass. Peace Action is working to end this exception, which it sees as a loophole in the state’s conflict of interest law.
Klein said that all-expense-paid trips like JCRC’s put legislators in debt to lobbying groups.
“We oppose any kind of travel that is paid for by organizations that lobby at the state house,” he said. “It’s bigger than just these Israel trips — it’s a question of access and influence buying.”
Burton and Cyr both pointed out that state legislators go on many trips paid for by lobbying groups. “Sarah Peake participated in prior JCRC trips,” said Cyr. “I traveled to Taiwan in 2018; Sarah has been to Portugal, Denmark, Thailand, and Taiwan on similar trips. This is standard practice in the legislature.”
Former Sen. Dan Wolf was one of a group of 10 state legislators who participated in a JCRC trip to Israel several years ago, but he paid his own way.
“I think people are singling out JCRC because of their hostility towards Israel,” Burton said. “They’re not interested in ethics.”
JCRC claims its trips serve the public interest by benefiting both Massachusetts and Israel economically. Through the trips, “We want people to understand that [Israel] is significant to U.S. relations and to Massachusetts in terms of trade and economic development,” Burton said.
Klein disputed the economic benefit argument. “They exaggerate the economic importance of Israel to the U.S,” he said. “It’s baloney. Israel is way, way down the list of countries that Massachusetts trades with.”
Israel is ranked 17th among importers and is not among the top 25 exporters to Massachusetts, according to U.S. census statistics.
JCRC’s lobbying efforts have paid off. Last year, the state granted $250,000 to create the New England Israel Business Council.
Cyr said that he sees various business connections between Massachusetts and Israel, especially in the biotech and life-science industries. “There’s a substantial relationship between greater Boston and Tel Aviv and Haifa — a long-standing trading relationship,” he said.
Cyr said that the trip does not tie him to any specific agenda or obligate him to support the JCRC’s positions. “There is a concern that after the trip you’ll have to support something,” he said. “I feel strongly that’s not the case.”
The BDS Connection
On its 2017 financial disclosure form, JCRC describes the purpose of its Israel trips as engaging “with people from diverse backgrounds to foster civil dialogue and build support for Israel, the national homeland of the Jewish people.” The document does not mention peace talks, support for a two-state solution, or deepening understanding of Palestinian perspectives.
JCRC opposes the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, which aims to exert pressure on Israel to end its occupation of Palestine. It supported a bill that would prevent Massachusetts from contracting with companies or individuals who participate in the BDS movement.
Burton said that boycotting Israel is “counterproductive to achieving peace and denies the legitimacy of Jewish presence in this place. It builds barriers between people on the ground and creates further restrictions.” He also pointed out that the bill does not interfere with people’s right to protest.
Human rights activists have called for an end to the occupation of Palestine and the so-called apartheid that they say the Israeli state has imposed. Many left-leaning Jewish activist groups support BDS and say BDS is not anti-Semitic.
Cyr told the Independent that he does not support anti-BDS bills. He said the trip to Israel gave him a new perspective on the U.S.
Observing the militarized boundaries between the West Bank and Israel, Cyr said he asked himself how Israelis could justify such blatant segregation.
“Then I realized we do this every day in the States,” he said, comparing it to de facto racial segregation in Boston. “It was very sobering.”
Editor’s note: Due to a reporting error, an earlier version of this article mistakenly reported that Sen. Cyr had visited Gush Etzion, a settlement in the West Bank, during his trip. He was near Gush Etzion, but “I wouldn’t have gone to visit a settlement if it were on the itinerary,” Cyr said.