U.S. Jewish Leader Henry Siegman to Israel: Stop Killing Palestinians and End the Occupation
Democracy Now, July 31, 2014
Henry Siegman, president of the U.S./Middle East Project. He is the former executive director of the American Jewish Congress from 1978 to 1994 and former executive vice president of the Synagogue Council of America.
In the second part of our interview, Henry Siegman, the former head of the American Jewish Congress and the Synagogue Council of America, discusses the assault on Gaza, Hamas’ rocket attacks on Israel, and how peace could be attainable if the Obama administration reverse decades-long support for the Israeli occupation. Born in 1930 in Germany, Siegman fled as the Nazis came to power, eventually arriving in the United States. His father was a leader of the European Zionist movement pushing for the creation of a Jewish state. In New York, Siegman studied and was ordained as an Orthodox rabbi by Yeshiva Torah Vodaas. He now serves as president of the U.S./Middle East Project. Commenting on the Hamas charter that calls for Israel’s destruction, Siegman says: “The difference between Hamas and Israel is that Israel is actually implementing [a destruction policy] — actually preventing a Palestinian state which doesn’t exist. Millions of Palestinians live in this subservient position without rights, without security, without hope, and without a future.” Commenting on Israeli justifications for killing Palestinians in the name of self-defense from 1948 through today, Siegman responds: “If you don’t want to kill Palestinians, if that’s what pains you so much, you don’t have to kill them. You can give them their rights, and you can end the occupation. And to put the blame for the occupation and for the killing of innocents that we are seeing in Gaza now on the Palestinians — why? Because they want a state of their own? They want what Jews wanted and achieved? This is a great moral insult.”
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. As we continue our coverage of the Israeli offensive on Gaza, we turn to part two of our conversation with Henry Siegman, the former head of the American Jewish Congress and the Synagogue Council of America. What he says about the future of Israel and the ongoing assault on Gaza may surprise you. Siegman was born in 1930 in Frankfurt, Germany. His family fled Germany as the Nazis came to power. He eventually arrived in the United States in 1942. His father was a leader of European Zionism, 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 now serves as president of the U.S./Middle East Project. He recently wrote a piece for Politico headlined “Israel Provoked This War: It’s Up to President Obama to Stop It.”
Democracy Now!’s Nermeen Shaikh and I sat down with Henry Siegman on Tuesday. I asked him about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s claim that Israel is just responding to the thousands of rockets that Hamas and other groups are firing from Gaza.
HENRY SIEGMAN: My response is that they wouldn’t be firing those rockets if you weren’t out—if you didn’t have an occupation in place. And one of the reasons you say you do not have an occupation in place is because you really don’t have a united partner, Palestinian partner, to make peace with, and when Palestinians seek to establish that kind of a government, which they just recently did, bringing Hamas into the governmental structure, Palestinian governmental structure, that is headed by Abbas, you seek to destroy that. You won’t recognize it. And this is why I say there are several reasons for the Israeli action. A primary one is to prevent this new government from actually succeeding. It’s an attempt to break up the new unity government set up by the Palestinians.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Why would they do that? Why would they want to do that?
HENRY SIEGMAN: They want to do that, for the first time—for years, I have been suggesting and arguing that they want to do that because they are intent on preventing the development of a Palestinian state. To put it bluntly, they want all of it. They want all of Palestine.
Now, this is something that Netanyahu said openly and without any reservations when he was not in government. He wrote about it, published a book about it, his opposition to a Palestinian state, that Israel couldn’t allow that. The difference between the time that he—and he, incidentally, opposed not just Palestinian statehood. He opposed peace agreements with Egypt. He opposed peace agreements with Jordan. Any positive step towards a stabilization and a more peaceful region, Netanyahu has been on record as opposing.
And when he came into office as prime minister, he understood that it is not a smart thing to say that Israel’s policy is to maintain the occupation permanently. So, the only difference between his positions in the past and the position now is that he pretends that he really would like to see a two-state solution, which, as you know, is the affirmation he made in his so-called Bar-Ilan speech several years ago. And some naive people said, “Ah, you know, redemption is at hand,” when, to his own people, he winked and made clear, and as I just read recently—I didn’t know that—that it’s on record that his father said, “Of course he didn’t mean it. He will attach conditions that will make it impossible.” But that was his tactic. His tactic was to say, “We are all in favor of it, but if only we had a Palestinian partner.”
