Gov Hickenlooper: Trip to Israel was ‘the most remarkable of my life’

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper recently returned from a week in Israel where he traveled with Denver businessman Larry Mizel and three other private citizens. This was the first time that Hickenlooper has been to Israel. Although the trip abroad was personal versus state business, the Governor agreed to share some of his experiences with The Colorado Statesman in an interview at his Capitol office on April 30. The following transcript has been edited lightly for clarity.

Colorado Statesman: You were in Israel on The Day of Remembrance, as well as our Memorial Day. What were your thoughts and general impressions of the country?

Governor Hickenlooper: You know, it was the most remarkable seven-day trip of my life, without question. I wouldn’t say it was the most relaxing. You can’t travel for seven days and be completely relaxed. But it was the most remarkable… on so many different levels. There’s so many things that we don’t really understand. You can read words in a book, [but] when you actually see it and experience it, especially when you’re meeting people… I really feel that I went as one person and I came back as a very different, hopefully more improved person.

I mean from the tree planting… you know the National Jewish Fund is having their national meeting is in Denver in October this year. First time they’ve ever met in Denver.

The National Jewish Fund has planted 250 million trees there. 250 million trees! Our goal for metropolitan Denver was to try to plant a million trees in 20 years. They’ve had 250 million in 110 years.

We had a three-hour dinner with Ehud Olmert, the former prime minister, and perhaps prime minister again. We had a 15-minute meeting with Bibi Netanyahu, although 15 minutes stretched into 20 minutes, stretched into 30 minutes, stretched into 40 minutes, stretched into 50 minutes, right? I mean he kept talking about all this stuff and it was invigorating, to say the least, to have that candid a conversation with someone who’s making decisions that count.

We went to the Golan Heights on the day before Memorial Day. You know the tank commander who in the Six-Day War when 200 tanks came over the hill from Syria, 200 Russian-made tanks attacked from Syria, he was the guy who defended it with like 40 tanks. We heard his eyewitness account of that battle, which was… you know, 40 years ago, right? And it was as if it was yesterday and you’re standing on the landscape. And he says, “That’s where they came through and they came over that bridge there.”

We bobbed around like a cork in the Dead Sea, we had a wonderful tour of Masada and heard all the stories of bravery.

Statesman: Did you actually climb Masada yourself?

Hickenlooper: We took the tram. But we went up and hiked the whole top. It’s amazing, it’s just breathtaking… We took a helicopter and flew kind of around the whole country. It’s just not that big, right? To see how close Nazareth and Bethlehem and Jerusalem are to each other… I mean, there’s Golan Heights… It might take you a day or two but it’s not like you’re hiking incredible distances.

And again, to see the tree planting. This was the wilderness, right? In the Bible it’s referred to all the time as the wilderness in the Old Testament — they’ve planted all these trees. It’s not quite so wild. Anyway, to see the incredible innovations in agriculture and the efficient use of water, I mean… I always for some reason thought it was so desert like that they were importing most of their food. My gosh, what an amazing agricultural system it is. We got a presentation, description of what their natural gas field looks like, which is huge. I mean they’re going to be energy independent here in the next decade.

Statesman: Did you pick up anything that you thought maybe this is something we can learn about for Colorado?

Hickenlooper: Oh, absolutely. So the National Jewish Fund’s coming, experts in trees and forestry. We have millions of acres with dead trees on it that we’re going to have to replant. In terms of drought and fire resistant trees, they’re the experts in the world.

We also have some of their various industries, so we had a two-hour presentation with the folks who created what’s called the Iron Dome, their satellite defense system, which was remarkable. And to have them right there with us explaining how they created it and how it worked, it was a remarkable gift.

You know, we were based out of Jerusalem so we spent quite a lot of time in Jerusalem and I think we went back to the West Wall three different times. But we went down on one tour, deep, deep, deep into the… I mean we went down below as they excavated down, so you go down to the time of Jesus and then 1,000 B.C. and the time of King David. And then… most people have never seen this, you go down to the time of King Solomon, 2,000 B.C. They’ve uncovered roads and ruins and baths from the time of King Solomon. I mean what a thing to walk on roads that were built 3,000 years ago. It’s just, it makes… It boggles the mind, it makes your head spin.

Statesman: Did you have a chance to interact with the local people there?

Hickenlooper: Oh yeah, we had many opportunities… I mean we walked around some of the tourist sites… We had some free time. Not a lot, it was very structured, but it was… I mean it was from early in the morning until late at night pretty much every day, but there was some free time and [we] tried to talk to some of the Arabs here, some of the Arab voices… This is one of the most sacred places on earth for the Jews, the Christians and the Muslims.

