trip talk

Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick reflects on ‘overwhelming’ experience in Israel

Following first trip to the Holy Land, the South Florida freshman balances religious and political dimensions of 'surreal' visit

AP Photo/Marta Lavandier

Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick waits for the results of a machine recount at the Voting Equipment Center in Lauderhill, Fla.

Raised in a deeply evangelical Christian household where support for Israel felt close to sacrosanct, Rep. Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick (D-FL) remembers bidding adieu to her Haitian-born parents as they set off on religious pilgrimages to the Holy Land every other year during her childhood.

The South Florida congresswoman, 43, never joined them on those excursions. But she hoped to visit Israel at some point in her life, and — before the pandemic hit, canceling such plans — had been expecting to embark on her first visit to Israel with a local pastor’s group.

A couple of weeks ago, Cherfilus-McCormick finally got her chance. The newly elected representative — a healthcare executive who assumed office in mid-January after prevailing in the recent special House election to represent Florida’s 20th Congressional District — traveled last month to Israel and the Palestinian territories for the first time on a weeklong delegation of freshman House Democrats. The trip was sponsored by the AIPAC-affiliated American Israel Education Foundation.

“It was surreal,” Cherfilus-McCormick marveled to Jewish Insider in a recent interview. “A lot of times,” she said, “the stories that you read in the Bible that encourage us and kind of give us hope for tomorrow, it seems like they’re stories, and you don’t connect to them. But when we went to the Sea of Galilee and we were actually in those areas, it becomes emotional and overwhelming because they’re real.”

Her parents, for their part, “were so excited,” Cherfilus-McCormick added. “They actually wanted me to go because they helped fund an orphanage” not too far from the Galilee. “They texted me and they told me, ‘Make sure you go over there, you’re going to find our name in the stone.’ But we didn’t have a chance.”

Beyond the personal and religious dimensions of the trip, Cherfilus-McCormick said the delegation was instructive in other areas as she seeks to make sense of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict during her first months in the House. 

“Usually, when you learn about the conflict and you learn about Israel, you always think about it from a cerebral, intellectual place,” Cherfilus-McCormick explained. “But going to Israel, meeting the people, talking to everyone and the leaders, it was an amazing experience, because you start empathizing with the people.”

By way of example, Cherfilus-McCormick recalled speaking with an Israeli woman near the Gaza Strip who had described her friendships with Palestinians. 

“She said they both realized that the land doesn’t belong to either of them, but they both belong to the land,” Cherfilus-McCormick told JI. “So figuring out how they can come to a compromise to both live on the land seems to be imperative to a lot of the people. I think the people are really looking for that. It’s kind of more the higher-ups who are negotiating it, and it just seems like they were a little bit more ready for that, the people, than some of the leaders we spoke to.”

A meeting in the West Bank with Mohammad Shtayyeh, the prime minister of the Palestinian  Authority, gave her less hope, she said.

“We had a brief conversation about missiles that were sent over last May,” Cherfilus-McCormick said of the recent conflict between Israel and Hamas. “His response to the whole thing from Hamas, he didn’t seem like he was upset. He didn’t seem like he thought it was, you know, astonishing. He was callous about it, so that’s why I didn’t have very much confidence in him, per se.”

The delegation met with a number of high-ranking government officials, including Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. “We talked a little bit about the settlements. We talked about the future of Israel,” she said. “How do you resolve the conflict? How do we go forward? Just the many groups he’s committed to bringing in [to his coalition] to have a balanced government where people can be represented, which was fascinating.” 

Cherfilus-McCormick recalled a separate meeting on the Abraham Accords where the House members were joined by ambassadors from the Arab nations with which Israel has recently established diplomatic relations, including the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco. 

“They talked about the willingness to work together, especially when it comes [to]  technology and building a kind of technological infrastructure where they can benefit,” she told JI. “It just shows you how more and more people are looking toward an inclusive relationship where they can succeed on a financial plane and an interdependent technology base. That was very encouraging.”

Still, Cherfilus-McCormick said the trip was also a reminder of the many security risks Israel faces on a daily basis. The congresswoman recalled visiting a tunnel built by Hezbollah, which she said had taken 10 years to dig. “It just shows you how committed they are to terrorism,” she told JI. “You take 10 years to build that tunnel — and the tunnel had steps and everything — just for you to come in and terrorize Israel?”

“It really just strengthens my commitment toward our alliance with Israel, especially when it comes to security,” she added. “When we talk about funding for Iron Dome,” she said, referring to Israel’s missile-defense system, which was the subject of a heated House vote last September, “a lot of times there are people who are like, ‘Oh, we shouldn’t fund it that much, but when you see how much needs to be covered that we’re funding, we’re still not covering enough of Israel to make it safe. You realize that there needs to be more funding.”

Cherfilus-McCormick added, “We have to step up and do as much as we can to protect Israel and our interests, because they’re not going to stop. Iran’s not going to stop. There are people who are committed to terrorizing Israel, and so we have to be even more committed to protecting Israel.”

She described visiting Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial and museum in Jerusalem, as particularly resonant. “One of the things that really, really captured me was understanding what’s behind the whole conflict,” Cherfilus-McCormick told JI. “They showed you how they were lining people up to go, they shaved them and put them into the gas units, and how they were calculating how many Jews they can kill and how quickly.”

“Some people are committed to terrorizing Israel and they really sincerely feel that Israelis should not be there, and so that came to life after seeing all that and then seeing the Hezbollah tunnel,” she said. “It just really came to life.”

Still, Cherfilus-McCormick said she was encouraged by other discussions with those who are dedicated to Israel’s survival as a Jewish state. “We sat down and ate lunch with different Israeli soldiers from all over, who came from Rhode Island, who came from Russia, who wanted to come back and serve,” she said. “You just saw so many different people who identify with Israel and who are just committed to protecting Israel and the American interest.”

Before she took office, Cherfilus-McCormick, the first Haitian-American Democrat in Congress, had vowed to uphold the legacy of her predecessor, the late Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-FL), a staunch supporter of Israel who was also known for his commitment to promoting Black-Jewish relations before he died last April.

On the trip, Cherfilus-McCormick, who identifies as a progressive, said she spoke with Jewish members of South Florida’s Democratic congressional delegation, including Reps. Ted Deutch (D-FL) and Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL), who were also in Israel, about Hastings’ legacy. 

“They were searching for someone who would stand up for Israel to be his [successor], and us making that connection was awesome,” Cherfilus-McCormick said. “It’s a lot at one time, but it’s such an exciting time to do it, and to actually be a voice to carry on that legacy of where Black and Christian people can align themselves and fight for Israel and Jewish people.”

“The fight at the end of the day is really about equality,” she said, “and the same way that we align ourselves and stand up for Israel and Jewish people is the same way we hope that we all stand for equality.”