Interview with Henry Siegman, former Executive Director of the American Jewish Committee on Israel’s War On Gaza
This interview appeared on Democracy Now! on July 30, 2014. Here is the link to the full interview. What follows is the transcript of the first part.
Given his background, what American Jewish leader Rabbi Henry Siegman has to say about Israel’s founding in 1948 through the current assault on Gaza may surprise you. From 1978 to 1994, Siegman served as executive director of the American Jewish Congress, long described as one of the nation’s “big three” Jewish organizations along with the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League. Born in Germany three years before the Nazis came to power in 1933, Siegman’s family eventually moved to the United States. His father was a leader of the European Zionist movement that pushed for the creation of a Jewish state. In New York, Siegman studied the religion and was ordained as an Orthodox rabbi by Yeshiva Torah Vodaas, later becoming head of the Synagogue Council of America. After his time at the American Jewish Congress, Siegman became a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He now serves as president of the U.S./Middle East Project. In the first of our two-part interview, Siegman discusses the assault on Gaza, the myths surrounding Israel’s founding in 1948, and his own background as a German-Jewish refugee who fled Nazi occupation to later become a leading American Jewish voice and now vocal critic of Israel’s policies in the Occupied Territories.
“When one thinks that this is what is necessary for Israel to survive, that the Zionist dream is based on the repeated slaughter of innocents on a scale that we’re watching these days on television, that is really a profound, profound crisis — and should be a profound crisis in the thinking of all of us who were committed to the establishment of the state and to its success,” Siegman says. Responding to Israel’s U.S.-backed claim that its assault on Gaza is necessary because no country would tolerate the rocket fire from militants in Gaza, Siegman says: “What undermines this principle is that no country and no people would live the way that Gazans have been made to live. … The question of the morality of Israel’s action depends, in the first instance, on the question, couldn’t Israel be doing something [to prevent] this disaster that is playing out now, in terms of the destruction of human life? Couldn’t they have done something that did not require that cost? And the answer is, sure, they could have ended the occupation.”
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: As we continue our coverage of the Israeli offensive in Gaza, we spend the rest of the hour with Henry Siegman, the former executive director of the American Jewish Congress, long described as one of the nation’s “big three” Jewish organizations along with the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League. Henry Siegman was born in 1930 in Frankfurt, Germany. Three years later, the Nazis came to power. After fleeing Nazi troops in Belgium, his family eventually moved to the United States. His father was a leader of the European Zionist movement, pushing for the creation of a Jewish state. In New York, Henry Siegman studied and was ordained as an Orthodox rabbi by Yeshiva Torah Vodaas. He later became head of the Synagogue Council of America. After his time at the American Jewish Congress, Siegman became a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He now serves as president of the U.S./Middle East Project.
AMY GOODMAN: Over the years, Henry Siegman has become a vocal critic of Israel’s policies in the Occupied Territories and has urged Isral to engage with Hamas. He has called the Palestinian struggle for a state, quote, “the mirror image of the Zionist movement” that led to the founding of Israel in 1948. He recently wrote a piece for Politico headlined “Israel Provoked This War.” Nermeen Shaikh and I sat down with him on Tuesday. I started by asking Henry Siegman if he could characterize the situation in Gaza at the moment.
RABBI HENRY SIEGMAN: Yes, it’s disastrous. It’s disastrous, both in political terms, which is to say the situation cannot conceivably, certainly in the short run, lead to any positive results, to an improvement in the lives of either Israelis or Palestinians, and of course it’s disastrous in humanitarian terms, the kind of slaughter that’s taking place there. When one thinks that this is what is necessary for Israel to survive, that the Zionist dream is based on the slaughter of—repeated slaughter of innocents on a scale that we’re watching these days on television, that is really a profound, profound crisis—and should be a profound crisis—in the thinking of all of us who were committed to the establishment of the state and to its success. It leads one virtually to a whole rethinking of this historical phenomenon.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: What do you believe—Mr. Siegman, what do you believe the objectives of Israel are in this present assault on Gaza?
