Behind Henry Siegman's Turn on Israel

Onetime Insider Now Takes Aim at Jewish Leadership

By Nathan Guttman

Published October 02, 2012, issue of October 05, 2012.
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At 82, Henry Siegman felt pessimism setting in as he thought of the future of Israel and its decades-long conflict with the Palestinians. “The two-state solution,” he recently wrote “is dead.”

Henry Siegman
youtube/charlie rose
Henry Siegman

For this son of German-Jewish refugees, who grew up to lead what was then one of American Jewry’s major organizations, it was the final stage of a process he had been going through for years, ever since leaving the Jewish communal mainstream to stand at the forefront of Israel’s critics.

“It’s hard for me to speak about it,” he said in an interview with the Forward, “but I fear that Israel cannot continue to exist even 50 years if it continues in the current path.”

“He is a depressed two-stater,” said M.J. Rosenberg, another leading voice on the left end of the Jewish community’s political spectrum. “People like him have seen a lot, have been around a lot, and he is very despaired with how things are turning out.”

In the very small realm of Jewish critics of Israel, Siegman, who led the American Jewish Congress during its heyday as one of American Jewry’s big three defense organizations, stands out for his unusual harshness as much as for his unusual background. Growing up in the heart of the Jewish organizational world, personally engaging with Israeli leaders and policymakers and wearing the prestigious badge of the Council on Foreign Relations have given Siegman an elder statesman’s aura in the world of those who point to Israel as its own biggest enemy.

Nevertheless, for activists within the pro-Israel camp, Siegman is no different from other detractors of the Jewish state. His Jewish communal credentials, they claim, are only a cover used to give credibility to views otherwise seen as beyond any consensus.

In his latest article published in the September issue of The National Interest, Siegman opined that the two-state solution is no longer feasible and that Israel’s settlement policy has ushered a one-state reality for Palestinians and Israelis.

Siegman said he reached this conclusion after determining that Benjamin Netanyahu’s government will not withdraw from the West Bank and that there is no viable political alternative in Israel. Another factor was Siegman’s disappointment with President Barack Obama’s refusal to pressure Israel into entering an agreement based on the land-for-peace principle. “When I listened to Obama’s speech at the United Nations last year, I realized there is no chance for constructive American intervention” he said, referring to the president’s speech denouncing the Palestinian drive for statehood via a proposed United Nations resolution that echoed many of the administration’s own policies. “That is the point at which I gave up.”

In his National Interest article, Siegman offers a dramatic solution, one that he believes could shift the debate and draw international attention: “Nothing would expose more convincingly the Israeli disguise of the one-state reality now in place than a Palestinian decision to shut down the Palestinian Authority and transform their national struggle for independence and statehood into a struggle for citizenship and equal rights within the Greater Israel to which they have been consigned.”

In a September 24 interview with the Forward, Siegman said he was suggesting a Palestinian public campaign for equal rights. To Siegman, it is clear that Israel is at fault for reaching the brink of a binational one-state. “If Israel believes that in this part of the world it can permanently deprive millions of Palestinians of their rights, that is absurd. Israel is signing its own death warrant,” he said, calling the policy of Netanyahu’s government “suicidal.”

Siegman’s journey to the far-left corner of the Middle East worldview began with his early childhood, hiding in a cellar in Belgium as his family evaded the advancing Nazi troops until finally leaving occupied Europe. He told The New York Times in a previous interview that it was this childhood experience that helped him understand Palestinian fear.

At the family’s new home in Baltimore, Siegman grew up surrounded by leaders of the Orthodox Zionist movement and amid ample Zionist ideology. “I also bought into the slogan that Palestine is a land without people for a people without a land,” he said. Siegman was an ordained Orthodox rabbi at Yeshiva Torah Vodaas, a right-wing but still Modern Orthodox school at the time, and served as a chaplain in the Korean War.

In 1978, Siegman was appointed executive director of the now-defunct AJCongress, a position he held until 1994. The Congress, as it was known at that time, was among the top Jewish organizations. It focused on human and civil rights and on ensuring separation of church and state. The group was known for being left-of-center while always maintaining strong support for the State of Israel. But Siegman grew increasingly uncomfortable within the confines of the organized Jewish world, which he saw shifting toward a single focus on Israel and unquestioning support of any Israeli policy. In 1988, Siegman was behind a joint effort of the AJCongress, alongside the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League and B’nai B’rith, to break away from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel Washington lobby, because of AIPAC’s hard line on issues relating to Israel and the Arab world.

Abraham Foxman, national director of the ADL, was part of the effort then, which ended with a promise made by AIPAC to consult more with the groups on policy issues. At the time, Foxman said, Siegman was known as holding left-of-center views that fit with the AJCongress’s liberal approach. “When he left the organization, it became clearer he was no longer a critic of Israel, that his criticism borders being anti-Israel,” Foxman said.

In an unusual move at the time, Siegman transitioned from the AJCongress to the think tank world, joining the Council on Foreign Relations as a Middle East expert. As complaints from Jewish members at CFR mounted, Siegman’s program, the U.S./Middle East Project, gained independence from the council. A leading scholar and a visiting professor at the University of London, Siegman chose to live outside the consensus and was becoming increasingly critical of Israel, which he called a “de-facto apartheid” state.

His relations with the mainstream Jewish community remained tense at best. Several Jewish leaders contacted by the Forward refused to talk about Siegman. Foxman said he felt obliged to speak publicly because Siegman and his supporters use his credentials from the Jewish world to justify his attacks on Israel. “They always flaunt the Jewish voice, and if they can flaunt a Zionist organization’s Jewish voice, that’s even better,” he said.

“This is childish and propagandist,” Siegman replied.

He is proud of his grandson currently serving in the Israel Defense Forces in Israel, and is quick to mention four other grandchildren living in Israel with their families, as well as his own children, who all went to yeshiva in Israel.

“I’m not alienated from Israel, I’m alienated from the people who are now running it into the ground,” he said.

Siegman claims that the discourse within the Jewish community, at least in parts that aren’t influenced by the major organizations, is broadening. He gives the dovish lobby J Street and author Peter Beinart some of the credit for making the discussion easier. But Siegman’s conclusion is not hopeful. “I find greater openness to an honest discussion,” he said, “and I also find that my pessimism is now more widely shared.”

Contact Nathan Guttman at guttman@forward.com


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