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Interview with Henry Siegman, former Executive Director of the American Jewish Committee on Israel’s War On Gaza

July 30, 2014
HenrySiegman

Rabbi Henry Siegman…Why don’t we have any rabbis in Colorado like this?…not a one of them!

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. Here is a link to Part Two

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.”

TRANSCRIPT

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 Israel 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 choke-hold 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.

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