July 30, 2014
This is Part 1 of a long interview. The second part is now our our website as U.S. Jewish Leader Henry Siegman to Israel: Stop Killing Palestinians and End the Occupation
Given his background, what American Jewish leader 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.
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?
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.
AG: Henry Siegman, can you respond?
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.
NS: 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?
HENRY SIEGMAN: Well, I’m glad I said that. In fact, I repeated it in a letter to The 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—
AG: The Israeli historian.
HENRY SIEGMAN: Sorry?
AG: The Israeli historian, Benny Morris.
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.
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.
HENRY SIEGMAN: Meaning?
AG: What did it mean that he executed these orders, Rabin?
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?”
AG: 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.
AG: That was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu talking about the difference. Henry Siegman, can you respond?
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.
AG: You’re talking about Irgun and the Stern Gang.
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.
NS: I’d like to turn, Henry Siegman, to Khaled Meshaal, the leader of Hamas, who was speaking to Charlie Rose of PBS. He said Hamas was willing to coexist with Jews but said it would not live, quote, “with a state of occupiers.”
KHALED MESHAAL: [translated] I am ready to coexist with the Jews, with the Christians, and with the Arabs and non-Arabs, and with those who agree with my ideas and also disagree with them; however, I do not coexist with the occupiers, with the settlers and those who put a siege on us.
CHARLIE ROSE: It’s one thing to say you want to coexist with the Jews. It’s another thing you want to coexist with the state of Israel. Do you want to coexist with the state of Israel? Do you want to represent—do you want to recognize Israel as a Jewish state?
KHALED MESHAAL: [translated] No. I said I do not want to live with a state of occupiers.
NS: That was Khaled Meshaal, the leader of Hamas, speaking to Charlie Rose. Henry Siegman, could you respond to that, and specifically the claim made by Israelis repeatedly that they can’t negotiate with a political organization that refuses the state of Israel’s right to exist in its present form?
HENRY SIEGMAN: Yes. It so happens that in both international custom and international law, political parties, like Hamas, are not required or even ever asked to recognize states, whether they recognize a state or not. The question is whether the government of which they are a part and that makes policy and executes policy, whether that government is prepared to recognize other states. And this is true in the case of Israel, as well, the government of Israel, any government. I, incidentally, discussed this with Meshaal, not once, but several times, face to face, and asked him whether he would be part of a government that recognizes the state of Israel, and he says—and he said, “Yes, provided”—they had a proviso—he said, “provided that the Palestinian public approves that policy.” And he repeated to me the fact that—he said, “You’re absolutely right.” He says, “People ask us will we recognize the state of Israel, and will we affirm that it’s legitimately a Jewish state.” He said, “No, we won’t do that. But we have never said that we will not serve in a government that has public support for that position, that we will not serve in such a government.”
But a more important point to be made here—and this is why these distinctions are so dishonest—the state of Israel does not recognize a Palestinian state, which is to say there are parties in Netanyahu’s government—very important parties, not marginal parties—including his own, the Likud, that to this day has an official platform that does not recognize the right of Palestinians to have a state anywhere in Palestine. And, of course, you have Naftali Bennett’s party, the HaBayit HaYehudi, which says this openly, that there will never be a state, a Palestinian state, anywhere in Palestine. Why hasn’t our government or anyone said, “Like Hamas, if you have parties like that in your government, you are not a peace partner, and you are a terrorist group, if in fact you use violence to implement your policy, as Hamas does”? So the hypocrisy in the discussion that is taking place publicly is just mind-boggling.
AG: Henry Siegman, you’re the head, the former head, of one of the leading Jewish organizations, the American Jewish Congress.
HENRY SIEGMAN: Two of them, also of the Synagogue Council of America.
AG: So, these are major establishment Jewish organizations. You said you went to see Khaled Meshaal, the head of Hamas, not once, but several times to meet with him. The U.S. government calls Hamas a terrorist organization. They will not communicate with them. They communicate with them through other parties, through other countries, to talk to them. Talk about your decision to meet with Khaled Meshaal, where you met with him, and the significance of your conversations.
