A Critical Jew: The Evolution of Rabbi Henry Siegman

NY Times, June 13, 2002

AS a young refugee, Henry Siegman found himself fleeing advancing German troops in Belgium early in World War II. He, his pregnant mother and younger brothers and sisters stumbled into one of the worst debacles of the war -- the frantic retreat of Allied troops at the Battle of Dunkirk. They huddled in a pitch-black cellar as the fighting raged overhead. In the morning, to the horror of the young boy, the door was kicked open by victorious German troops.

This scene, the subsequent months of hiding in Vichy France, the constant efforts to elude the roundups of Jews and the eventual flight to Casablanca and passage to America, come back to him now regularly. He 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 Israeli occupation.

Now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, Mr. Siegman says that it is this empathy for the plight of the Palestinians that has made him a pariah among American Jewish groups.

''We have lost much in American Jewish organizational life,'' he said. ''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 in xenophobia.''

No faith or denomination is immune from a swing to the right, he said, but American Jewish leaders face a special conundrum with the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians. And as the conflict intensifies, the voices of opposition to Israeli policy among American Jews have withered away.

''American Jewish organizations confuse support for the state of Israel and its people with an uncritical endorsement of the actions of Israeli governments,'' he said, ''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.''

In 1933, when the Nazis took power in Germany, Mr. Siegman's father, Mendel, fled with his family to Antwerp, Belgium, and eventually to the United States.

In New York, Mr. Siegman studied to be ordained a rabbi. He joined the United States Army and served with combat troops as a chaplain in Korea, where he earned a bronze star and a purple heart.

The Korean War, coupled with his own childhood experiences in Europe, inclined him to those in Jewish life who saw social justice as central to faith. He went on to become the head of the American Jewish Congress for 16 years, before joining the council.

But for many Jews, he says, there came to be new definitions of faith, ones that he says turned the ideology of the Jewish state into ''a surrogate religion.''

''The support for Israel fills a spiritual vacuum,'' he said in his corner office on Park Avenue. ''If you do not support the government of Israel then your Jewishness, not your political judgment, is in question.''

Mr. Siegman does not speak with the rage of indignation but with quiet disappointment. Most of his brothers and sisters are so angered with his stance that he cannot discuss the issue with them.

''There is only one brother who I am able to enter into a political discussion with,'' he said.

HE insists that along with the glaring moral failure of American Jewish leaders is a failure to understand that the kind of repression meted out to the Palestinians damages Israel's security. He says he believes that the Palestinians will eventually get a state, but one that will cost so much blood and create so much enmity that it will poison relations between Jews and Palestinians for generations. He calls the Palestinian struggle for a state ''the mirror image of the Zionist movement'' that led to the creation in 1948 of Israel.

''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,'' he said. ''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, many of whom are Jewishly illiterate, to define for me the meaning of Jewish identity or solidarity. Classical Jewish sources are a far more reliable guide.''