JFNA head: Obama trip is ‘a very positive sign’
Michael D. Siegal urges Israel to present itself as "a people of joy and great strength."
JFNA chairman Michael D. Siegal. Photo: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post
US President Barack Obama’s decision to visit Israel next month “is a very
positive sign,” Michael D. Siegal, chairman of the Board of Trustees of
the Jewish Federations of North America, said Tuesday.
In an interview
with The Jerusalem Post on the sidelines of the Jewish Agency Board of Governors
meeting in Jerusalem, Siegal voiced optimism about Obama’s scheduled
“I think the fact that the president is coming with a new secretary
of state, and the Israeli government is going to potentially – from where I am
sitting today – be a more centrist government, there is an opportunity for
optimism,” he said. “The fact that he’s coming directly, so quickly [after
winning a second term], is a very positive sign.”
During their visit here
this week, Siegal and his delegation from the Jewish Federations of North
America (JFNA) have met with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and other Israeli
Siegal, who also chairs the board of the Jewish Federation of
Cleveland, is chairman and CEO of Olympic Steel, a successful publicly traded
company based in Ohio.
He has previously served on several other
nonprofit boards, including the American- Israel Public Affairs Committee, the
Joint Distribution Committee and Israel Bonds, where he was chairman of the
board of trustees from 2007 to 2011. He was elected chairman of JFNA’s
Board of Trustees last year.
In a wide-ranging interview, Siegal called
for concentrated fund-raising and a higher birthrate among American Jewry. He
also urged Israel to present itself as “a people of joy and great strength,” and
send more emissaries to the US to fight delegitimization campaigns.
need better help on college campuses to fight off a very strong pro-Arab
agenda,” he said.
Can Obama and Netanyahu turn over a new leaf?
always better for Israel when there is a strong president, and there have always
been disagreements between prime ministers of Israel and presidents of the
United States, because the interests of the countries may be
One has to take the president at his word, particularly as it
relates to Iran and that he will not allow a nuclear Iran to occur. Obviously,
the timing may be a little bit different on that issue.
I think he is
coming at an appropriate time. The relationship will always be strained, because
Israel sees this neighborhood a little bit more directly than the United States.
But I think the fact that the president is coming with a new secretary of state,
and the Israeli government is going to potentially – sitting here today – be a
more centrist government, there is an opportunity for optimism.
you think will be on Obama’s agenda?
There is no question that from the American
perspective, the Palestinian issue is important, while Iran is No.1 for
Israel. We would hope that there is no linkage between the two issues, because
they are independent. I think [Netanyahu] laid out a pretty good agenda
for his discussion with the president. The president has been a bit more
obtuse. So, while he is not as proficient in terms of the agenda, oftentimes the
media likes to presume what the agenda is and how the president will lay out his
priorities. The fact that he’s coming directly, so quickly, is a very
What have you achieved during your visit to Israel this
week and your participation in the Jewish Agency Board of Governors meeting?
think it’s important that the voices of North America are perceived well by the
Jewish Agency, with our partners in Keren Hayesod and the World Zionist
Within the totality of our voices, how does the Jewish
Agency portray that on the ground? By melding that all together with all the
various opinions that, shall we say, don’t always agree, but ultimately come
together for the collective good of the Jewish people.
From the Israeli
perspective, there are issues around aliya, which may not be as pervasive today
as it once was, but still can be. So how do we bring aliya back to the narrative
of North America, and should we? The North American Jewish community also has
issues surrounding Israeli civil society, and one of our key issues today is how
do we get that agenda more into the forefront of the Israeli dialogue? How do we
also support the immersion programs of Birthright and Masa? How do we
participate with the government to make sure that these programs, that have been
successful, continue to be at the forefront of everyone’s agenda?
What do you
see as your biggest challenge in your job?
We need to raise more
Is that a problem?
It’s an opportunity. I think that oftentimes
the American Jewish community will complain about Israeli hasbara [public
diplomacy]. We have our own issues with our own hasbara. So I think that while
we have one of the greatest stories of all time occurring right now, with the
recreation of the Jewish nation and an ingathering of Jews, there’s a lot of
competition for dollars in America, both from other institutions, like hospitals
and universities, as well as a multitude of Jewish organizations trying to do
individual fund-raising against the collective. We have 600 registered “friends
of...” something Jewish, looking for individual funding.