HENRY SIEGMAN: Well, first of all, it should be noted that the U.S. has no such policy of not meeting with terrorist organizations. It has a policy of not meeting with Hamas. That’s quite different. We’re very happy to meet with the Taliban and to negotiate with them. And they cut off hands and heads of people, and they kill girls who go to school. And that didn’t prevent the United States from having negotiations with the Taliban, so that’s nonsense that we don’t talk to terrorist organizations. We talk to enemies if we want to cease the slaughter, and we’re happy to do so and to try to reach an agreement that puts an end to it. And why Hamas should be the exception, again, I find dishonest. And the only reason that we do that is in response to the pressures from AIPAC and, of course, Israel’s position. The largest caucus, parliamentary caucus, in Israel’s Knesset is called the caucus of Eretz Yisrael HaShlema, which the Likud leads.
AG: Explain that in English, “the land of Israel.”
HENRY SIEGMAN: An “eretz,” in English—in English, it means the whole land of Israel. This is a parliamentary caucus, the largest caucus in the Knesset, which is totally dedicated to not permit any government to establish a Palestinian state anywhere in the land of Israel, headed by Likud, senior Likud members of Knesset, and headed—a party that is headed by the prime minister of Israel. And what boggles the imagination is that no one talks about this, no one points this out, and no one says, “How can you take these positions via Hamas if this is exactly what is going on within your own government that you are heading?”
NS: Henry Siegman, as you are far more familiar than most, the argument made by Israel and supporters of Israel is that what might be construed as a disproportionate response by Israel to Hamas has to do with the historical experience of the persecution of the Jews and, of course, the Holocaust. So how do you respond to those kinds of claims?
HENRY SIEGMAN: Well, I don’t accept that at all, because the lesson from the persecutions would seem to me—and certainly if you follow Jewish tradition, the lesson of those persecutions, we have always said, until the state of Israel came into being, is that you do not treat people in that kind of an inhumane and cruel way. And the hope always was that Israel would be a model democracy, but not just a democracy, but a state that would practice Jewish values, in terms of its humanitarian approach to these issues, its pursuit of justice and so on.
I have always felt that, for me, the Holocaust experience, which was important to me, since I lived two years under Nazi occupation, most of it running from place to place and in hiding—I always thought that the important lesson of the Holocaust is not that there is evil, that there are evil people in this world who could do the most unimaginable, unimaginably cruel things. That was not the great lesson of the Holocaust. The great lesson of the Holocaust is that decent, cultured people, people we would otherwise consider good people, can allow such evil to prevail, that the German public—these were not monsters, but it was OK with them that the Nazi machine did what it did. Now I draw no comparisons between the Nazi machine and Israeli policy. And what I resent most deeply is when people say, “How dare you invoke the Nazi experience?” The point isn’t, you know, what exactly they did, but the point is the evidence that they gave that decent people can watch evil and do nothing about it. That is the most important lesson of the Holocaust, not the Hitlers and not the SS, but the public that allowed this to happen. And my deep disappointment is that the Israeli public, precisely because Israel is a democracy and cannot say, “We’re not responsible what our leaders do,” that the public puts these people back into office again and again.
AG: You mentioned your experience as a Holocaust survivor. Could you just go into it a little more deeply? You were born in 1930 in Germany. And talk about the rise of the Nazis and how your family escaped.
HENRY SIEGMAN: Well, I don’t consider myself a Holocaust survivor, in the sense that I was not in a concentration camp. But I lived under Nazi occupation. I was born in 1930, but the Nazis came to power in—I think in 1933. And shortly thereafter, we lived in Germany at the time. My parents lived in Germany, in Frankfurt. And they left. My father decided to give up a very successful business and to move to Belgium then, and on the assumption that Belgium was safe, that we would be escaping the Nazis. But in 1940, the Germans invaded Belgium, and they invaded France. That was in early 1940, I believe. And so, it’s a long story, but for the next—from that point on until February 1942, when we arrived, finally arrived in the United States.
And how my father pulled that off is a miracle; to this day, I don’t fully understand, because there were six children that he had to bring with him, and my mother, of course. We ran from place to place. First we were at Dunkirk, where the classic evacuation, memorable evacuation took place, and the French and the British soldiers withdrew to across the channel. We happened to find ourselves there at the time. And then we were sent back by the—when the Nazi troops finally caught up with us in Dunkirk, they sent us back to Antwerp. And then my father had connections with the police chief, because of his business interests in Antwerp before the Nazis came. He was tipped off the morning that we were supposed to be—the Gestapo was supposed to come to our house to take all of us away. And so we just picked up, and we managed to get to Paris. And from Paris, we crossed—we were smuggled across the border into occupied Vichy France, and we were there for about a year, again without proper papers and in hiding. Then we tried to cross into Spain. And we did, but when we arrived at the Spanish border, they finally closed the border and sent us back into France.
