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 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
JFNA chairman Michael D. Siegal 370
(photo credit: 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 trip.
“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 leaders.
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.
“We 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? It is 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 different.
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.
What do 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 positive sign.
What have you achieved during your visit to Israel this week and your participation in the Jewish Agency Board of Governors meeting? I 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 Organization.
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 money.
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 Sinai.
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.
And I 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.
Is 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 Diaspora Jewry? 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 capacity.
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 fund-raising.
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 successful.
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 alignment together.
Tell me about the General Assembly meeting in Israel this year.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 that.
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.