RABBI HENRY SIEGMAN: Well, they have several objectives, although I’m not sure that each of them is specifically responsible for the carnage we’re seeing now. It has what seems on the surface a justifiable objective of ending these attacks, the rockets that come from Gaza and are aimed—it’s hard to say they’re aimed at civilians, because they never seem to land anywhere that causes serious damage, but they could and would have, if not for luck. So, on the face of it, Israel has a right to do what it’s doing now, and, of course, it’s been affirmed by even president of the United States, repeatedly, that no country would agree to live with that kind of a threat repeatedly hanging over it.
But what he doesn’t add, and what perverts this principle, undermines the principle, is that no country and no people would live the way Gazans have been made to live. And consequently, this moral equation which puts Israel on top as the victim that has to act to prevent its situation from continuing that way, and the Palestinians in Gaza, or Hamas, the organization responsible for Gaza, who are the attackers, our media rarely ever points out that these are people who have a right to live a decent, normal life, too. And they, too, must think, “What can we do to put an end to this?”
And this is why in the Politico article that you mentioned, I pointed out the question of the morality of Israel’s action depends, in the first instance, on the question: Couldn’t Israel be doing something in preventing this disaster that is playing out now, in terms of the destruction of human lives? Couldn’t they have done something that didn’t require that cost? And the answer is: Sure, that they could have ended the occupation, with results—whatever the risks are, they certainly aren’t greater than the price being paid now for Israel’s effort to continue and sustain permanently their relationship to the Palestinians.
AMY GOODMAN: When you say that Israel could end the violence by ending the occupation, Israel says it does not occupy Gaza, that it left years ago. I wanted to play a clip for you from MSNBC. It was last week, and the host, Joy Reid, was interviewing the Israeli spokesperson, Mark Regev.
MARK REGEV: Listen, if you’ll allow me to, I want to take issue with one important word you said. You said Israel is the occupying authority. You’re forgetting Israel pulled out of the Gaza Strip. We took down all the settlements, and the settlers who didn’t want to leave, we forced them to leave. We pulled back to the 1967 international frontier. There is no Israeli occupation of the Gaza Strip. We haven’t been there for some eight years.
AMY GOODMAN: Henry Siegman, can you respond?
RABBI HENRY SIEGMAN: OK, yeah. That is of course utter nonsense, and for several reasons. First of all, Gaza is controlled completely, like the West Bank, because it is totally surrounded by Israel. Israel could not be imposing the kind of chokehold it has on Gaza if it were not surrounding, if its military were not surrounding Gaza, and not just on the territory, but also on the air, on the sea. No one there can make a move without coming into contact with the Israeli IDF, you know, outside this imprisoned area where Gazans live. So, there’s no one I have encountered, who is involved with international law, who’s ever suggested to me that in international law Gaza is not considered occupied. So that’s sheer nonsense.
But there’s another point triggered by your question to me, and this is the propaganda machine, and these official spokespeople will always tell you, “Take a look at what kind of people these are. Here we turned over Gaza to them. And you’d think they would invest their energies in building up the area, making it a model government and model economy. Instead, they’re working on rockets.” The implication here is that they, in effect, offered Palestinians a mini state, and they didn’t take advantage of it, so the issue isn’t really Palestinian statehood. That is the purpose of this kind of critique.
And I have always asked myself, and this has a great deal to do with my own changing views about the policies of governments, not about the Jewish state qua Jewish state, but of the policies pursued by Israeli governments and supported—you know, they say Israel is a model democracy in the Middle East, so you must assume—the public has to assume some responsibility for what the government does, because they put governments in place. So, the question I ask myself: What if the situation were reversed? You know, there is a Talmudic saying in Pirkei Avot, The Ethics of the Fathers: “Al tadin et chavercha ad shetagiah lemekomo“, “Don’t judge your neighbor until you can imagine yourself in his place.” So, my first question when I deal with any issue related to the Israeli-Palestinian issue: What if we were in their place?
