October 3, 2012
David Siegel — A year in L.A.
In the early-morning hours of Sept. 12, this reporter was awakened by a phone call from a Jerusalem newspaper asking for details about a man named Sam Bacile.
According to seemingly credible global news reports at the time, Bacile was an “Israeli Jew” living in Los Angeles whose virulently anti-Muslim film, “financed by 100 Jewish donors,” had sparked fatal riots in Libya and Egypt, and uprisings were rapidly spreading across the Arab world.
I immediately phoned the mobile number of David Siegel, Israel’s consul general for the southwestern United States.
Siegel was on an official visit in Arizona but already on top of the situation. He and his staff had checked with government offices in Jerusalem and contacts in Hollywood and the local Israeli community. The upshot was that not a single person knew of a Sam Bacile, and Siegel expressed doubts that a man by that name actually existed.
His conclusion, backed by separate investigations by other Journal reporters, was the first step in unraveling a purposefully misleading story that could have had grave repercussions for Israel and Jewish communities worldwide.
Not every day has been quite as exciting since Siegel took up his present post a year ago, but each day has brought its own quieter concerns and challenges.
During a recent wide-ranging interview in his West Los Angeles office, Siegel — an Israeli diplomat born in Burlington, Vt. — discussed some of the challenges Israel faces internationally and in his jurisdiction locally.
Siegel leaves no doubt that his overriding concern as Israel’s top regional representative is to impress upon all to whom he speaks that the Iranian nuclear threat targets not only his country but also the entire Middle East and, indeed, the world.
Putting it starkly, Siegel said that Tehran’s almost daily pronouncements on annihilating the “Zionist entity” are worse than even the threats uttered by a Hitler.
Neither sanctions nor diplomacy have dissuaded Iran from trying to develop a nuclear bomb, nor from exporting terrorism internationally, Siegel said, and the clock is running out on when Iran will have the capability to make good on its most dire threats, or unleash a “geopolitical hurricane” in the Middle East.
Siegel acknowledged a “robust debate” within Israel as to if and when its air force should strike first, but he insisted that “all options are on the table.”
Turning to Israel’s immediate neighbors, Siegel noted that the Arab Spring uprisings and, especially, “the terrible tragedy in Syria,” showed once again that the problems of the Middle East “are not just about the Israel-Palestinian conflict.”
Asked about the American presidential election campaign, in which each party claims to be more supportive of the Jewish state than the other side, Siegel avowed that Israel’s position, as always, is strictly nonpartisan.
“I would only hope that neither party would use Israel as a wedge issue,” he said.
In most other areas, the United States and Israel have much to give to each other, not only in shared intelligence findings but also in high-tech research and development, Siegel noted.
When Siegel, his wife, Myra, and their three children arrived in Los Angeles a year ago, he set up as one of his primary goals to “bring the real Israel to the community. “Too many people still relate to Israel only in terms of war or politics, but there is much more to our country,” he declared. “As in America, Israel is an innovative and vibrant society, and we can learn much from each other.”
For example, the United States can learn something from Israel’s integration of vast numbers of immigrants and helping inner-city kids achieve educational success, while Israel could learn from the success of Beit T’Shuvah, the Los Angeles drug and alcohol rehab center.
Los Angeles prides itself on the diversity of its citizenry, but so does Israel, with about 100 distinct ethnic groups. In this respect, Siegel feels that the L.A. Jewish community could step up its outreach to the city’s other ethnic groups.
He also emphasized the existence of 27,000 civil associations in Israel, which promote everything from tikkun olam, or healing of the world, to raising fish in the desert.
“So there are 27,000 opportunities for everybody to connect with Israel, regardless of political leanings or professional interest,” he said.
Like his predecessors, Siegel works at maintaining productive relations with Hollywood, including its studio chiefs and celebrities.
But while some would like to see the TV and film industries produce works with a “pro-Israel” slant, Siegel looks more to the economic side of the enterprise.
“I’ve learned that Hollywood is a business, and Israel, as a locale, could do more to attract major feature productions to shoot in the country,” he said.
One effort along that line was a visit last March by Israeli President Shimon Peres to Los Angeles, where he met with a virtual who’s-who of the Hollywood power structure.
But Siegel cites as perhaps his most important contribution during the past year his part in expanding relations between UC Irvine (UCI), frequently in the news for campus tensions between Muslim and Jewish students, and Israeli universities, including Ben-Gurion University (BGU).
“Both UCI and BGU are about 40 years old, and both are strong in solar energy and biotech research and development. So they are a natural fit,” he said.
UCI has also established joint programs with the Hebrew University, Tel Aviv University and the Technion, while UCLA, USC, Chapman University and Arizona State University also are strengthening their ties with Israeli institutions.
In serving as a kind of matchmaker between Israeli and American universities, Siegel said that he tends “to work from the top down,” first contacting the chancellors or presidents of the U.S. universities, who can then motivate their staffs and faculties to follow through.
Among the to-do projects on Siegel’s list is one that is unique to the Israel-Diaspora relationship.
Currently, about 5,000 foreign volunteers are serving with the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), half of them from North America.
They are called “lone soldiers” because they have no family to visit during holidays or furloughs, so Israeli families try to fill the gap with home hospitality.
Siegel points out that the lone soldiers also leave behind “lone parents” or “lone grandparents” in their respective home countries. He would like to mobilize the resident Jewish community to complement Israel’s example by giving moral support and friendship to such lone parents and grandparents of IDF solders from Los Angeles.
To foreign observers, Angelenos are usually defined by either the perceived glamour of Hollywood or the wealth of Beverly Hills.
Although Siegel knows America well, both by his upbringing and service with the Israel embassy in Washington, he is still surprised by the warmth and vibrancy of the local Jewish community.
“I am constantly learning more about the community and expect to still be learning when my four-year term here is up.”