An interview with David Siegel, Consul General of Israel in Los Angeles

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By Alisa Roberts and Shalom Rubashkin.

Q: Tell us about your background.

I was born in the States. My family made aliyah to Israel when I was six. I started right into first grade.

Q: Were your parents Israeli?

American.

Q: So you had to learn Hebrew in first grade.

I had to learn Hebrew and I actually remember the process of learning Hebrew. I have very clear memories of my first year in Israel, of school and the language. But what I remember most was being a kid in the sand dunes. We were in the Bat Yam area, which is outside of Tel Aviv surrounded by sand dunes and the ocean. As a child I felt like Israel was an enormous country. You couldn’t see the horizon. It was a very good experience growing up there.

I came back and forth to the United States often, because our extended family was in America, so I was fortunate enough to keep my English. I became completely bilingual, and I think that prepared me to be a bridge between communities. In Israel I was very exposed to many communities, both secular and religious, Anglo and Sabra, Sephardi and Ashkenazi. For me, being a representative of Israel is a big privilege, because it’s part of my background. Klal Yisrael is a very important value personally, and important in representing Israel here.

Q: What was your position in the military?

I was a commander in the infantry. I mainly worked with soldiers who came from difficult backgrounds, broken homes. This was a special unit where they became integrated in the military. These were difficult years; it was during the Lebanon War in the early 80s.

Q: Do you feel the military had a positive effect on those soldiers’ personal lives, coming from troubled backgrounds?

No doubt. Look, Israel is so diverse. But we still grow up in pockets that are isolated from one another. I think the army, in many ways, teaches you that there are other people, there are other backgrounds. For me it was eye-opening. It’s something that I still carry with me until this day.

Q: So how did you get into government?

I came back to the States after the military, and I went to college and graduate school here. In my college years – because of what was happening in Israel, the Lebanon war and the first intifada – I was very involved on campus. It was almost inescapable. I was identified as a representative of Israel even before I was one. For me, it was very natural to emerge from that as a student leader on campus, involved in Jewish organizations. Then I reached out to the Israeli consulate in Boston, where I was going to school, and said, ‘Look, I’m lecturing, I’m teaching Hebrew, I’m teaching Judaism at the Jewish day schools. Please accept me as an intern.’ So I spent a summer interning and loved it. I went back to graduate school, and I started applying to the Israeli Foreign Service through the network that I had developed. And I joined the Foreign Service.

Q: How is the atmosphere on campus now compared to when you were in school?

The 1980s were pretty rough on campuses. Anyone who was at Columbia University in New York in the late 80s remembers faux blood on locker doors and extremely intense periods of protest. I think what has changed now is what we call the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) movement that has become much more sophisticated and networked. And of course, they’re online – ironically using Israeli technology, by the way – so they can connect to each other virtually in much more effective ways than they used to in the brick and mortar days.

The good news today is that there are more pro-Israel organizations involved on campus. There are all sorts of programs that are very involved in engaging Jewish kids, but also engaging in pro-Israel programming on campus. So we have also become more sophisticated. The BDS movement is around 10 years old; there are 4,000 campuses in America and they’ve had zero success in actual divestment. They’ve had some success with resolutions, but what is a resolution? It usually means they get their activists into student government and they’re able to pass a resolution without anyone noticing. But do they really do things on campus that have a lasting impact? Do they have long-term relationships with America’s campuses? I think Israel is much, much more adept at that. We have dozens, if not hundreds, of real agreements between Israeli campuses and American campuses. The Technion is now connecting with Cornell on Roosevelt Island in New York. They’re setting up a super campus to be New York’s high tech learning institution.

And let’s look locally. In recent years we’ve been able to work with Irvine, which was a poster child for anti-Israel activity, and the atmosphere has changed completely. There are still radical students at Irvine, but Jewish enrollment is higher, we have Israeli faculty there now, and we have 10 agreements with Israeli universities. We had a conference on Israeli innovation at Irvine with Tel Aviv University, and I saw Muslim students not protesting but actually standing there and listening quietly and learning. The approach is to be proactive, to fight back when you need to, and not to hesitate but to help Jewish students feel more comfortable.