Statesman: Right, and they all have their Sabbaths Friday, Saturday and Sunday and…

Hickenlooper:Right, and they all have free access to come into sacred places. In that sense it’s really a remarkable thing to have that. I mean there are about four million tourists that come through. We had a wonderful meeting with the Mayor of Jerusalem who’s a very powerful person in Israel and saw his plans for innovation and entrepreneurs. We met tons of entrepreneurs of all different stripes. It’s got to be the most entrepreneurial driven… It’s like a gigantic version of Boulder, right? Just entrepreneurs everywhere.

Statesman: What lessons do you think you can bring back to Colorado having experienced that?

Hickenlooper: Well, I think some of the things that they’re really good at — software development, geospatial technology, aerospace and defense. We want to try to connect some of those dots. There’s also how do you approach agriculture and water conservation in a semi-arid climate. They’re world leaders in that. I forget what they said, 55 or 65 percent of the water they consume every day is recycled, the next highest country on earth is like 25 percent. I mean, they’re the world leaders on a lot of these things.

I was also struck by when you talk to some of the Arabs who, they don’t get to vote, they still want their own state. And yet they look at the violence that’s occurring in Egypt and Libya and Syria and they’re thinking… I mean we heard a couple of people say, “We don’t want that,” right? “But we’re not happy where we are here, we recognize we want to go… try and get to it in a more peaceful way.” A number of Arabs said that.

I thought also that the camps, the Palestinian camps, I thought they were tents. They’re not, they’re stone buildings. They’re houses and apartment buildings. They call them camps. But I’ve never heard of camps with stone buildings. Just all the stuff you saw was different than what you had thought.

Statesman: Anything else that was a surprise to you in terms of maybe preconceived notions?

Hickenlooper: Well, the most inspiring thing was the people, right? The people who’ve come from all over the world and they are so committed and passionate about their lives and their role. We went to Yad Vashem, actually that’s where we met Netanyahu. On the Day of Remembrance he had all this busy schedule and still carved off 45 minutes for us. But Yad Vashem is the most transformative museum experience I’ve ever had in my life, I mean it’s just… It’s brilliantly conceived and even more brilliantly executed and implemented. It’s just a remarkable place.

Statesman: Are there any lessons that maybe we could learn from in terms of how to deal with immigration here in the state or…? I know it’s a lot different there but did it strike you that there were so many people from so many different places?

Hickenlooper: That’s kind of America. Although they’re still obviously recruiting immigrants, unlike us. I also met with the Former Minister of Health and a lot of what we’ve been talking about here in terms of trying to make Colorado a healthier state they’re doing similar programs. In education reform a lot of what [Sen.] Mike Johnson’s putting in his School Finance Act is stuff they’ve done, they’re maybe three years ahead of us.

And so they’re looking at a lot of those very similar reforms — longer school day, longer school year, higher emphasis on early childhood education.

Statesman: You stayed in Jerusalem?

Hickenlooper: Mostly in Jerusalem. We spent a night up in a kind of organic bed and breakfast, a small country hotel just west of the Sea of Galilee, which was very beautiful. All of it’s completely grown there, it’s all no pesticides, all completely organic.

Statesman: And did you go to the southern part of the state?

Hickenlooper: We didn’t go too much further south than the Dead Sea. Got down to the southern end of the Dead Sea.

Statesman: Did it take you a while to get used to coming back?

Hickenlooper: Oh no, but it was definitely an immersion project. I mean we went there and you get off the plane you’re kind of jetlagged because you’ve just, you know you’ve flown there, it was 14 hours, and you’re in this strange place… Strange languages and different money and a whole different culture. You just don’t wander up over to a tourist site and then give somebody five bucks and then ride a camel, which is what I did.

Statesman: Did you ride a camel?

Hickenlooper: Oh yeah, there’s pictures of me on camels.

Statesman: Was it a pretty packed schedule?

Hickenlooper: Larry planned the vast majority of it. I mean this was really his vision of how do you make, you know, a trip of a lifetime. It’s really what it was. I have to say it’s one of the most generous things in terms of the gifts people can give you, is if you go to a really remarkable place like that that and someone spends that much time planning and looking at how can you get the deepest, richest experience in the shortest… you know, in the limited amount of time you have.

Statesman: The Legislature passed a bill about Colorado being able to invest in Israeli bonds. How do you see Colorado and Israel being able to work together in the future?

Hickenlooper: I think that there are so many ways that Israel and Colorado can work. I mean we’re sort of the same… Colorado’s almost five and a half million people, Israel’s just about eight million people. I mean they’re not that much bigger than we are. They’re a long way away but they have similar needs… in terms of their agriculture and their water use, and they also have the challenges of assimilating all these different people from all over the world that we have. They have just recently the potential to become energy independent, which is similar to us. They have a huge entrepreneurial kind of startup mentality… How do we start more businesses? I think the more we cross pollinate the two places, the better.

Colorado Statesman: Hickenlooper: Trip to Israel was ‘the most remarkable of my life’

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