What if the situation were reversed, and the Jewish population were locked into, were told, “Here, you have less than 2 percent of Palestine, so now behave. No more resistance. And let us deal with the rest”? Is there any Jew who would have said this is a reasonable proposition, that we cease our resistance, we cease our effort to establish a Jewish state, at least on one-half of Palestine, which is authorized by the U.N.? Nobody would agree to that. They would say this is absurd. So the expectations that Palestinians—and I’m speaking now about the resistance as a concept; I’m not talking about rockets, whether they were justified or not. They’re not. I think that sending rockets that are going to kill civilians is a crime. But for Palestinians to try, in any way they can, to end this state of affair—and to expect of them to end their struggle and just focus on less than 2 percent to build a country is absurd. That is part of—that’s propaganda, but it’s not a discussion of either politics or morality.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: One of the things that’s repeated most often is, the problem with the Palestinian unity government is, of course, that Hamas is now part of it, and Hamas is considered a terrorist organization by Israel and also by the United States. I’d just like to read you a short quote from an article that you wrote in 2009 in the London Review of Books. You said, “Hamas is no more a ‘terror organisation’ … than the Zionist movement was during its struggle for a Jewish homeland. In the late 1930s and 1940s, parties within the Zionist movement resorted to terrorist activities for strategic reasons.” Could you elaborate on that and what you see as the parallels between the two?
RABBI HENRY SIEGMAN: Well, I’m glad I said that. In fact, I repeated it in a letter toThe New York Times the other day, a week or two ago. The fact is that Israel had, pre-state—in its pre-state stage, several terrorist groups that did exactly what Hamas does today. I don’t mean they sent rockets, but they killed innocent people. And they did that in an even more targeted way than these rockets do. Benny Morris published a book that is considered the Bible on that particular period, the war of—
AMY GOODMAN: The Israeli historian.
RABBI HENRY SIEGMAN: Sorry?
AMY GOODMAN: The Israeli historian, Benny Morris.
RABBI HENRY SIEGMAN: The Israeli historian, right, then in the book Righteous Victims, in which he said—I recall, when I read it, I was shocked—in which he—particularly in his most recently updated book, which was based on some new information that the Israel’s Defense—the IDF finally had to open up and publish, that Israeli generals received direct instructions from Ben-Gurion during the War of Independence to kill civilians, or line them up against the wall and shoot them, in order to help to encourage the exodus, that in fact resulted, of 700,000 Palestinians, who were driven out of their—left their homes, and their towns and villages were destroyed. This was terror, even within not just the terrorist groups, the pre-state terrorists, but this is within the military, the Israeli military, that fought the War of Independence. And in this recent book, that has received so much public attention by Ari—you know, My Promised Land.
AMY GOODMAN: Shavit.
RABBI HENRY SIEGMAN: Ari Shavit. He describes several such incidents, too. And incidentally, one of the people who—according to Benny Morris, one of the people who received these orders—and they were oral orders, but he, in his book, describes why he believes that these orders were given, were given to none other than Rabin, who was not a general then, but he—and that he executed these orders.
AMY GOODMAN: Meaning?
RABBI HENRY SIEGMAN: Meaning?
AMY GOODMAN: What did it mean that he executed these orders, Rabin?
RABBI HENRY SIEGMAN: That he executed civilians. And the rationale given for this when Shavit, some years ago, had an interview with Benny Morris and said to him, “My God, you are saying that there was deliberate ethnic cleansing here?” And Morris said, “Yes, there was.” And he says, “And you justify it?” And he said, “Yes, because otherwise there would not have been a state.” And Shavit did not follow up. And that was one of my turning points myself, when I saw that. He would not follow up and say, “Well, if that is a justification, the struggle for statehood, why can’t Palestinians do that? What’s wrong with Hamas? Why are they demonized if they do what we did?”
AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to the Israeli prime minister earlier this month, Benjamin Netanyahu, vowing to punish those responsible for the killing of Mohammed Abu Khdeir, the Palestinian teen who was burned alive following the murders of three Israeli teens. But in doing so, Netanyahu drew a distinction between Israel and its neighbors in how it deals with, quote, “murderers.”
PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: I know that in our society, the society of Israel, there is no place for such murderers. And that’s the difference between us and our neighbors. They consider murderers to be heroes. They name public squares after them. We don’t. We condemn them, and we put them on trial, and we’ll put them in prison.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu talking about the difference. Henry Siegman, can you respond?
RABBI HENRY SIEGMAN: Well, the only difference I can think of is that in Israel they made the heads of the two major pre-state terrorist groups prime ministers. So this distinction he’s drawing is simply false; it’s not true. The heads of the two terrorist groups, which incidentally, again, going back to Benny Morris, in his book, Righteous Victims, he writes, in this pre-state account, that the targeting of civilians was started by the Jewish terrorist groups, and the Arab—and the Arab groups followed.
AMY GOODMAN: You’re talking about Irgun and the Stern Gang.
RABBI HENRY SIEGMAN: Yes, yes. And as you know, both the head of the Irgun and both the head of the Stern Gang—I’m talking about Begin and Shamir—became prime ministers of the state of Israel. And contrary to Netanyahu, public highways and streets are named after them.
AMY GOODMAN: Henry Siegman, former head of the American Jewish Congress. We’ll continue our conversation with him in a minute.
Kazerooni and Prince on KGNU – Hemispheres – on Israel’s War On Gaza (July 29, 2014) – My Babblings on Zionism.
This (above) is an interview with Ibrahim Kazerooni and myself. It took place at KGNU’s Boulder studio on Tuesday, July 29, 2014. It is our analysis of Israel’s War On Gaza. The program begins about 3 minutes into “the stream”.
I am repeated asked…why do you do this? …the never-ending harsh criticism of Israel. I can answer that in a few words: They (the Zionists, Israel’s blind supporters) are doing it (their punishment, oppression of the Palestinians) in my name. I cannot accept that. Some years ago Jewish groups popped up all over the country with the same title “Not In My Name” … I have always liked that. If in the USA “our” numbers remain a minor trend within the Jewish Community, I am convinced that they are growing with national organizations like Jewish Voice For Peace and local Jewish groups popping up everywhere. Of course others who have become critics of Israel’s Occupation come to their understanding in other ways..and there are more of us, even here in the USA where the media is so one-sided and slanted towards excusing every growing Israeli war crime.
At the same time, let’s be clear about all this: this issue is more, much more than a “Jewish-Moslem”, “Israel-Palestinian” concern. It has emerged as a great universal humanitarian concern, similar in some ways to the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, and it is in this manner, that Israel’s treatment and oppression of the Palestinian people is increasingly understood…and not all the clever spin of Israel’s p.r. machine has been able to stop that. Nor will it be able to now nor in the future. The sympathy, support for the just struggle of the Palestinian people to create their own independent and viable state will continue.
I remember well, when I first questioned Israeli intentions and actions as a young adult…something in me cracked. It was as if the bubble I was living in – the Israel I wanted to believe existed, but didn’t, could never be reconstructed in my mind. Myth and reality. I’ll take reality every time, painful as it might be. Were the dollars I gave enthusiastically as a pre-Bar Mitzvah kid being used to plant trees or buy bullets for the Israeli military? From that point on – I was 23 – since, I have essentially always been suspicious of Israeli P.R., propaganda, actions and wondered, what about the Palestinians? I have seen the same process in others – for some it was the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon which resulted in the horrific massacre at Sabre and Chatilla camps, conducted it is true by Lebanese fascist elements, but directed by Ariel Sharon, Israel’s military leader at the time and later prime minister. And now, as the bombs rein down on Gaza, and ultra-orthodox Israeli rabbis call for nothing short of the extermination of the Palestinians there, I hear other Jewish voices, expressing a deep pain, angst as they come to grips with the reality of “the Zionist project.”
