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Siegman Challenges Blind Support for Israel, Laments Loss of Values in Organized Jewish Life

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
July-August 2002

Henry Siegman, once a leader in the American Jewish Congress and now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, charges that American Jewish organizations have substituted blind support of Israel for the traditional Jewish search for truth and justice.  

In an interview with The New York Times (June 13, 2002), Siegman, a refugee from Nazi-occupied Europe, says that what he went through as a child makes it easier to understand what it is like to be a Palestinian living under the “fear and humiliation” of the Israeli occupation. His empathy for the plight of the Palestinians has, he says, made him a “pariah” among American Jewish groups.  

“We have lost much in American Jewish organizational life,” Siegman says. “I was a student and admirer of Rabbi Abraham Heschel. I read his books. We were friends. We marched together in the South during the civil rights movement. He helped me understand the prophetic passion for truth and justice as the keystone to Judaism. This is not, however, an understanding that now animates the American Jewish community. Without that understanding there is little to distinguish the call of Jewish leaders for Jewish unity and solidarity from the demands made by narrow nationalist movements that too often degenerate into xenophobia.”  

Siegman argues that, “American Jewish organizations confuse support for the State of Israel and its people with an uncritical endorsement of the actions of Israeli governments, even when these governments do things that in an American context these Jewish organizations would never tolerate. It was inconceivable that a Jewish leader in America 20 or 30 years ago would be silent if a political party in the Israeli government called for the transfer of Palestinians ― in other words, ethnic cleansing. Today, there are at least three such parties, but there has not been a word of criticism from American Jewish organizations.”  

After studying to be ordained as a rabbi, Siegman served with combat troops as a chaplain in Korea, where he earned the bronze star and a purple heart. For 16 years as head of the American Jewish Congress, he advanced the view that social justice was central to Judaism. Now, he laments, many Jews have made the State of Israel into a “surrogate religion.” He notes that, “The support of Israel fills a spiritual vacuum. If you do not support the government of Israel then your Jewishness, not your political judgment is in question.”  

Siegman calls the Palestinian struggle for a state “the mirror image of the Zionist movement” that led to the creation of Israel in 1948. “This does not excuse suicide bombings,” he said, “but the way Israel deals with these outrages is suspect as long as they are exploited to extend the occupation and enlarge Israeli settlements. Future Jewish historians who will be writing about our times will not be kind to us because of such political and moral blindness. In a recent demonstration in Washington in support of Israel, the demonstrators drowned out a spokesman for the administration, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, a hawkish supporter of Israel, because he dared to express sympathy for the suffering of the Palestinians. This is why I do not look to leaders of Jewish organizations, or to the political leaders of Israel, to define for me the meaning of Jewish identity or solidarity. Classical Jewish sources are a far more reliable guide.”  

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© 2010 The American Council For Judaism.