Now, in fact, they’ve had a Palestinian partner that’s been willing and able—they set up institutions that the World Bank has said are more effective than most states that are members of the U.N. today. And that, of course, made no difference, and continued to say we do not have a partner, because you have nearly two million Palestinians in Gaza who are not represented. So the unity government became a threat to that tactic of pretending to be in support of a Palestinian state.
AMY GOODMAN: In a response to the piece that you wrote for Politico that was headlined “Israel Provoked This War,” the Anti-Defamation League writes, quote, “Hamas has a charter which they live up to every day calling for Israel’s destruction. Hamas has used the last two years of relative quiet to build up an arsenal of rockets whose sole purpose is to attack Israel. Hamas has built a huge network of tunnels leading into Israel with the purpose of murdering large numbers of Israelis and seizing hostages.” Henry Siegman, can you respond?
HENRY SIEGMAN: What I would point out to my former friend Abe Foxman of the ADL is that, too, is Israel’s charter, or at least the policy of this government and of many previous governments, which is to prevent the emergence of a Palestinian state. And they have built up their army and their armaments to implement that policy. And the difference between Hamas and the state of Israel is that the state of Israel is actually doing it. They’re actually implementing it, and they’re actually preventing a Palestinian state, which doesn’t exist. And millions of Palestinians live in this subservient position without rights and without security, without hope and without a future. That’s not the state of—the state of Israel is a very successful state, and happily Jews live there with a thriving economy and with an army whose main purpose is preventing that Palestinian state from coming into being. That’s their mandate.
But sadly and shockingly, they can stand by, even though international law says if you’re occupying people from outside of your country, you have a responsibility to protect them. I mean, the responsibility to protect is the people you are occupying. The soldiers who are there, ostensibly to implement that mandate, will watch settler violence when it occurs when they attack Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, and they won’t do a thing to prevent it. They won’t intervene to protect the people they are supposed to protect, and they will tell you, “That’s not our job. Our job is to protect the Jews.”
NERMEEN SHAIKH: On the question of the support, the successive U.S. administrations supporting Israel, I’d like to again quote from something you said in a 2002 New York Times interview with Chris Hedges. You said, “The support for Israel,” in the United States, “fills a spiritual vacuum. If you do not support the government of Israel then your Jewishness, not your political judgment, is in question.” So could you explain what you mean by that and what the implications of that have been, in terms of U.S. governments supporting Israeli government policy?
HENRY SIEGMAN: Well, what I meant by that, and that was an interview quite a while ago—
NERMEEN SHAIKH: 2002, yes.
HENRY SIEGMAN: I see, OK, which is not all that long ago, for me anyway. I meant by that something quite simple, that for many American Jews—and, I suspect, for most American Jews—Israel has become the content of their Jewish religious identification. It has very little other content. I rarely have been at a Shabbat service where a rabbi gives a sermon where Israel isn’t a subject of the sermon. And typically, they are—the sermons are not in the spirit of an Isaiah, you know, who says, “My god, is this what God wants from you? Your hands are bloody; they’re filled with blood. But he doesn’t want your fast. He doesn’t want—he despises the sacrifices and your prayers. What he wants is to feed, to feed the hungry, to pursue justice and so on.” But that’s not what you hear from rabbis in the synagogues in this country. So, what I meant by that is that there’s much more to Judaism and to the meaning that you give to your Jewish identity than support for the likes of Netanyahu.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And Henry Siegman, what do you think the Obama administration has done since his first administration? And what do you think he ought to be doing differently, on the question of Israel-Palestine and, in particular, his response to this most recent military assault on Gaza?
HENRY SIEGMAN: Look, I have written about this for years now. It’s not all that complicated. It is quite clear that, left to its own devices, if Israel—if the United States says to the Palestinians, “Hey, you guys have got to talk not to us; you’ve got to talk to the Palestinians—to the Israelis, and you have to come to an understanding that’s how peace is made, but we can’t interfere. You know, we cannot tell Israel what to do”—left to their own devices, there will never be a Palestinian state. And the question is—I have very serious doubts that we have not gone beyond the point where a Palestinian state is possible. The purpose of the settlement movement was to make it impossible. And I believe they have succeeded: That project has achieved its goal.
