- Jonathan Tilove American-Statesman Staff
Dan Patrick wasn’t the Republican lieutenant governor who had a spur-of-the-moment bar mitzvah at the Western Wall on a recent trip to Israel. That would be Florida Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera.
But Patrick did get baptized in the waters of the Jordan River near the Sea of Galilee, capping an eight-day, mid-April visit to Israel by a delegation of seven Republican lieutenant governors.
“It was quite an experience,” Patrick said of being immersed in the waters where the Bible recounts Jesus’ baptism by John.
“Some people would say I wear my faith on my sleeve. I try not to, but if you look at my record in the Senate of putting ‘In God We Trust’ in the Senate (chamber), and ‘under God’ in the (Texas) pledge, and helping create the first seminary in a Texas prison — and I wrote a Christian book and a Christian film — it’s very meaningful to me, and so it was just something I wanted to do,” Patrick said.
The trip was organized by the Republican Lieutenant Governors Association and paid for by the State Government Leadership Foundation, a national conservative policy organization.
The visit was mostly devoted to meetings with top Israeli officials — including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (with whom Patrick and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz share a social media guru in Austin’s Vincent Harris) — and getting, first hand, a visceral feel for the Jewish state’s perilous place in the world.
Patrick also held individual meetings with Israeli companies interested in doing business in Texas, and with Texas businesses that operate in Israel, to develop and deepen Texan-Israeli economic ties.
“Texas does about a half a billion dollars a year in exports to Israel,” Patrick said. “We have over 300 companies that do business in Israel.”
But it was also the first visit to the Holy Land for Patrick, who at his inauguration as lieutenant governor described himself as a “Christian first, a conservative second and a Republican third.”
“When you walk the land where Jesus walked, it’s obviously extremely impactful,” Patrick said. “As a Christian, for me to be able to go to the Masada, which is their Alamo in many ways with the famous battle with the Romans, to be able to go the Sea of Galilee, to be baptized in the Jordan River, and go to the Western Wall, was very meaningful to me.”
Patrick’s faith is central to his politics. He was a sponsor of Wednesday’s Capitol prayer rally that was led by evangelist Franklin Graham, who, like Patrick, has endorsed a boycott of Target stores for the retailer’s new policy of allowing transgender individuals to use the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity.
Patrick, who had never before taken an official overseas trip as either a senator or lieutenant governor, said it made sense that the Republican Lieutenant Governors Association chose to travel to Israel, which Patrick described as the most vital economy in the Middle East, an international hub for research and development, and a key ally.
“Netanyahu told us, as I totally believe, if Israel were not there, ISIS would take over the entire Middle East,” Patrick said.
Standing on the Golan Heights, Patrick said, he could hear the sound of distant gunfire in Syria. “When you look a mile away and realize, there’s ISIS, it really brings home what a critical piece of territory that is,” he said.
Patrick also visited Sderot, a city in southern Israel, that has been subject to rocket fire from the Gaza Strip.
“When the sirens go off, you have 15 seconds to get into the bunker,” he said.
“The day after we left Jerusalem, a bus was bombed there,” Patrick said — the first suicide bombing in Jerusalem in more than a decade. Hamas took responsibility.
Patrick said the delegation’s hotel in Tel Aviv wasn’t far from where 28-year-old Taylor Force of Lubbock, an Army veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, was stabbed to death by a Palestinian in March. Force was visiting Israel with a student group from Vanderbilt University, where he was in a business master’s degree program.
Patrick said he also met with representatives of Houston-based Noble Energy and Israeli officials about snags in a breakthrough energy deal involving the Mediterranean oil and gas discoveries by Noble and its Israeli partners. He also toured the world’s largest desalinization plant; talked about border security and surveillance with Israel’s Elbit Systems, which has a presence in Fort Worth; and met with Israeli startup companies, including one that creates water stations for reusable bottles and another with smart collars that monitor a dog’s vital signs.
The choice of Israel as a destination made political sense for the Republican Lieutenant Governors Association’s trip, which also included Patrick’s peers from Wisconsin, Iowa, Florida, Kansas, Nevada and North Carolina.
Lieutenant governors are almost by definition ambitious, and for politicians there are few better destinations than Israel. But Patrick said ambition didn’t fuel his desire to visit Israel.
“It had nothing to do with it for me, I can assure you,” said Patrick, who is chairman of Cruz’s presidential campaign in Texas but swears he has no interest in replacing the senator.
“No, no, no, no. I can assure you, there’s no way I am interested in going to the United States Senate. And I’m not running against Greg Abbott for governor,” he added, addressing another persistent rumor.
Florida’s lieutenant governor, in contrast, is locked in a crowded Republican contest to replace Marco Rubio in the Senate, and the Sun Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale noted that Lopez-Cantera’s impromptu “quickie bar mitzvah” in Israel alerted voters that the son of a Cuban father also is the son and husband of Jewish women.
“I’ve always been told, you go to Israel, you come back — regardless of your faith, whether it’s Jewish, Christian, not being a believer — you come back a different person,” Patrick said.
Patrick said the change became apparent at church in Houston on his first Sunday back.
“The pastor was talking about Jesus going to Jerusalem and, for the first time, it really made it very visual to me because I got a sense of distances,” he said. “The Bible has become even more alive because of the trip.”
Which is remarkable considering that Patrick is the author of “The Second Most Important Book You Will Ever Read: A personal challenge to read the Bible.”
“I’m thinking about updating it,” Patrick said. “It was written in 2002, and a lot has happened since then. But I just haven’t had the time.”
(This story has been corrected to say that Patrick visited Sderot, a city that has been under rocket attack from the Gaza, and not a Gaza village.)