Funny, I believe both Kazerooni and I made the points we wanted to make in this podcast…but after the program was over and I was thinking about it, I concluded that some of the more profound remarks were made by long time friend and companero, RonForthofer, who called in. His main point was that the goal of this Israeli war against Gaza was to make life so miserable for the Palestinians there, the destruction of virtually the entire infrastructure, that organized life there would simply collapse (no electricity, less and less drinkable water, all institutions of modern life – schools, hospitals, etc) and that the goal here is an ethnic cleansing. Ibrahim K spoke about how the Israeli authorities keep close track of the caloric intake of Gaza residents, and like the Nazis did at Leningrad, are trying to keep the Palestinian Gazan diet at levels barely above that necessary to sustain life. The whole idea is to trigger a complete collapse of life in Gaza, sometimes slowly by the stranglehold Israel (and Egypt) conduct against Gaza; sometimes more quickly as with the current genocidal madness military campaign.
Let’s End The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Once And For All: Towards A Ceasefire, An End to the Israeli Occupation, Towards A Negotiated Settlement of the Conflict
(Note 1: This is the first of a series I hope to write on the current Israeli war on Gaza. There will be a follow-up piece specifically on U.S. policy. I also hope to be writing some stuff with dear friend and frequent co-collaborator, Imam Ibrahim Kazerooni.
Note 2: a few hours after I posted this a 12 hour cease-fire between Israel and the Gaza Palestinians was agreed by both parties. Today is “El Quds” Day…the last Friday prayer of the Ramadan month of fasting. It might not mean much to North Americans and Europeans, but in the Moslem World, it is an important day. It means “Jerusalem Day”…and today the West Bank blew up in opposition and anger to the Israel war on Gaza, so much so that Mohammed Abbas and his Fateh group fears losing control of the situation, greatly complicating the Israel’s position. It is also true, although essentially blacked out in the US, that the Secretary General of Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hassan Nasrallah, gave an important speech today in which he pledged support for the Gaza Palestinians. In the West Bank already at least seven have died, hundreds arrested. For Israel it now means that it is opposing Palestinians on two fronts, [possibly three] simultaneously – Gaza and the West Bank – it is more than likely that this deteriorating situation for Israel is behind the call for a 12 hour cease-fire.
Note 3: the piece has been published at Foreign Policy In Focus.
It goes on…now in its 19th day…Israel’s punishing military offensive against Gaza. Although it might happen – these conflicts have ended abruptly in the past – at the moment there is no ceasefire in site. The asymmetrical blow-for-blow continues. As many have pointed out, it is not a war, but an Israeli premeditated killing spree of Palestinian civilians. Nor is this the first time. Each day the casualty numbers mount. The published statistics are at best only “guestimates”with the real figures being significantly higher. How many more Palestinian civilians will be pulled from the rubble in the months after the fighting stops? How many bodies will never be found? Read more…
Day of the Vulture in Argentina
July 24, 2014
By Conn Hallinan
It is no surprise that right-wing Republican and hedge fund billionaire Paul Singer should be trying to wring hundreds of millions of dollars out of Argentina for a debt that Buenos Aires doesn’t really owe him. He screwed tens of millions of dollars out of poverty-stricken Peru and the Republic of Congo using the same financial sleight of hand. What may surprise people, however, is that key leaders in the administration of former President Bill Clinton are helping him do it.
To read the full article go to: http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/day_of_the_vulture_over_argentina_20140724
“Il y a deux Histoires: l’officielle, mensongère, qui nous est enseigné, et l’Histoire secrète où se trouves les vraies causes des événements, une Histoire honteuse” – Balzac, Les Illusions perdues. (Rough translation: History comes in two versions: there is the official history, that which we learn in school with its lies and half truths; then there is the secret history in which the more accurate causes of historical events unfolds, a shameful and shameless tale.”)
1. Nothing Left To Uncover About World War II?
Putting the Dieppe Raid of August 17,1942 in its more global context, at least up until recently there are a number of historians who argue that, really, there is nothing left to say about World War II, that so much has been researched, written, made into documentaries and feature films about the war that anything new would simply be in part or in large measure redundant.