AMY GOODMAN: The Jewish settlements.
HENRY SIEGMAN: The Jewish settlers have achieved the irreversibility of the settlement movement, in terms of the vast infrastructure that has been put in place. So, even if there were a leftist government, so-called leftist government, that came to power, it would not be able to do it, because of the upheaval that would be necessary to create such a state.
There is only one thing—as far as I’m concerned, there are only two things that could happen that could still, perhaps, produce a Palestinian state. The first one is for the—because the United States remains absolutely essential in terms of Israel’s security, to its continued success and survival. If at some point the United States were to say, “You have now reached a point—we have been your biggest supporters. We have been with you through thick and thin. And we have based—we have treated you”—you know, a lot of people say, criticizing the U.S. and the international community, that we have double standards, that we expect things of Israel that we don’t expect of the rest of the world. We do have double standards, but it works the other way around: We grant Israel privileges and tolerate behavior that we would not in other allies. We may say there’s nothing we can do to change that, but we don’t give them billions of dollars. And we don’t go to the U.N., at the Security Council, to veto when the international—efforts by the United Nations to prevent that bad behavior. So we have double standards, but it works the other way. But if the United States were to say to Israel, “It’s our common values that underlie this very special relationship we have with you and these privileges that we have extended to you, but this can’t go on. We can’t do that when those values are being undermined. The values—what you are doing today contradicts American values. We are a democratic country, and we cannot be seen as aiding and abetting this oppression and permanent disenfranchisement of an entire people. So, you’re on your own.” The issue is not America sending planes and missiles to bomb Tel Aviv as punishment; the issue is America removing itself from being a collaborator in the policies and a facilitator, making it easy and providing the tools for Israel to do that. So, if at some point the United States were to say what is said in Hebrew, ad kan, you know, “So far, but no further. We can’t—this is not what we can do. You want to do it? You’re on your own,” that would change—that could still change the situation, because the one thing Israelis do not want to do is have the country live in a world where America is not there to have their back.
And the other possibility, which I have also written about, is for Palestinians to say, “OK, you won. You didn’t want us to have a state. We see that you’ve won. You have all of it.” So our struggle is no longer to push the border to—to maintain a ’67 border, where nobody is going to come to their help, because borderlines—international opinion doesn’t mobilize around those issues. But this is a struggle against what looks and smells like apartheid—we want citizenship, we want full rights in all of Palestine—and make that the struggle. If Palestinians were to undertake that kind of a struggle in a credible way, where the Israeli public would see that they really mean it and they are going to fight for that in a nonviolent way, not by sending rockets, for citizenship, I am convinced—and I’ve seen no polls that contradict that belief—that they would say to their government, “Wait a minute, that is unacceptable, in fact, for us, and we cannot allow that. We don’t want a majority Arab population here.” I’ve talked to Palestinian leadership and urged them to move in that direction. There is now a growing movement among younger Palestinians in that direction. And that, I hope, may yet happen. Now, it has to be a serious movement. It can’t just be a trick to get another state, but only if it is serious, where they are ready to accept citizenship and fight for it in a single state of all of Palestine, is it possible for the Israeli public to say, “This we cannot want, too, and we have to have a government that will accept the two states.”
AMY GOODMAN: Why would Prime Minister Netanyahu, who has said he supports a two-state solution, create a situation that makes it virtually impossible, since it leads to this second possibility, which is a one-state solution, to the possibility that he does not want, which would be a majority Arab country?
HENRY SIEGMAN: He obviously believes that a one-state—well, I said earlier in our conversation that he never meant—when he said in his Bar-Ilan speech that he embraces a two-state, that was totally contrived. It was dishonest. Or, in simple English, he lied. And I appreciated the fact that several weeks ago, two weeks ago, he had a press conference in which he said—he didn’t say, “I lied,” but he said, “There will never be a truly sovereign Palestinian state anywhere in Palestine.” So, it’s quite clear now, and one of his friends, the former editor of The Jerusalem Post, who now edits The Times of Israel, had this big headline: “Finally, Now We Know It.” We know he never meant it. He didn’t say this critically; he said this positively. “Finally, he’s back in the fold, and we know he will never allow a sovereign Palestinian state.” Now, what will he do with a majority Arab population? He will do what the head of HaBayit HaYehudi, Bennett, has been advocating and proposed.
