Meridian event celebrates Israel-Mississippi ties

Speaker Pro Tempore Greg Snowden, Governor Phil Bryant, Consul General Lior Haiat, Treasurer Lynn Fitch and Attorney General Jim Hood

A high-level gathering to promote Mississippi-Israel ties took place on Sept. 28 at the Riley Center in downtown Meridian.

Governor Phil Bryant led a team of Mississippi officials and Israeli Consul General Lior Haiat from Israel’s Miami consulate attended a gathering to promote greater cooperation through the America-Israel Friendship League. Meridian’s Congregation Beth Israel was also involved in coordinating the event.

Speaker Pro Tempore Greg Snowden emceed the event, noting that the Riley Center was in the Marks-Rothenberg Building and Opera House, “historically the heart of one of the largest and most successful Jewish business districts in the South.”

About 125 attended the event. Snowden said they could have had many more, but they kept the event under wraps from the general public beforehand for security reasons.

While Haiat was surprised and impressed with Meridian’s Jewish history, that history was mentioned as a springboard for future projects and ties.

Attorney General Jim Hood, who in 2005 prosecuted Edgar Ray Killen in the 1964 deaths of civil rights workers Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney, was the first to mention the trio. He said in history classes he learned that Schwerner moved to Meridian to cause trouble. The truth, he said, was they were “working on a library for African American kids who couldn’t go to a white library. They were doing God’s work.”

Hood went on an AIFL attorneys general trip to Israel. He thought he knew a lot of the history, but “it’s amazing how much I did learn.”

He said it would be great for Mississippi to develop a technology incubator like they have in Tel Aviv. Hood also saw something he wished the U.S. had — the mandatory military service for young adults. In Israel, “soldiers are mature and know so much about their country. They know more about our politics than we do.”

Hood noted how Israel sent teams to the U.S. to help with hurricane recovery, and partners in the military and technology fields. “I hope we will continue to develop that relationship.”

Meridian Mayor Percy Bland also referred to civil rights workers, saying they changed the country.

He listed several names of Jewish families that helped Meridian grow, saying the Jewish community provided “countless opportunities for employment, for charity, for education.” He singled out Rabbi Judah Wechsler, who pushed for the first publicly-funded brick school building in the state for African-American children, in the 1890s.

“We are a community on the move because of the amazing people who came before us,” Bland said.

Bryant spoke of the ties between Mississippi and Israel, with another chapter coming early next year.

Bryant announced that next February, there will be a summit where “military and defense industries all across Israel will come to Mississippi. Not New York, not California, but to Jackson, Mississippi. They will join some of the best defense industry manufacturers in the world” that are located in Mississippi.

He added, “This is a great opportunity for us to join businessmen and women from Israel here in the U.S, that want to do business here, that are looking for opportunities… what better location for them than in Mississippi.”

Bryant made his first Israel trip in November 2014, not knowing what to expect. His wife thought it would be dangerous and asked if he really had to go. He led business delegations again in 2015 and 2016, and last year his wife went to Israel with a group of women from Mississippi churches.

In 2015, there was a Mississippi Meets Israel business summit in Jackson, with numerous Israeli companies visiting. In 2016, Mississippi exports to Israel totaled $58 million.

He also noted that the Mississippi Legislature’s bill to divest from companies doing business with Iran “was a signal,” he said, “a loud and I hope very direct signal to the world that Mississippi will always stand with our friends in Israel.”

Bill Behrer, acting executive director of AIFL, said he grew up on Long Island in a town where Jews and blacks were not allowed to live.

At age 29 he traveled to Israel, and has been back 39 times. The AIFL, he said, offers “the bond between the people, and that’s the most important thing that can ever happen.”

He wants to see a youth exchange program between Meridian and Israel. While church groups routinely go to Israel and “Bible study is never the same” after that, what is next? He encouraged such groups to be in touch with AIFL to keep the connection going afterward.

Haiat said AIFL “creates an amazing bridge between the U.S. and Israel.” Though it was a day before Kol Nidre, Haiat said he “couldn’t miss the opportunity to come here.”

Mississippi Treasurer Lynn Fitch was also in attendance, and it was noted that she will be traveling to Israel in the coming weeks. Brad Young, Southeast director for Israel Bonds in Atlanta, was also at the event.

Also in attendance was Alabama Rep. Craig Ford from Gadsden, who was introduced as a supporter of AIFL.

Haiat thanked the millions of American “friends who stand with us to defend the state of Israel and help us in our fight against our enemies.”

“Peace is the future of the state of Israel,” Haiat said, “but we can only reach this peace by being strong, and we can only be that strong by having the support of people like you.”