September 27, 2011
Meet David Siegel, L.A.’s new Israeli consul general
David Siegel, Israel’s new consul general for the southwestern United States, along with his wife, Myra, and their three kids, arrived in Los Angeles on a Monday in late August and hit the ground running.
By Wednesday morning, Siegel had on his schedule a long day of meetings, starting with a morning discussion at The Jewish Journal with its editors and staff.
The following week, he was off to meet public officials and Jewish leaders in Colorado, one of seven states in the consulate’s territory.
Meanwhile, Myra Clark-Siegel had enrolled the three children in a local Jewish day school, was learning to navigate the city by car, praying for the family’s personal belongings to arrive by ship from Israel and starting on a job of her own.
Although husband and wife come from widely disparate cultural backgrounds — he was born in Burlington, Vt., and she in El Paso, Texas — neither anticipates any problems communicating with Angelenos.
Since joining Israel’s foreign service nearly two decades ago, the 49-year-old David Siegel has been assigned to Eritrea, on the Horn of Africa; to Israel’s embassy in Washington, D.C., as, successively, chief of staff, congressional liaison and spokesman; and, during the last two years, as chief of staff for Israel’s deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon in Jerusalem.
In the last position, according to Siegel’s official biography, “He was involved in policy formulation and decision-making at senior levels of Israel’s foreign policy establishment.”
During parts of the Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama administrations, Siegel participated in sensitive discussions between the United States and Israel, including at the 1998 Wye River peace summit, 1999 Israel-Syria negotiations and the 2000 Camp David Middle East peace summit.
As the official voice of Israel facing the demanding Washington press corps, Siegel learned to be succinct and stay on message. He recently demonstrated these skills anew during two interviews — one at his office, the other at a Beverly Hills cafe — and good-naturedly sparred with a reporter trying to dig into his personal background and attitudes.
Like many Israeli officials and Diaspora supporters, Siegel expressed his frustration that, to newspaper readers and TV viewers abroad, Israel appears to be all about conflict, shootings, U.N. resolutions and little else.
More sophisticated observers may have an idea of Israel’s technological innovativeness, as documented most recently in the best-seller “Start-Up Nation” by Dan Senor and Saul Singer.
“I would like people to also learn about the ‘normal’ Israel, about our social entrepreneurs who work with Palestinians and Bedouins in numerous medical, public health and education projects,” Siegel said.
Other countries, including the United States, can learn from Israel’s experiences and achievements in its absorption programs for immigrants from 120 countries, offering language training for newcomers, as well as advanced health care and a progressive family policy.
As one concrete example, Siegel points to the Wolfson Medical Center, a pioneer in children’s heart surgery, at which half of the patients and much of the professional staff are Palestinians.
“Israel is not just about crises; it’s also about opportunity,” Siegel emphasized.
As a general rule, when career foreign service officers in Israel are due for new postings, they can compete for any two available assignments. Siegel pitched for Los Angeles as his first choice, and secondly for a senior position at the embassy in Washington.
Asked why, after being at the heart of crucial policy negotiations and decisions in his previous assignments, he would opt for Los Angeles — a pleasant enough spot but hardly a nerve center of global diplomacy — Siegel responded that for Israeli career foreign service officers, Los Angeles is considered one of the most important assignments, as a world communication center whose movie and TV studios impact world opinion.
“Besides,” he added, “Los Angeles is known for its warm and caring Jewish and Israeli communities, as well as its increasingly influential Latino population.”
In addition, there is the downtown political elite. Arriving late for a midafternoon interview, Siegel apologized that he had just come from a meeting with L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and — discovering the city’s most popular conversation topic — explained that coming from City Hall, “the traffic was terrible.”
Shortly after the Six-Day War in 1967, when Siegel was just 6 years old, his family made aliyah, immigrating to Israel. There, his father became a founder of the Masorti (Conservative) movement in Israel and spiritual leader of Moriah Congregation in Haifa.
David’s own religious upbringing has touched the mainstreams of Judaism. Raised in a Conservative home, on arriving in Israel he was enrolled at a Chabad school in an absorption center, then attended an Orthodox grade school and yeshiva, and later taught at a Reform school.
Siegel also has been known occasionally to double as cantor during services. In high school, he played in a rock ’n’ roll band, but declined to elaborate further on his musical career.
After serving as an officer in the Israel Defense Forces, Siegel returned to his birth state, earning a bachelor’s degree in political science at the University of Vermont and then a master’s degree in international relations from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.
Myra Clark met David Siegel in 1992 at a Rosh Hashanah gathering in Washington at the house of a mutual friend, and the first decision they had to make was whether she would attend services at his synagogue, or he at her shul (hers won out).
Her grandparents on both sides were from Russia and Poland and had found refuge in Cuba. Later, her parents and grandparents moved to El Paso, where Myra was born, and then on to Houston. “My first language was Spanish,” she said in an interview.
Myra and David were married in the fall of 1994, and the bridegroom came to Houston for the ceremony, while working simultaneously on a speech that Foreign Minister Shimon Peres was due to deliver at the United Nations. His bride was then working for AIPAC, and after winding up her assignments, joined her husband in Israel in 1995.
In his first post abroad, David Siegel was named deputy chief of mission at Israel’s embassy in Eritrea, and for him and his wife, the two-year stint was a lasting revelation on what a handful of Israelis could do to help a war-ravaged African nation.
Eritrea had recently won its independence from neighboring Ethiopia after a decades-long struggle, was impoverished, and has a variable climate that could top 120 degrees along the Red Sea coastal plain.
“As the No. 2 man in a small embassy, you did some of everything,” Siegel recalled.
“Everything” included involvement in the MASHAV program, Israel’s equivalent of the U.S. AID program, which introduced drip irrigation and other agricultural advances, setting up a marketing system for the country’s fruit exports and establishing the first medical emergency clinic.
At small Israeli missions abroad, it is common for wives of the diplomats to pitch in as secretaries, but Myra, a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, wanted something more.
She convinced the Israel ambassador to let her write her own ticket, which included active leadership in the agricultural and medical aid programs, running media outreach, and even writing and publishing a magazine titled Shalom Eretria.
An even more unusual contribution was a series of cooking classes she gave on local television. The idea was partly inspired by the Israeli introduction of cucumbers to the local agriculture, which produced a bountiful crop.
To the local housewives, the cucumbers were something of a mystery, and some decided to put them into pots for cooking.
Myra’s guiding motto is “Working, for me, is like breathing,” and during the past two years in Israel she has been the director of external relations for the American Jewish Committee’s Project Interchange.
The program, projectinterchange.org, brings international leaders in politics, business, media and academe to Israel for a week of intensive travel, learning and discussions with their professional Israeli counterparts. In Los Angeles, she is continuing her work as the project’s director of international communications.
Despite the Siegels’ workaholic schedules, Myra says that family and the couples' three young children come first.
The move to Los Angeles was a family decision, Myra said, but to ease the transition, the parents — like Barack and Michelle Obama before them — promised the kids a dog once the family is settled down.
“There are so many similarities between this country’s Far West and Israel,” Myra observed. “We want to explore how the communities can best work together, while transmitting the millions of ways everyone can connect to Israel.”