“A Slaughter of Innocents”: Henry Siegman, a Venerable Jewish Voice for Peace, on Gaza
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.
Today, a special 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, 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.
Over the years, 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 “the mirror image of the Zionist movement” that led to the founding of Israel in 1948. In July, wrote an op-ed for Politico headlined, “Israel Provoked This War.” Democracy Now! hosts Amy Goodman and Nermeen Shaikh sat down with him on July 29 — in the midst of Israel’s offensive in Gaza.
AMY GOODMAN: Today, a special 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.
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. In July, he wrote a piece for Politico headlined “Israel Provoked This War.”
Democracy Now!’s Nermeen Shaikh and I sat down with him on July 29th in the midst of Israel’s offensive in Gaza. 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.
AMY GOODMAN: 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.
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?
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—
AMY GOODMAN: The Israeli historian.
HENRY SIEGMAN: Sorry?
AMY GOODMAN: 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.
AMY GOODMAN: Shavit.
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?
HENRY SIEGMAN: Meaning?
AMY GOODMAN: 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?”
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?
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.
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.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh, as we continue our conversation with Henry Siegman, president of the U.S./Middle East Project, former head of the American Jewish Congress.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: 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.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: 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.
AMY GOODMAN: 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.
AMY GOODMAN: 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.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: 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.
AMY GOODMAN: 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.
AMY GOODMAN: 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.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: 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.
AMY GOODMAN: 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.
AMY GOODMAN: Henry Siegman, former head of the American Jewish Congress. We’ll continue our conversation with him in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue our conversation with Henry Siegman, president of the U.S./Middle East Project, former head of the American Jewish Congress. Democracy Now!’s Nermeen Shaikh and I sat down with him on July 29th. I asked Henry Siegman 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: 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: It’s Up to President Obama to Stop It.” You can go to our website at democracynow.org if you’d like to get a copy of the full DVD interview with Henry Siegman.