Q: Do you feel you have been successful in winning over the average student to the justice of the Israeli cause?

Yes, and I think it’s always going to be a battle. But we can position Israel even better. We can talk about what’s relevant to Americans – Jews and non-Jews. We have a major outreach to the Latino community and to Christian groups.

Q: Can you tell us about that?

Sure. We share a lot with the Latino community. They’re very family oriented, they’re education oriented, they’re faith oriented. They see how Israel deals with its own diasporas and that resonates with them. How we’ve brought in immigrants, with our system of ulpans and language training, is very important to them. I think they’re very moved by Judaism. Some of them come from Jewish backgrounds, but for those who don’t, just experiencing faith in Israel is very powerful. I think we need to do more to expose that. We’re not just about high tech. Jewish values are very much a part of what we’re about.

We had several parties over Chanukah. We had Chabad in, we had extended families, we had bereaved families of fallen soldiers and victims of terror from the Israeli community that we engage and do happy events with. And we hosted one for the foreign consulates. It was very interesting. We lit the candles; we discussed what the menorah means, what Chanukah means, our history. And when it was over, one of the Consuls General from Europe came over to me and said he’d never heard a diplomat speak religiously before. In his country, if they want to celebrate one of their holidays, they can only do it in the home and outside of the public eye. They have complete separation of church and state. That was shocking for us because we represent the Jewish State in a Jewish way. When I speak, which is almost every day of the week, I use parshat hashavua as a platform. It resonates not just with Jews, but with every community.

Q: Changing the subject, it seems like Hollywood roots for the underdog. Do you feel that over the years the Hollywood portrayal of Israel has become worse as Israel has grown stronger?

When I first came here, I also had this impression that maybe Hollywood is anti-this or anti-that. But I actually meet a lot of people in the industry who are very favorable towards Israel. Israel has become a powerhouse when it comes to TV platforms, content, and high tech media that Hollywood needs. And now all that has to be protected. The next wave of the high tech world is going to be protecting the high tech world. And Israel also is the world center of cybersecurity solutions. Already now in Beer Sheva, it’s almost like a prophecy is coming true: the desert is being redeemed; all of IBM’s cybersecurity operations are now centered in Ben Gurion University in the Negev. So Hollywood is very interested in Israel.

Another thing that Hollywood might be interested in is Israel’s humanitarian work. Whether in the Philippines or in Haiti, Israel is helping people rebuild after tragedies. During the recent typhoon in the Philippines, Israel was one of the first on the ground – together with the IDF and IsraAID, we opened a field hospital where thousands of operations were performed and dozens of babies were born. These are amazingly heroic, humanitarian stories that must be told.

We also need to engage people in a very practical way so they understand that Israel isn’t this militaristic, garrison state that they see because the media tells them that’s the case. We want to bring celebrities to Israel. We would like to bring celebrities, major opinion shapers from right here in LA, to Israel.

Q: Are there any celebrities who are vocal supporters of Israel?

Well, there are well-known actors like Jon Voight and others, but I think most actors, musicians, and celebrities who go to Israel and are shown the country in a fair way come back as advocates. Madonna, Alicia Keys, Barbra Streisand…they come back with more understanding of how complex things are, and I think that’s a good thing.

Q: Are there specific ways to present the story in a less one-sided way and de-emphasize the victimhood of the Arab side?

We need to be proactive. We really need to convey Israel in the most resonant way that we can, and convey the justice of our cause. Israel wasn’t set up because someone felt like it. Israel was reestablished out of dire necessity after one third of our people was destroyed in Europe. Obviously, we were developing the State even before that, and Jews were present in the land of Israel for millennia. But the need was very clear in 1948 and it’s still very clear to us today. There is absolute justice to our cause, and we need to make sure that we convey it to the right people in the right way.

Q: As someone who has participated in many previous peace summits including the 1998 Wye River Peace Summit, the 1999 Israel-Syria negotiations, the 2000 Camp David Middle East Peace Summit, and the 2007 Annapolis Conference, what is your take on the current negotiations? An American ambassador – now the Secretary of State – is in Israel, and it almost seems like he’s forcing two sides into a room to make apparent to everyone that this can’t work. What do you see as the purpose of these talks?

