CHICAGO: Michigan State Senator Sylvia Santana was forced to apologize to her constituents this week after it was revealed she had taken a freebie junket to Israel that was partially funded by a pro-Israel group.
Santana’s D-2nd District is about 40 percent Arab and Muslim and the communities’ leaders criticized her publicly for not disclosing the trip before she left.
Pro-Tel Aviv organizations in America spend millions every year to take elected officials, at every level and from every state, on tours of Israel that critics charge are political and intended to undermine criticism of government policies.
The trips are estimated to cost as much as $10,000 per person often including airfare, hotel accommodation, food and tour guides provided by Israel’s government.
American legislators who go on these junkets are required to disclose the type and costs on their annual campaign financial-disclosure forms.
Critics charge that the junkets are intended to influence the political views of participating elected officials. When Santana’s participation became known, she was criticized harshly.
After returning from the 10-day trip, Santana acknowledged she “should have exercised better discretion” and engaged directly with her constituents before accepting it.
“It has come to the attention of my constituents specifically those in the Arab/Muslim community that I recently visited Israel in my capacity as a State Senator. This is a trip offered to state lawmakers to learn more about Michigan’s relationship with Israel,” Santana said in a statement released Monday night.
“After speaking with friends and members of the community I recognize my presence on this trip has sparked anger and disappointment by many in the Arab/Muslim community. For this I truly apologize, seek your forgiveness and hope that you will understand that I had no malicious intent. There is no perfect combination of words that I can offer that truly reflects the feelings in my heart. My only goal was to learn about this region of our world and to improve my understanding of matters related to Michigan.”
Santana said she hopes the Arab and Muslim communities “will continue to support me.”
“I understand now more than before the level of pain, sensitivity and deep-rooted emotions that this trip has produced. This experience will always stay with me and will help guide my work in Lansing,” Santana said.
Kyle Melinn, editor of the online Michigan Information & Research Service Inc. — an organization that provides political analysis for subscribers in the state — said the backlash against Santana was significant and forced her to issue an apology to the Arab and Muslim community groups that protested.
“Yes she did get a lot of pushback from the Arab and Muslim community because Osama Siblani of The Arab American News was able to find out that she had gone on this trip to Israel that was sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Southeast Michigan. This is a trip that is available to legislators for many, many years. Legislators have to pay their own airfare to Israel but once they get there the federation takes care of the lodging and meals,” Melinn said during an appearance Wednesday on The Ray Hanania Radio Show.
“For that seven days what these legislators do, it is usually 10 to 15 (legislators), they learn about some of the culture, and kind of what the political environment is. They will also talk about some of the economic connections between Israel and Michigan and about some of the joint ventures (of) some of the companies that are in both Michigan and Israel. The geopolitical climate is big.”
Melinn said: “This is not a widely-publicized thing. You will only find out about it second- or third-hand. The Jewish federation doesn’t like to advertise it. The legislators don’t like to advertise it, especially these days when there is just a distaste among voters about legislators taking what they view as junkets. They don’t see these kinds of things as educational, or beneficial really in any way, (for) the voters. They just think this is a perk that legislators are getting a free trip and they go to these places and get wined and dined and schmoozed to really no benefit to (the voters). So, they keep these things super-secret.”
Congress has passed legislation to restrict foreign travel, basically allowing legislators to be reimbursed for official business trips related to their congressional offices and committees. However, the law requires public disclosure of travel funded by private organizations.
Although restrictions on members of Congress are far different than those on officeholders at state and municipal levels, donations of any kind to an elected official must be publicly disclosed regardless of government position — whether federal, state or local.
Last June in New York, several members of the New York City Council, who were hosted by pro-Israel groups on a propaganda trip to the country, failed to report the travel on their disclosure forms. The New York officials said they would amend their disclosure forms to reflect the trips.
The disclosures are often disguised behind the names of the donor organizations that often do not appear like they are involved in Israeli politics. Some legislators are asked to purchase their own tickets, but may receive campaign donations equivalent to the cost of the flights.
There is no system that clearly monitors these foreign-paid political junkets.
Last year, congressional records showed that more than $2.6 million was spent on “privately sponsored travel” to Israel for several Democrat and Republican members of the US Congress.
Democrats, who have been publicly advocating for peace in the Middle East and spoken out in favor of Arab and Muslim rights, have been the main beneficiaries, including the top-ranking member of the House Democrats, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, who visited Israel twice last year.
During the 2021-2022 campaign year, pro-Tel Aviv PACs, or Political Action Committees, donated more than $5.4 million to members of the US House and Senate, including cash for campaigns and to cover the cost of trips to Israel.
But that total is misleading. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, donated more than $17 million in the 2021-2022 election season to support not only incumbents but also candidates for office.
The Ray Hanania Radio Show is broadcast every Wednesday on the US Arab Radio Network in Detroit on WNZK AM 690 Radio and in Washington D.C. on WDMV AM 700 Radio.
You can listen to the radio show’s podcast by visiting ArabNews.com/rayradioshow.