Henry Siegman is a longtime participant in American Jewish issues. The 84 year old is the former executive director of the American Jewish Congress and former executive head of the Synagogue Council of America, two of the major, mainstream Jewish organizations in the United States. What distinguishes him from so many others is that he is also an ordained Orthodox rabbi.
Unlike many, Siegman in public interviews is unafraid to speak as one committed to Judaism. The other morning on Democracy Now he sat down with the intrepid Amy Goodman, one of the most extraordinary reporters in the United States. Her regular NPR show is an oasis in the desert of American radio.
Siegman started his remarks with a Talmudic saying, in the Ethics of the Fathers: 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?”
His answer: “No country and no people would live the way Gazans have been made to live … 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?’
Born in Frankfurt in 1930, the son of a father who was an important European Zionist leader, he barely escaped Hitler’s claws and arrived as a 12 year old at Ellis Island. Ordained a rabbi he served as a chaplain in the Korean War where he was awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart. He seemed the quintessential American Zionist but as a believing Jew he began to distance himself from the policies of the Israeli government.Unlike many of his co-religionists the Jewish state had not replaced Torah in his belief system.
Asked by Goodman about Gaza he replied, “It’s disastrous. … 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 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.”
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?”
Unlike many, Siegman sees through the massive propaganda and does not begin with “the rockets,” those pathetic weapons sadly launched by Hamas. He has a sense of history. He begins with the root cause of the conflict the 50 year state violence visited on Palestinians by israel.
As a rabbi, Siegman continuously invokes “Jewish values.”
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. ..That decent people in israel 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.
Siegman understands as few others in North America that Binyamin Netanyahu has publicly sworn to never allow the emergence of a Palestinian state.He told Goodman.” 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.
He finished his interview with the sad obsrvation of the terrible price Zionism has wreaked on Judaism.
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.