The history of peace talks is mixed. There have been some instances where it has worked. We have a peace treaty with Egypt, and despite all the dramatic changes in Egypt that treaty holds. We may not be happy with the extent of it, but it’s a critical anchor for Israel strategically. In a very stormy region we have a successful peace treaty with Jordan. We have previous agreements with the Palestinians that had mixed results, and right now we’re trying to sit down again and see where we can go. We need to be realistic and vigilant. We’re also looking at the legacy of Ariel Sharon ((ז״ל, who unfortunately recently passed away. When we left the Gaza Strip, others entered. Hamas, an Iranian proxy, entered Gaza and used that as a launching ground to fire thousands of rockets into Israel. We need to learn from that experience that in the Middle East you don’t vacate areas without being absolutely sure about what the day after will look like. This is partially why we insist that Israel must be recognized as the nation state of the Jewish people. Not because anyone needs to do us any favors; we know who we are. But the Palestinian leadership and the Arab world need to recognize that Israel is the national home of the Jewish people, because if they recognize the right of the Jewish state to exist it means that the conflict can’t continue endlessly

We have very specific requirements when it comes to security and incitement. You can’t incite against Jews and teach a whole new generation to hate, and at the same time have the world expect that there will be peace. How can there be peace when a five-year-old child is taught that Israel is evil and shouldn’t exist, that Jews should be pursued and harmed? We don’t want to see that. So it’s difficult. But it doesn’t mean that we don’t need to try to pursue a peaceful arrangement. Israel needs it for its future. But the challenge of it is not to be taken lightly.

Q: But can’t forcing things, rather than allowing the process to happen step by step, create potential disaster? If one or both sides is not yet ready to come to the table things can explode.

I agree. We certainly won’t allow a process that forces us to give up vital interests. And again, as I said, we have very serious requirements. Now, the Palestinians don’t appear to be ready for basic concessions. They must recognize Israel as a Jewish state and the Jewish people as a people with rights of self-determination. They must commit to an end to the conflict. These recognitions must be reciprocal. The Palestinian leadership will be required to make very difficult decisions, as Israel will be required to take difficult positions; if it’s asymmetrical, it won’t work.

Q: What’s Israel’s position in regard to the new preliminary agreement with Iran?

Let’s talk about Iran for a minute. Iran is a very dangerous country. It has been pursuing nuclear weapons for the last 20 years. And over the years we’ve been very active advocates of a peaceful resolution through diplomatic and economic pressure, to try to get the Iranian leadership to understand that the world won’t allow them to become a nuclear weapons power. Now we’re talking about an interim agreement. This agreement is incomplete. It doesn’t stop the Iranian nuclear program. It allows them to continue R&D on sophisticated centrifuges, which brings Iran closer and closer to what we call breakout capacity. There are those who claim that it puts a cap on some of their programs, but in the final analysis we don’t see that this will stop Iran. Iran will be allowed to continue to develop its missile program, as well its weaponization program that is not treated by this agreement at all. Iran will even be allowed to continue to develop the machinery used in the enrichment program. So six months from now, they’ll be much closer to breakout capacity than they are right now.

The flip side is that the sanctions regime, which had developed to the point where it became a real pressure on the Iranian economy, is now eroding. Until recently, two thirds of their oil exports were off the table. Their currency was crashing, their economy was in a nose dive; they had an interest in coming to the table to end those sanctions. What they have now is an agreement that allows them to continue their nuclear program, and at the same time begins eroding the sanctions. Countries are now negotiating big contracts with Iran. Their currency is skyrocketing, their stock market is back to being bullish, their economy is picking up. We don’t want to see a situation where on the one hand they can continue their nuclear program and on the other hand all the pressures are removed. So we see this as a very dangerous moment. We will continue working with the United States, our greatest ally, on trying to solve this problem.

