Brian Siegal lived in Jerusalem during the Second Intifada, a Palestinian uprising in the early 2000s that was met with overwhelming Israeli force. More than 3,000 Palestinians and 950 Israelis died in that conflict. Today, Siegal, who has served as the director of the American Jewish Committee’s Miami and Broward Office since 2007, says he hopes for a lasting peace as he watches the region’s latest conflict. His wife, Judith Siegal, is the Senior Rabbi at Temple Judea in Coral Gables. He spoke last week with the Miami Herald. Here are edited excerpts:
Violent conflict has broken out between Israelis and Palestinians. Are you surprised?
I can believe it and I can’t. You don’t want to believe it. Those of us who want there to be peace in that region do not want to see this type of conflict. But I think ultimately Israel has to protect itself.
You and your wife lived in Jerusalem in 2001-2002, during one of the worst times for Israelis and Palestinians in recent memory. That’s something as Americans that is almost completely outside of our experience.
It was a very difficult time in Israel. There were terrorist attacks in restaurants and buses. I think that experience helped us to understand the situation that Israelis find themselves in… [I remember] my wife was returning home from rabbinical seminary one night. I had just come home from work and she called me on her cell phone and I heard people in the background screaming and she had just passed the Café Moment where 11 people had been killed in a terrorist bombing. I remember just the dread of wondering about her safety and about the safety of the Israelis who I could hear dying in that attack.
How did the two sides return to war?
So I think in some ways the answer is tragically simple. While Israel has long sought to achieve peace with all her neighbors, to negotiate a two-state solution with the Palestinian Authority, Hamas has proven to be a major obstacle to Israeli-Palestinian peace and to bettering the lives of the Palestinian population in Gaza…. Since 2012, Hamas significantly increased the number and reach of its rockets and missiles and expanded the number and sophistication of the subterranean tunnels crossing the Gaza-Israel border that were built to kill or kidnap Israelis. Just imagine what could have been achieved for the Palestinians of Gaza if Hamas had not diverted precious resources to the tools of terror and violence and war.
But hasn’t Israel’s long-standing blockade of Gaza created the conditions for Hamas to thrive?
I think that’s not fair. Israel unilaterally disengaged from Gaza in 2005 leaving infrastructure in place. I think the scene was set for the people of the Gaza strip to seize the moment and build up a prosperous state. As long as terrorism would continue, Israel finds itself in a position of having to make sure that it can protect its citizens like any nation would do for its people.
By invading Gaza, even as Israel says it is trying to minimize the civilian casualties that are very clearly happening, is it not playing into Hamas’ hands?
I think we have to look at it and say: Israel is dealing with a situation that no other democratic country has had to face in recent years...Israel cannot be expected to tolerate repeated attacks on its citizens. Like any other nation, Israel has a right to defend itself. I think we have to ask ourselves as South Floridians what would you do if you and your family were threatened with rockets and missiles on a constant basis?
Critics of Israel say it has made Palestinians into second-class citizens or even created for them an apartheid state. What’s your response?
Israel is a democracy. I think as in any democracy there’s an attempt to have equality under the law and I think in some cases that’s achieved and in other cases it’s not. But I think the point remains that it’s a society that attempts to find that balance. I think that when you look in all facets of Israeli life you find Arab-Israelis involved. I think [Israel] is unique in the Middle East if you look at how other minorities are treated, and not only in the Middle East but even in Western countries.
What would your message be to the ordinary Palestinian who has left his or her home or lost a family member?
I would say that Israel and Israelis yearn for the day when they can live in peace side by side with their Palestinian neighbors. Israel’s current activities in Gaza are aimed at Hamas terrorists, weapons and infrastructure that are targeted at innocent Israelis. I think that in the end, we have to have Palestinian leadership that’s committed itself to peace and sitting down at the table and reaching a settlement.
What role do you think South Florida’s Palestinian and Jewish communities can play in the peace process?
Although deeply connected to the issues which tend to divide us, Jews and Muslims in the U.S. must find ways to come together in a spirit of dialogue and respect. We need to avoid the anti-Semitism that we’re seeing in some of the protests against Israel in Europe and in other places. We also need to avoid anti-Muslim sentiment as well. We need to find ways to acknowledge one another’s suffering. Jews and Muslims as faith communities have much in common and much to share with each other and others in South Florida. And we need to build on that and work on issues of concern to all of us, including confronting racism and xenophobia that both our communities still face at times. I think we can be a model of coexistence and mutual respect.