AMY GOODMAN: That means Jewish Home party in Israel.
HENRY SIEGMAN: That means the Jewish Home, and the Jewish Home meaning everywhere. And what he has said is that we’ll solve this problem of a potential apartheid in Israel in the following way: We will allow certain enclaves where there are heavy population—heavily populated by Palestinians, in certain parts of the West Bank, and those enclaves will be surrounded by our military. In other words, a bunch of Gazas; there will be several Gazas. Gaza, of course, will be shed or will become one of those enclaves, so they’re not part of the population of Israel. All the rest of Israel—the Jordan Valley, Area C, all of Area C, which is over 60 percent of the West Bank—will be annexed unilaterally by Israel. So, we will have shed two million Palestinians from Gaza. We will have shed another million and a half that live in the cities and in the more populated urban areas, in those enclaves—in those, essentially, bantustans. And the rest, that there are—what did he say? There are 50,000 Palestinians who live in Area C. We will make them citizens, and voila, apartheid is solved. That is—I believed that for the longest time, but that is the plan of Bibi Netanyahu. He may have to settle for less than 60 percent of the West Bank, but essentially he thinks he can solve this problem, this demographic bomb, as it’s been described, in this manner.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: You’ve also expressed in an interview in 2012 with The Jewish Daily Forward a concern that if Israel continues on its present path, its path in 2012, which I think it’s safe to say it continues today, that Israel will not be able to exist even for another 50 years. Could you explain what you mean by that? Why couldn’t it exist in the form that you’ve just described, for instance?
HENRY SIEGMAN: In which form?
NERMEEN SHAIKH: What you were saying earlier about the way in which the—
HENRY SIEGMAN: You mean in Bennett’s form?
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well—
HENRY SIEGMAN: Well, it certainly would not be existing as a Jewish state, and neither as a democratic state or a Jewish state.
AMY GOODMAN: Because?
HENRY SIEGMAN: Because a country that creates—for the same reason that South Africa could not claim it is a democratic state, because it has a bunch of bantustans.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you see Israel as an apartheid state?
HENRY SIEGMAN: If they were to implement Bennett’s plan, absolutely. I don’t know if technically this is apartheid, but it certainly would not be a democratic state. It would lose its right to call itself a democracy.
AMY GOODMAN: Henry Siegman, I wanted to ask you about media coverage of the conflict right now in Gaza. In a comment to close the CBS show Face the Nation on Sunday, the host, Bob Schieffer, suggested Hamas forces Israel to kill Palestinian children.
BOB SCHIEFFER: In the Middle East, the Palestinian people find themselves in the grip of a terrorist group that is embarked on a strategy to get its own children killed in order to build sympathy for its cause—a strategy that might actually be working, at least in some quarters. Last week I found a quote of many years ago by Golda Meir, one of Israel’s early leaders, which might have been said yesterday: “We can forgive the Arabs for killing our children,” she said, “but we can never forgive them for forcing us to kill their children.”
AMY GOODMAN: That was the host, the journalist Bob Schieffer, on Face the Nation. You knew Prime Minister Golda Meir.
HENRY SIEGMAN: Yes, I did. I wasn’t a friend of hers, but I knew her, and I heard her when she made that statement. And I thought then, and think now, that it is an embarrassingly hypocritical statement. This statement was made by a woman who also said “Palestinians? There are no Palestinians! I am a Palestinian.” If you don’t want to kill Palestinians, if that’s what pains you so much, you don’t have to kill them. You can give them their rights, and you can end the occupation. And to put the blame for the occupation and for the killing of innocents that we are seeing in Gaza now on the Palestinians—why? Because they want a state of their own? They want what Jews wanted and achieved? I find that, to put it mildly, less than admirable. There is something deeply hypocritical about that original statement and about repeating it on the air over here as a great moral insight.
AMY GOODMAN: Henry Siegman, president of the U.S./Middle East Project, former head of the American Jewish Congress and the Synagogue Council of America, recently wrote a piece for Politico headlined “Israel Provoked This War.” Visit democracynow.org for part one of our conversation with Henry Siegman.
This is Democracy Now! When we come back, Iron Dome or Iron Sieve? How effective is the Iron Dome that Israel has touted? Stay with us.