We must keep in mind how dangerous Iran is. They are involved in the butchery of the Syrian population. They’ve transferred tens of thousands of rockets to their allies, both Hezbollah and Hamas. Their allies and agents, from Hezbollah to actual Republican Guards, have been involved in terror attempts or attacks in 25 cities on five continents in the last three years. They have targeted Israeli diplomats, Israeli tourists, and American targets. They tried to blow up an Israeli diplomatic vehicle in India, and attempted the same thing in Thailand. They killed five Israeli tourists in Bulgaria – in the heart of Europe. They tried the same thing in Cypress and were caught. The European Union is now officially designating Hezbollah a terrorist organization for the first time as a result of these attacks inside Europe. Iran is very active with sleeper cells in Latin America and Central America. They’re here in this hemisphere. They even tried to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington D.C. and blow up the Israeli embassy. Those attempts – to assassinate an ambassador in a high-end restaurant in downtown Washington D.C. and to blow up an embassy – were foiled at the last moment. They undermine countries in the region. They call for Israel’s destruction. They still deny the Holocaust. This is not a country that should be allowed to have nuclear weapons. We don’t just see them as the most dangerous threat to Israel, but also to the stability of the Middle East, and to the world.

Q: Is there a red line?

Prime Minister Netanyahu’s famous red line speech had to do with the enrichment, but since then their program has developed rapidly. Ten years ago, when I worked at the embassy in Washington, we were concerned about 164 centrifuges. They now have 19,000 centrifuges. They haven’t operationalized all 19,000; they’re at about 11,000 operating centrifuges right now. Which means they have enough for five or six nuclear bombs at lower rates of enrichment. They are also developing next generation centrifuges able to enrich uranium five times faster. Because they have so much now, and they’re building more and more sophisticated machinery, they can go from zero to military grade in 24 days.

Q: So if they decided today, they could have a weapon in 24 days?

Not a weapon, but enough fuel for a weapon. For a weapon you still need the military program, the weaponization program that they’re working on in secret. But you can have a dirty bomb. You can put a bomb in a container. You could do all sorts of things. So they are very close. The question for us is not where the red line is in terms of where they are – the question is when will it be too late to stop them? Enrichment is what the world can watch. The IAEA, which is the agency that is monitoring them in a robust way, can tell us how many centrifuges they have and where they are. But once they’re finished with that – and they’re very close – they could take that fuel, put it in a warhead, and go underground somewhere in Iran, a country that is half the size of Europe. We just won’t know. This is why we’re so focused on the enrichment component.

Q: It sounds like we’re on the red line.

We’re very close, which is why we’re concerned. We’ve been concerned for a while. And we still believe that the way to resolve this Iranian nuclear weapons challenge is by increasing economic, diplomatic, and political pressure on Iran. And, if need be, by a credible military threat; one that they actually believe. Right now, as a result of this Geneva process, a lot more needs to be done to make sure they understand.

Q: Is there a reason why the Arab Spring movement not been successful in Iran?

There was a Persian Spring before there was an Arab Spring, nearly three years ago. The advocates of change in Iran were brutally suppressed. They continue to be brutally suppressed. The Iranian regime is very sophisticated in suppressing dissent. What we’re seeing right now – and this is very interesting, with all the talk about Rouhani being much friendlier – is that they are actually executing more Iranians right now under the new regime than they did under the old regime. There have been nearly 400 executions, including minors, since Rouhani came into office. Iran, per capita, executes more political prisoners than any other country on earth; they are second in total executions in the world. So not only are they the number one promoters of terrorism in the world, but what they’re doing at home to their own people should be an issue of human rights for every advocate of human rights anywhere. If they are allowed to go nuclear they will be unstoppable. That’s part of what they want to achieve.

Q: Are the Iranian people, as a people, more or less willing to work with Israel?

There have been surveys done from outside Iran measuring the extent of the democratic sentiment among the people, with very surprising results. The gap between the dictatorial regime and the people of Iran is one of the largest on earth. The people of Iran do aspire to a much freer future, especially women. So there is a future for Iran. The problem is that this is a regime that suppresses any grassroots effort to bring about peaceful change in Iran. Part of the idea in bringing pressure to bear on this regime is also to help domestic forces bring change. But the nuclear program is operating on a much quicker clock than that of the internal change, so we can’t rely on that. You can’t rely on hope when it comes to this.

