Massachusetts – Israeli Trade Missions: Myth versus Reality

Gov. Patrick at Yad Vashem, Holocaust memorial in Jersualem, during his "trade" mission in 2011.

Gov. Patrick at Yad Vashem, Holocaust memorial in Jersualem, during his “trade” mission in 2011.

By Robert Israel

When I sat down with then Gov. William Weld over a decade ago and asked him why his trip to Israel — a sponsored “trade mission” like the one Gov. Deval Patrick went on in 2011 — was less than stellar, he preferred to talk about the William F. Weld forest in the Holy Land that he was on hand to dedicate. It was a gift, in his honor, from the Jewish National Fund (JNF).

“Thanks to the JNF, there will be an eternal tie to Israel for me and my family,” he told me with considerable pride.

So I thought to ask him why his then-lieutenant governor, Argeo Paul Cellucci, who also took a similar sponsored “trade mission” to Israel also returned to Boston empty handed. Cellucci, like his boss, failed to attract business prospects. Furthermore — and I shared details I had learned from sources with Weld — Cellucci’s trip was costly. It was full of sound and fury, signifying nothing: limousine trips through downtown Jerusalem, photo-ops, helicopter rides over the desert, lavish meetings at hotels on the taxpayers’ dimes, and nothing to show for it when he returned to Beacon Hill.

“I don’t know about the gestalt of that trip,” Weld said, and then he tried to talk his way out of the interview by sharing his chagrin over the closing of the Massachusetts trade office in Berlin.

I had grown used to Weld’s bait and switch. He was adept at throwing a reporter a bone so the reporter might bite, and while chewing, forget the question he came to have answered in the first place.

“Let’s get back to talking about Israel,” I said, indicating that I wasn’t biting. “I’m not here to talk about Berlin.”

But my appointment with Weld was drawing to a close. There’d be no further banter with him because Weld’s aides-de-camp, sitting three abreast on a comfy couch in his office, were signaling to him that his next appointment was waiting.

Let’s flash forward to when Gov. Deval Patrick returned to Boston in 2011 from his similarly sponsored Israeli “trade mission.” Upon his return stateside, when he was asked about the Middle East trip, his words sounded familiar to those uttered by his predecessors, who had also returned to Boston empty-handed. He fared no better than those that made the same trip a decade before him, but couched his response in terms like “fact-finding” and “laying groundwork” for future developments.

Times have not changed, sadly, despite the fact that there are now more Israeli companies — many of them technology start-ups — doing business, or hoping to, in Massachusetts. It is not a good time to initiate trade talks because the plain truth is that Israeli’s economy is in tougher shape than ours. The global economy has much to do with it: when it improves, the ground will be fertile for these sorts of “trade missions.”

But until then, let’s have an atmosphere devoid of rhetoric. Let’s get down to the “gestalt” that Weld refused to comment on about his late former lieutenant governor’s ill-fated trip to Israel. I have no issue with Gov. Deval Patrick or any other politician joining the wealthy Israeli investors in Massachusetts on a junket to Israel, to see the sites, to visit religious and political leaders, or to pose for photo-ops at Jewish National Fund forests or other such places named in their honor. But let’s call it what it is — a “friendship mission” — not for what it is hoped to be.

But that would suppose a new era of openness. It would require our elected officials to take trips to a friendly Middle East nation and to say to citizens back home: This trip is a demonstration of solidarity. It would be further refreshing if these Massachusetts politicans would admit to using their Middle East trips as ambitious stepping stones in their quests for bigger jobs in Washington, D.C. But this would assume an honest and open communication — something that has been missing from our political discourse for a very long time.

**
Robert Israel is a Boston-based writer. He can be reached at risrael_97@yahoo.com. A previous version of this piece appeared in Boston Business Journal (Boston).

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