Nothing could be further from the truth; to the contrary, it would be more to the point to argue that historians have just scratched the surface. True enough the general outlines of the war in Europe are clear enough although, even here, a certain blurred vision fueled in large measure by Cold War blinders endured until the collapse of Communism in 1989 and 1991. Much of the narrative has been reworked in the past quarter century. On the other hand, where, in English (or any other European based language is the complete or comprehensive of the war in Asia? It remains largely unknown both in terms of what actually transpired there and how the war itself shaped the post war evolution throughout the continent from Indonesia to China. Read more…
1. A family vacation in the Dieppe Region
A quarter of a century ago next month, our family was fortunate enough to spend two weeks on vacation in France, a week of that time vacationing in the region in and around Dieppe. Today, Dieppe is a small French port and fishing town of 35,000 in Normandy on the English Channel long frequented by British tourists who make the 70 mile journey across “La Manche.” It includes some of 16th century Europe’s best cartographers. Although its importance has dwindled some, Dieppe has a rich history; it was a key transit point in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries between the Mediterranean and Baltic Seas. It was in large measure from Dieppe and nearby ports that the Arcadians and Cajuns, who would make up the French-speaking populations of Eastern Canada and Louisiana, would depart. Read more…
(Note: This summer I was thrilled to participate in a trip through OFI (Orangutan Foundation International) in which we got to see orangutans in the rainforest of Indonesia. We also got to meet Dr. Birute Galdikas, who has been studying and advocating for orangutans in Indonesia for over 40 years.)
So Vivid Yet So Fleeting
By Molly Prince
My dad suggested I write about the trip
because the experience is
so vivid yet so fleeting.
And he is right.
I can feel Indonesia
from my consciousness
at an alarming rate
as Denver floods back in.
Denver with its dry air and Western food and high technology.
My cats and my people,
tap water I can drink and internet and phone and
quiet invaded by ambulance sirens
instead of the constant chirping of birds
and whirring of insects of Indonesia
with the hot, humid air, rice and tofu,
chicken and shrimp, cooked greens and potatoes,
dangerous tap water, mango, pineapple and durian fruit,
traffic jams and overcrowded Jakarta and the serenity of the Sakonyer River,
selamat pagi and terima kasih,
women in colorful head coverings, Muslim prayer calls,
crocodiles and black water rivers.
There is the background.
The main points seem very simple.
The gorgeous rainforest
pulsing with life
home to the majestic orangutan and a rich ecosystem
including proboscis monkeys, Bornean bearded pigs, clouded leopards,
hornbills, butterflies – a seemingly endless list.
All being destroyed
just a little bit left
like the glacier at Glacier National Park
so that people can have junk food and money.
We all need money.
But we don’t need to be billionaires.
Palm oil plantation owners are billionaires.
Not just the orangutans but the whole ecosystem.
Not just the eco-system but all the ecosystems.
Not just all the ecosystems but
the macro system,
all the systems of the earth that work together
to make the planet hospitable to life.
Not hospitable to life = climate crisis = we can not eat money.
“Only when the last tree has been cut down,
the last river has been poisoned and the last fish has been caught
will we realize we can not eat money.”*
Then there are the orangutan themselves.
They are interesting and humanlike and
I love listening to Dr. Birute talk about orangutans
and evolution and their social structures and
it was an incredible experience of a lifetime
to be so close to them.
I am honored and I love them.
They are the star of the show.
But also, it is the show as a whole that I care about.
Dr. Birute Galdikas.
Also the star of the show.
A celebrity to me
although her personality is
certainly not that of a celebrity.
Deliberate and thoughtful
brilliant and patient
stubborn, tenacious and fragile.
I love her.
She has done a superhuman amount.
She has worked miracles.
And still, it is possible that
it won’t be enough.
Irene said, “most people’s favorite is the care center.”
The care center is not my favorite.
It was amazing to see the orangutans there
but the care center makes me sad.
It begins and ends with sad
it does have magic and hard work and
in the middle.
It begins with orphaned orangutans
And it ends with
where are these orangutans to go?
Saved and cared for and ready to
be released back into the wild
and there is
not enough wild.
My favorite is the orangutans in the jungle.
My favorite is the orangutan babies with their mamas
in the jungle.