As a result of the economic pressure there has been pressure in Iran to moderate their image in the world. This is where Rouhani comes from, as well as their new approach vis-à-vis the United States and the rest of the world. It comes from those domestic pressures. Which is exactly why we think those pressures should be increased to clinch a deal, not decreased before negotiating a deal.

Q: So with all this going on around the world, one may wonder why the Charedi draft is suddenly a burning issue.

This is a very important question, and I have to tell you that I am very concerned about the feelings in the community, about the press reports, and about the political rhetoric. We need unity of the Jewish people and we need unity in Israel.

The history of the Charedi community in Israel is important. It’s important to know why there were exemptions from the military, and what hachzarat atarah leyoshnah means – bringing the community and the ancient splendor back to where it needed to be. Let’s talk about the good news first. Today there are more seminaries, more yeshiva students in Israel studying Torah than at any other time – maybe in recorded history, and certainly since the destruction of the Temple. So we need to recognize that the community has been an enormous success. From being a tiny remnant in 1948, there are now over 850,000 members of the Charedi community in Israel. It is now approaching 12% of the population.

Who will serve in the military in a couple of decades? It’s a question we need to ask ourselves. Charedim are 11-12% of the population now, but the incoming 1st grade class is 33% Charedi. So you can see very clearly the future of Israel. How will Israel defend itself? We already know that there are successful programs in the military that are helping Charedim serve while also maintaining their full identity. I was recently at a fundraiser put on by the Orthodox community for Nachal Charedi. They brought a representative for Nachal Charedi, a Charedi Jew from Brooklyn who made aliyah to Israel as a lone soldier who is now an officer in the IDF. He’s very proud of the way his unit is conducting itself religiously, and integrating challenges. Nachal Charedi has just under 1000 draftees a year; there are 6000 alumni already, who are still proudly Charedi. They also now have easier entrance into the work market in Israel.

Of the 850,000 Charedim, 60% are under the poverty level. We know that this is not sustainable for them or for the State of Israel. Now the question is, what do you do about it? I think the wrong way is to politically raise flags against each other. The right way is to quietly collaborate, working together to find solutions that work for the Charedi community and for the future of the State of Israel. There are Charedim in the air force, in a program called Shachar, which enables them to come in under terms that they’re comfortable with. They receive vocational training which gives them opportunities to work after the military. We hosted Adina Bar Shalom here a few weeks ago, an amazing woman, the daughter of the late Rav Ovadia Yosef (ז״ל). She runs the vocational Charedi College for thousands of Charedi men and women who come to her institute to gain proficiency professionally. It’s all done under the supervision and support of Charedi leaders. That is a tremendous model. There’s no reason why the community in Israel should be different from the community here. In the US, people who want to be seminary students are seminary students, those who want to work are able to work, and there are structures in the community that allow that to happen. We need to see the same thing in Israel.

Another problem is that you have about 2000 Charedi kids each year who are not studying in yeshiva, who are not in any organized framework. They are in the street, in the margins of society, and unfortunately some of them are engaged in crime. They can’t work, under the current law. They’re stuck in limbo, and that has to be resolved. You could envision a solution where young men who are not in yeshiva should be somewhere where there is a Charedi structure, let’s say in the IDF, that enables them to gain proficiency, gain employment, and be in a military unit, while strengthening their Jewish tradition through rabbinical presence and the community around them. There are already thousands of Charedim in the military, as we’ve said. It doesn’t take that much more to have over 10% of the fighting units in the IDF be Charedi, reflecting their numbers in the overall population. What exactly the law will say, it’s premature to say. But these young men will not be made to do things that are not right for them, and there will be enough programs for everyone to find the right fit.

Very few people understand the draft law that is being developed now. I would argue that it enables enough room for people who want to be in yeshiva to stay in yeshiva. I’m very optimistic. We know that Charedi employment is increasing, particularly among women. Charedi women’s employment is, if I’m not mistaken, in the high 60 percentile; it’s gone up phenomenally. Employment among Charedi men is still much lower but those numbers are slowly climbing. This is a work in progress. The message that I want the community to know is that there are enough good people quietly trying to make this work, which I believe is critical to Israel and critical to the Charedi community. It is unsustainable to remain at 60% poverty rates. The next generation will be much worse.

