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Interview

With Jews and Israel under assault, Indiana governor here to ‘answer the call’

Eric Holcomb meets Netanyahu, visits Iron Dome battery; says both parties stand against Hamas terrorism

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb (left) surveys the wreckage of a Petah Tikva apartment hit by Hamas rocket fire, May 21, 2021. (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)
Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb (left) surveys the wreckage of a Petah Tikva apartment hit by Hamas rocket fire, May 21, 2021. (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)

“To Mom and Dad,” the Hebrew text in the picture read, its burnt frame black with soot. “If I could ask God to choose a mother and father for me, I would want only you. That he would bring only you, my dear parents, and that he would protect you for me forever.”

The couple who proudly hung that blessing on their living room wall in Petah Tikva seemed to have someone watching over them on May 13, as Israel and Hamas battled each other once again.

In the early hours of the morning, a Hamas rocket scored a direct hit on their apartment. Though the strike left gaping holes in the building’s walls and sparked a fire that spread throughout the city block, no one was killed in the attack that left five injured.

On Wednesday, May 26, the apartment remained as it was when rescuers evacuated the family at 3 a.m. that night. Broken chairs lay on the floor next to the charred remains of religious texts. Some of the debris seemed oddly out of place, like a portrait of the late Israeli chief rabbi Ovadiah Yosef and a DVD on how to live longer with high blood pressure.

But perhaps most incongruous was the tall Midwesterner carefully stepping over the wreckage in black dress shoes and a tailored gray suit.

A charred photo of the late Chief Rabbi of Israel Ovadiah Yosef lies in a Petah Tikva apartment that was struck by a Hamas rocket, May 21, 2021. (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)

No stranger to the effects of war, the 53-year-old Navy veteran tried to keep up the gregarious optimism that seems a prerequisite for Indiana politicians as he listened to a briefing from an IDF Home Front Command major.

But as his black shoes became coated in the coal covering the modest apartment, Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb fell into a pensive silence as he took in the scene. The dishes scattered across the kitchen floor. The food left in the fridge. A clock stopped at the time the rocket hit.

Holcomb seemed especially struck by the chalk markings left by rescuers on a shrapnel-scarred wall, indicating the time of their arrival and the number of casualties they found in the building.

Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb, left, surveys the wreckage of an apartment in Petah Tikva hit by a Hamas rocket, May 26, 2021 (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)

“When a friend’s in need, you answer the call,” the Republican governor told The Times of Israel. “Letters and phone calls and emails can suffice in many situations, but being there in person speaks volumes.”

Holcomb is the first US governor to visit Israel this year, landing in the country days after a ceasefire ended the latest major conflict between Israel and the Hamas terror group in the Gaza Strip.

Aviv Ezra, Israel’s consul-general in Chicago, had reached out to Holcomb on behalf of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to invite the governor to Israel.

“I took about a nanosecond to think about it, then said yes,” Holcomb explained. “And we were able to be decisive and be here in a couple of days.”

Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb (AP Photo/Darron Cummings File)

“I wanted to get here as soon as possible to show not just moral support on the ground on Israeli soil, but also Israel and Indiana have a long-standing bond,” said Holcomb, noting that Indiana and Israel enjoy university collaborations and that Israeli companies in Indiana employ over 500 residents of the state, known colloquially as Hoosiers.

“From the heart of the heartland,” Holcomb emphasized, “from the very center of America, a state that has had long relationships developed over the years, I could show up on behalf of folks who are concerned, and publicly stand on the right side of history.”

During his tenure, Holcomb has aggressively pursued an economic agenda that focuses on bringing international companies to Indiana. His foreign trips have included missions to India, Japan, Hungary, France, Belgium, Germany and Italy.

Holcomb previously traveled as governor to Israel in 2018 for economic development meetings. The governor’s office said the latest trip was being paid for by Imagine Indiana Inc., a nonprofit group whose directors include his 2016 and 2020 campaign managers.

Prior to stopping in Petah Tikva, Holcomb met with Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi.

“Israel is showing the world, including leaders who visit Israel, the direct threat that the Hamas terror group poses to the country’s civilian population,” said Itai Bardov, Director of US Consulates in the Foreign Ministry, who accompanied Holcomb during his two days in Israel. “It is important for us to show the Americans the strategic importance of the Iron Dome, which is the product of Israel-US cooperation, in saving human life.”

After the Petah Tikva visit, the Foreign Ministry brought Holcomb to an Iron Dome battery deployed in central Israel. The governor listened to the battery commander explain how the air defense system works, then asked a soldier from the city of Sderot on the Israel-Gaza border to explain what it is like growing up under the threat of rockets.

Before heading back to Tel Aviv for a pre-flight dinner, Holcomb invited the 20 or so soldiers gathered around him to visit Indiana, and tried to generate some excitement among the young Israelis — with limited success — for the upcoming Indy 500 race.

‘We have to stand together’

His shoes still covered in soot from the visit to the scene of the rocket strike, Holcomb reflected on Hamas’s way of war.

Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb (c) speaks with an Iron Dome officer in central Israel, May 21, 2021 (Lazar Berman, Times of Israel)

“There’s a real psychological warfare component to what I just witnessed, the rubble that I waded through, down to the actual timing of it at oh-three-hundred,” he said, shaking his head as he recounted the small pieces of metal Hamas puts into its rockets for maximum lethality.

“This is terrorism, which throws out all the rules and norms and values. And that’s unfortunately what we all must be prepared for… and we have to stand together against terror.”