So, then we managed to get a boat to take us from Marseille to North Africa, where we were interned briefly in a camp in North Africa. And then the—what I believe was the last ship, a Portuguese, a neutral ship, taking refugees to the United States stopped in North Africa. We boarded that ship. And we were on the high seas for two months, because the Nazi subs were already busy sinking the ships that they encountered. So we had to go all the way around to avoid various Nazi submarine-infested areas.
So after two months on the high seas, we arrived in New York, where we were sent to Ellis Island, which was full of Bundists, who had been German Bundists, who were arrested and were being sent back to Germany. But as we walked into Ellis Island into that hallway, something I will never forget, “We’re in America at last!” And those Bundists were greeting each other in the hallway, “Heil Hitler!” So the “Heil Hitlers” that we were trying to escape in Europe was the first thing we encountered as we landed on Ellis Island.
AG: And how did you end up becoming head of one of the country’s—or, as you said, country’s two major Jewish organizations? And what was your position on Zionism after World War II?
HENRY SIEGMAN: Well, my father was one of the leaders of European Zionism. He was the head of the Mizrachi in the religious Zionist movement, not just in Belgium, but in Western Europe. And the leaders, the heads, the founders of the Mizrachi—mayor of Berlin himself, Gold, many others—were guests in our house in Antwerp. And they used to take me on their knees and teach me Hebrew songs from Israel. So, I had—I was raised on mother’s milk, and I was an ardent—as a kid even, an ardent Zionist. I recall on the ship coming over, we were coming to America, and I was writing poetry and songs—I was 10 years old, 11 years old—about the blue sky of Palestine. In those days we referred to it as Palestina, Palestine.
And so, into adulthood, not until well after the ’67 War, when I came across—and I got to know Rabin and others, and I came across a discussion in which I was told by Israelis, by the Israeli people who I was talking to, government, senior government people, that they had an initiative from Sadat about peace and withdrawal and so on. And Rabin said, “But clearly, the Israeli public is not prepared for that now.” And that hit me like a hammer. I always had this notion drilled into me that if only the Arabs were to reach out and be willing to live in peace with Israel, that would be the time of the Messiah. And the Messiah came, and the Israeli leadership said, “No, public opinion is not ready for that.” And I wrote a piece then in Moment magazine—if you recall, it was published by Leonard Fein—and he made it a cover story, and the title was, “For the Sake of Zion, I Will Not Remain Silent.” And that triggered my re-examination of things I had been told and what was going on on the ground.
NS: Prior to that, your sense had always been that if the Arabs reached out, there would be two states: Palestine and Israel.
HENRY SIEGMAN: I had no doubt about that. I mean, that was, you know, just a given, that we are sharing. The resolution said, you know, two states. The resolution, which Israel—the partition resolution, which Israel invoked in its Declaration of Independence, planted, rooted its legitimacy in that—it cited the Palestinian—the partition plan. But when someone these days says, “But there’s a partition plan that said that the rest of it, that was not assigned to Israel, is the legitimate patrimony of the Palestinian people,” the answer given is, “Ah, yeah, but they voted they would not accept it, and the partition plan was never officially adopted.” Well, why are you quoting it then in your Declaration of Independence, if you consider it to be null and void and not—anyway.
AG: And the response of—or the slogan, the idea that was put forward so much in the founding of the state of Israel: Palestine is a land without people for a people without land?
HENRY SIEGMAN: Well, that was the common understanding and referred to repeatedly in Ari Shavit’s book and others, that the Zionist movement, at its very birth, was founded on an untruth, on a myth, that Palestine was a country without a people. And as he says, obviously—and he recognizes in his book that it was a lie. And therefore, from the very beginning, Zionism didn’t confront this profound moral dilemma that lay at its very heart. How do you deal with that reality? And as a consequence of that, one of the ways in which they dealt with it was to see to the expulsion of 700,000 people from their cities, from their towns and villages, and the destruction of all of them, which, to his credit, Ari Shavit writes about very painfully and honestly.
AG: Henry Siegman, president of the U.S./Middle East Project. He’s the former executive director of the American Jewish Congress as well as the Synagogue Council of America. He recently wrote a piece for Politico headlined “Israel Provoked This War.” We’ll link to it at democracynow.org. Tune in tomorrow for part two of our conversation with Henry Siegman, where he talks about U.S. support for Israel and U.S. media coverage.