We, as the
collective voice of the Jewish people, have to make sure that our fund-raising
is a paramount issue for the collective good of all Jews, not just in Israel and
the United States, but in the whole world.
Do you think Israel should be
presented as a needy country, or as a success story?
Rabbi David Hartman, alav
hashalom [may he rest in peace] spoke early and often about the joy of being
Jewish and the strength that we bring to the narrative of the world. When we
look at the story of Passover and the Exodus, it doesn’t come without
Rather than sold as a people of need, we should be portrayed as a
people of joy and great strength, who bring light unto the world.
think people want to hear the good side of what Jews bring, as opposed to their
constant need. Not that there isn’t a constant need, and within the story of the
Jewish narrative we have an obligation to take care of the most vulnerable parts
of our community, but we want people to be joyful in their Judaism.
there strong support for Israel among American Jews?
Israel is still very strong
in terms of the psyche and data that we see. We have better leadership in
America today than we have ever had in the Jewish world. We have more people who
have gone to Jewish day schools. We have more people who have gone on Israeli
trips, thanks to Birthright and other programs.
So, while every
generation thinks the next generation is not as good as it was, as one who used
to be a young leader, as someone who has been in leadership positions in
American Jewry for a very long time, I would like to say that I’m very
optimistic about the upcoming leadership of American Jewry and their connection
and support for Israel.
What do you think is the main challenge facing
Surviving and prospering and growing as a people. I think when
you look at the low birthrate of the secular American Jewish community, you have
to be concerned about pure numbers.
With the growing Hispanic population
in the United States, the influence of the Jewish lobby for our issues can be
diminished if we don’t understand that numbers matter, and so we need a growing,
thriving and prosperous community – morally, spiritually and economically – in
America and in the rest of the world. My biggest concern is that a low Jewish
birthrate can lead to a lot less influence for the support of Israel in the rest
of the world. But this is me, Mike Siegal, speaking, not in any official
What are your goals for the future?
We have a narrative. We
have to be better at fundraising. At the end of the day, what we do is
that we basically raise money and allocate money according to the priority of
the community. We have seen some of our fund-raising not be as strong as
we would like it to be, so we have to put a very strong effort on
We have to always be concerned about leadership development
on the professional Jewish side, as well as the lay leadership side. We have to
identify, train and educate, as well as to access the proper places, to be
The third element is advocacy for our issues. We have a very
large Jewish issue in America today about taxation changes and funding for the
most vulnerable parts of our society. So we need advocacy on things that the
Jewish community would like, that would benefit all of America. We also have
advocacy issues here in Israel, like Israeli civil society.
We need our
Israel office to have credibility and strength and validity, in terms of the
issues that are important to North America.
So advocacy, fund-raising,
leadership development, and then ultimately things like the global planning
table, which deals with the issues around the world. As leaders of the North
American Jewish community, we need to be at the table of the discussions of
things that impact world Jewry.
What is your best advice to the Israeli
government to help you in this mission?
[Laughs] I think the Israeli government,
as [Netanyahu] as the head of the government has indicated, should be bringing
more shlichim [emissaries]. We need better help on college campuses to fight off
a very strong pro- Arab agenda, which we see in Europe.
We have to make
sure that the Israelis can speak for themselves. And we really need the Israelis
to understand that we need them on the ground in America. I think this
government, particularly, has been very sensitive to listening, and the Jewish
Agency, particularly in terms of their forward agenda, is trying to put more
boots on the ground in terms of Israelis who can explain, educate and advocate
for their positions, in North America. So we’re actually working very well in an
Tell me about the General Assembly meeting in Israel
We have a gathering of the Jewish organizations of North
America that’s called the General Assembly, where we discuss the biggest topics.
We come about once every five years to Israel, and we will be coming to Israel
this year. We’ll bring 2,500 people from North America for the GA at the end of
November. We plan to talk about the biggest issues. We’re certainly not avoiding
the confrontational issues about civil society and intermarriage and things like
So we will be here again in late November, and we would hope that
with The Jerusalem Post as a great friend, the coverage for the Israeli public
would be significant.