Holcomb pointed out that America’s adversaries, including Russia and China, are watching what happens in Israel’s conflicts and learning lessons. “I don’t think they miss much. And I think they learn from mistakes… I think everyone’s watching.”

Holcomb’s visit came in the wake of a two-day stop by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who met with Netanyahu and other top Israeli officials before heading to Jordan and Egypt to discuss the Gaza ceasefire. “I was pleased to see the secretary of state here,” Holcomb noted.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks alongside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on May 25, 2021 (Haim Zach / GPO)

The governor said that from his perch, he hasn’t seen Israel becoming a partisan issue, as many supporters of the Jewish state fear. “I would hope that terrorism isn’t a partisan issue, and it would be a mistake if it was… I certainly haven’t seen the Indiana Democratic Party on the wrong side of that issue.”

He was firm in his belief that the majority of Americans strongly support Israel.

“What you don’t want to do is let a few voices drown out the majority of thought,” he cautioned. “It doesn’t mean those few voices aren’t loud or get attention, or seek to stand against something I stand for…But I would think that both parties know terrorism and should condemn it.”

At the same time, Holcomb, who signed into law Indiana’s first hate crimes legislation, is concerned about the rise in antisemitic attacks in the US.

“It’s moved from hate speech to hate action at a more frequent pace,” he reflected, noting that while there have been incidents in his state, he has not observed a spike there. “I can say it’s the exception in my neighborhood.”

“I think we have to call it out, whether it’s one or a hundred [incidents], whether it’s in the East or the West or the Middle East.

“It’s always going to be a concern. It’s always going to be with us, around the world…but America’s not a racist country, and neither is Indiana for sure. One of our biggest exports is Hoosier hospitality. It’s part of our DNA, and it’s part of the reason it feels so natural to be here.”

The aftermath of an antisemitic incident at the Jewish cemetery of Hoyo de Manzanares, Spain, May 23, 2021. (The municipality of Hoyo de Manzanares via JTA)

Still, in the aftermath of the 2020 murder of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis – what Holcomb called “as horrible to witness as anything I’ve ever seen” – the governor ordered a review of all state agencies and hired the state’s first chief equity, inclusion and opportunity officer, a cabinet-level position.

“It caused us to do a double-take to kick the tires in state government and make sure there were no barriers to opportunity that may be out of ignorance, or maybe we’ve been doing something the same way for a long time for a hundred years, and maybe we need to take a fresh look at that.”

Shining city on a hill

Holcomb, a devout Methodist, says his faith is not what brought him to Israel this time.

“Having said that,” he noted, “my three trips to Israel have a whole lot more breadth and depth because of my faith.

“The lessons that I have learned from the Good Book, which can basically get you through life…that does provide not just context for what we’ve gone through in the past, but it provides the right perspective into the future every single time. So coming here to show support, well that’s: ‘And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.’” he said, quoting from Corinthians I.

A billboard in support of the Jewish community in Carmel Indiana, August 1, 2018. (screen capture: WISH)

“I have a love for the people of Israel. But that didn’t motivate me to respond. It was part of it. But I think the understanding of what has occurred here on this holy soil, on this original shining city on the hill…it gives me goosebumps.”

Holcomb said that he was moved to tears earlier in the day when praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

In the footsteps of Pence

Holcomb is a close confidant of former vice president Mike Pence, a fellow Hoosier.

The governor attended Hanover College, a small Presbyterian liberal arts college in Hanover, Indiana, nine years after Pence. Both were brothers in the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity, and Holcomb invited Pence back to campus to speak to the undergraduates.

US Vice President Mike Pence (L) signs the guest book during a visit to Jerusalem’s Western Wall on January 23, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / Thomas COEX)

Their paths continued to cross as they moved through Indiana politics. Holcomb was the state GOP chairman when Pence ran successfully for governor in 2012, and the two worked closely on policy issues once Pence entered office.

In 2016, Pence’s lieutenant governor Sue Ellspermann stepped down to become president of Indiana’s community college program. Pence tapped Holcomb to replace her.

When Pence was chosen by Donald Trump to be his running mate in July of that year, Holcomb ran for governor, defeating his Democratic opponent by 6 points.

The two men remained in close contact when Pence was in the Trump White House.

“I’ve watched his record and his stance,” said Holcomb. “And it’s today what it was ten years ago, and twenty years ago, and probably before I ever met him. He’s been a strong supporter of Israel and its right to flourish.”

Pence enjoyed the position, according to Holcomb. “He connected with a lot of constituencies. He fed off a lot of the support that was all over America for where they wanted to take the country.”

US Vice President Mike Pence with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum in Jerusalem, on January 23, 2018. (Alex Kolomoisky/POOL)

Holcomb noted Pence’s prominent role on the Trump foreign policy team. “You saw that the president dispatched him all over the world. Obviously, that speaks to the trust and confidence that the president had in him, in his ability to sit down with leaders whether they were in complete agreement or whether they had some areas to go over. He trusted the vice president to speak on his behalf and it speaks to who Mike Pence is.”

According to the governor, Pence has not expressed any anger or bitterness over tensions that arose between him and Trump over the final days of the Trump presidency.

“As long as I’ve known Mike Pence, he’s the most optimistic person in the world.”

Holcomb seems to follow the same philosophy, especially when it comes to anyone who might challenge his vocal backing of Israel.

“I think I’ve been very obvious about my support for Israel. I’ve got the skin of a rhinoceros, so the criticism wouldn’t affect my outlook. It’s deeper than any single event or the current time.”

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