"There is a Talmudic saying in the 'Ethics of the Fathers,'" Siegman started, "'Don't judge your neighbour until you can imagine yourself in his place.' So, my first question when I deal with any issue related to the Israeli-Palestinian issue: What if we were in their place?"
He elaborated, "No country and no people would live the way Gazans have been made to live ... our media rarely ever points out that these are people who have a right to live a decent, normal life, too. And they, too, must think, 'What can we do to put an end to this?'"
Born in Germany in 1930, Siegman and his family were persecuted by the Nazis. "I lived two years under Nazi occupation, most of it running from place to place and in hiding," he recalled. His father took his mother and their six children to Belgium, to France, to North Africa, then, after two months at sea, dodging German submarines, they arrived at Ellis Island. He told us: "I always thought that the important lesson of the Holocaust is not that there is evil, that there are evil people in this world who could do the most unimaginably cruel things. That was not the great lesson of the Holocaust. The great lesson of the Holocaust is that decent, cultured people, people we would otherwise consider good people, can allow such evil to prevail, that the German public -- these were not monsters, but it was OK with them that the Nazi machine did what it did."
His father was a leader of the European Zionist movement, which sought a national homeland for the Jewish people. Siegman said: "As a kid even, [I was] an ardent Zionist. I recall on the ship coming over, we were coming to America, and I was writing poetry and songs -- I was 10 years old, 11 years old -- about the blue sky of Palestine. In those days we referred to it as Palestina."
Henry Siegman became a prominent leader in American Jewish life. When I asked him to reflect on his long history with Zionism and to respond to the current assault on Gaza, he said: "It's disastrous. ... When one thinks that this is what is necessary for Israel to survive, that the Zionist dream is based on the repeated slaughter of innocents on a scale that we're watching these days on television, that is really a profound crisis -- and should be a profound crisis -- in the thinking of all of us who were committed to the establishment of the state and to its success."
I asked Siegman to watch a clip from CBS's Face the Nation. The show's host, Bob Schieffer, recently closed the program by saying, "Last week I found a quote of many years ago by Golda Meir, one of Israel's early leaders, which might have been said yesterday: 'We can forgive the Arabs for killing our children,' she said, 'but we can never forgive them for forcing us to kill their children.'"
Siegman said that he had seen the broadcast. He replied: "If you don't want to kill Palestinians, if that's what pains you so much, you don't have to kill them. You can give them their rights, and you can end the occupation. And to put the blame for the occupation and for the killing of innocents that we are seeing in Gaza now on the Palestinians -- why? Because they want a state of their own? They want what Jews wanted and achieved?"