JERUSALEM, Israel - For years, CNN - through its negative reports - convinced Puerto Rican Senator Carmelo Rios not to come to Israel. But his perceptions changed dramatically during a recent visit as part of Puerto Rico's delegation to the Jerusalem International Conference, sponsored by the AmIsrael organization.
Headquartered in Brazil, AmIsrael established the annual conference in Jerusalem to provide "a venue for political and public debate on the growing threat to peace in the Middle East, in particular Iran's progressing nuclear program and hostile rhetoric directed against Israel."
Because Latin America has generally been perceived as a pro-Iranian bloc, AmIsrael and the delegates came to demonstrate to the world that this is not the case.
While the conference has become the largest gathering of Latin American politicians in Israel, this year several European delegates joined in.
"I don't know if you guys should go," friends and family said to Rios before he left. But wanting to see the human rights situation firsthand - often portrayed as intolerable by the media - was reason enough for the Puerto Rican delegation to make the trip. As a senator, Rios cares about human rights.
During the four-day conference, participants heard briefings from Israeli government officials, media professionals, foreign delegates and other keynote speakers.
This year, Miki Goldwasser, whose son, Ehud, was kidnapped and killed by Hezbollah in the Second Lebanon War, and Noam Shalit, whose son, Gilad, has been held captive four years by Hamas in the Gaza Strip, addressed the delegates.
Hearing Goldwasser and Shalit and seeing Israel firsthand made Rios much more sympathetic to the nation's need to defend its citizens from the enemies that surround it. Despite the circumstances, he said, Israel reacts with restraint.
During his visit, Rios learned that Israel deals with many of the same problems as any country seeking to improve the quality of life for its citizens. The delegation intends to bring back all the information it has gleaned to Puerto Rican lawmakers.
Contrary to perceptions abroad, the senator saw that Israel is not a war zone, but rather a nation protecting itself like any other nation. He and his colleagues felt safe in Jerusalem, with no need for a military escort.
All in all, the senator was "pretty impressed" with the rich culture he found, describing his first trip to Israel as an "eye-opening experience," something he wasn't expecting at all.