This is a complex issue. This is important to this Consulate, it’s important to my team, and it’s important to me personally. We’re here to engage, to hear concerns, but also to share perceptions about what’s happening in Israel. Because sometimes those perceptions are driven by inaccurate headlines. There is a narrative of persecution that is being developed. It comes from the backdrop of politics in Israel, but it’s not constructive. There are good people who are trying to bring change both in the Charedi community and in the larger Israeli community. This will be Israel’s number one domestic challenge for the near future.

Q: Would it have to be military service, or could it or be public service?

Charedim in their early twenties will make a decision about whether they’re going to be in yeshiva, the army, or public service. Sar Shalom Jerbi, the head of the civil service, was here a few weeks ago. He’s an Orthodox leader from Israel, and he’s deeply dedicated to the future of the Jewish people. He’s working with the Charedi leadership in Israel to develop these specific programs: part time, quarter time, full time, yeshiva, half yeshiva, full yeshiva, partial yeshiva, job training opportunities, public service. Public service can be inside the community. The Orthodox community needs more hands in hospitals, in special education, and in schools.

I know that there’s pain, I know that there’s concern about cutting back on some of the welfare payments to large families. I know that there are a lot of complaints and concerns. We’re here to convey that to Jerusalem and to be aware of those feelings. But also to bring back some of these stories about what is changing in a positive way. It’s a complicated reality.

Q: You mentioned welfare cutbacks. Isn’t that a drastic way to force a solution?

There have been changes in Israel regarding welfare payments across the board. This is not an instrument of policy to encourage the Charedim to do more. It really is about cutting back payments to all sectors of Israeli society for budgetary reasons. Which brings us back to an earlier point: there’s only so much the Israeli economic engine can do. When you have 20% of Israel that are Arab-Israelis, who are not all fully participating in the economy, and you have over 10% – very soon to be 33% or more – of the community that are not fully participating in the economy, you get to the point where you have to start cutting back. This is a byproduct of the fact that the Israeli economy can only do so much. And if we look down the road – it’s going to be worse. Those families who are receiving checks every month, they need something else too. We need to help the parents get jobs. We have to help the kids be better educated. That’s an issue too: how do you introduce secular programs in religious schools? Well, the fact is it’s done in America. Yeshivas here teach science, math, and English. We should have the same thing in Israel, done in sensitive, collaborative ways that work with the community, rather than being imposed upon them. There are many challenges here. It’s part of a changing Israel, but hopefully the end result will be a change for the good.

Q: Tell us about the function of the West Coast Consulate.

We cover seven states: Southern California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Hawaii and Wyoming. In all seven states you have Jewish communities, Christian communities, Latino communities, African American communities, academic communities, business communities, political communities, and cultural communities. We are tasked with reaching out to all of them. We bring Israel to them, just as we’re doing here by talking about our community. We even have a program with the Native American population. They need agriculture, resources, and infrastructure, and Israel is providing that to them. The opportunities for collaboration are endless.

Q: How can the community become involved?

The community can understand that Israel isn’t just what you read in the headlines. Israel is a great place. It’s highly diverse and open to everyone. It’s the best it’s ever been. What we’re asking the community to do is to become more mindful of what the opportunities are. Visit Israel. Visit your family and understand what the issues are and help fix those issues, even from here.

Since the Holocaust, we’ve been engaged in reestablishing ourselves as a community and as a people. Now that we’re there, we need to start looking outward. How do we advocate for the Jewish people? How we do make sure that Jews are safe in Israel and around the world? How do we bring the story of the Jewish People, of Israel, to America? It’s not enough to be a pro-Israel Jew today. We need more pro-Israel forces in America beyond the Jewish community. And we can all do that together.

Q: Can you give us a practical example?

Last year I spoke at Young Israel of Century City. One of the things I conveyed was that we need to help Latino pastors come to Israel. They did a fundraiser, and they are funding Latino pastors as part of Christians United for Israel. It’s a great story. Every Jewish community should be doing something. Together we can show the light of Judaism.