David Siegel leaves impressive legacy as his diplomatic tenure in L.A. ends
Later this summer, David Siegel will return home to Israel after five years serving as Israeli consul general for the southwestern United States from his base in Los Angeles. So, what has he been doing during that time?
At the request of the Journal, Siegel’s office compiled a rundown of the diplo-mat’s public activities, which include the following:
• Some 1,500 speaking engagements, mostly in the evenings, at times logging three speeches on the same day.
• Appearances at least once, sometimes more frequently, at every major synagogue in the Los Angeles area.
• Meetings with the principals of nearly all Jewish day schools throughout his jurisdiction, which stretches westward from Colorado and Wyoming to Southern California and Hawaii.
• Seventeen regional town halls, mostly for audiences that generally have had little contact with Israel.
• Attendance at nearly every regional dinner of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and the annual galas of other Jewish organizations.
In truth, this list skims only the surface, but it gives a picture that Siegel, now 54, did not accept the Los Angeles post in 2011 for surfing and cocktail parties.
In addition to his public appearances, Siegel worked mainly behind the scenes on many of his key accomplishments. These include a landmark accord for joint entrepreneurial collaboration between Israel and California, working with rabbis to promote religious pluralism in Israel, and bringing the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibition to Los Angeles.
It is a given that Israeli diplomats around the world often face international crises of one sort of another on a regular basis.
For Siegel, a few months after his arrival in Los Angeles, he saw as his overriding task to impress upon the nearly 40 million Americans in his region that Iran’s nuclear program was a threat not only to Israel’s
existence, but also to the entire Middle East and beyond.
A seasoned diplomat, Siegel had previously been stationed at Israel’s Foreign Service headquarters in Jerusalem, as well as at the Israeli embassy in Washington, D.C., where he was involved in formulating and implementing Israel’s foreign policy during parts of the Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations.
Nevertheless, five years ago, given the choice of returning to a senior position at the Israeli embassy in Washington or becoming consul general in Los Angeles, the Siegel family unanimously chose the latter option.
“Los Angeles is considered one of the most important assignments in our foreign service, as a world communication center whose movie and television studios impact every country,” Siegel said during a recent interview in his West Los Angeles office, which is lined with award plaques and citations, alternating with photos of his family.
During Siegel’s first day after arriving in Los Angeles, he met with the editorial staff of the Journal and, in short order, laid out a list of his goals and priorities. Asked to review this wish list five years later, Siegel cited the Israel-California Partnership Agreement as his most important achievement and a real “game changer.”
After two years of laying the groundwork, in March 2014, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and California Gov. Jerry Brown signed an agreement that provides for a working partnership in such areas as water conservation — in which Israel is a world leader — cybersecurity, biotechnology, agricultural technology and cultural/educational exchanges.
This master treaty has since been buttressed by additional agreements between Israel and the cities of Beverly Hills and West Hollywood, Los Angeles County, the Southern California Association of Government and others.
Siegel gives credit for achieving the agreement to the backing of Jewish community organizations, as well as Brown, state legislators including Assemblymen Bob Blumenfield and John Perez, and L.A. City Attorney Mike Feuer, among many others.
On the priority list of just about every Israeli diplomat, since the opening of L.A.’s first consulate in 1948, has been to channel some of Hollywood’s worldwide clout to the benefit of Israel.
While past consuls general have often focused primarily on enlisting big-name celebrities to speak out in defense of Israel against propaganda attacks, Siegel has focused more on actual productions.
He has met with stars and studio heads, but also worked with production and location executives on movie and TV projects. Thus, he counts as signs of the “prospering relationship” between Israel and Hollywood the shooting of the TV series “Tyrant” and “Big” in Israel, and the openings of offices for Hollywood’s Creative Artists Agency in Tel Aviv and Israel’s Keshet mass media company in Los Angeles.
A major event in bridging the 8,000 miles between Hollywood and Tel Aviv was a visit by Israel’s then-president, elder statesman Shimon Peres, to the DreamWorks studio in 2012, where Peres addressed 1,000 Hollywood executives and actors.
Like all of his predecessors, Siegel has been fascinated by the vibrancy and diversity of Los Angeles and its Jewish community, despite the latter’s occasional fractious infighting.
Siegel takes considerable pride that the Israeli consulate has frequently served as a kind of neutral ground, bringing together rabbis of different denominations and organizational heads who, at least, can all join together in their support of Israel.
Born in Burlington, Vt., and the son of a rabbi who was a founder of the Masorti (Conservative) movement in Israel, Siegel was educated in a Chabad school and in an Orthodox yeshiva in Israel, and later taught at a Reform school. His background enables Siegel to comfortably move among the denominations, and he was able to pull together a task force of rabbis who otherwise rarely interact.
Another of his priorities has been to facilitate trips to Israel by present and future leaders, Jewish and gentile, among them some 7,000 college students.
Nothing, Siegel said, is more important for Americans, who may know Israel only through newspaper headlines or brief TV news segments, than to see the Jewish state “with their own eyes, in order to understand the complexity and gravity” of the Middle East situation.
“Israel, now a country of close to 9 million people, with 7 million of them Jews, is the culmination of 4,000 years of Jewish history, and we need to show what we have achieved in two generations, especially in one of the most difficult regions in the world,” he said.
While David Siegel has warm words for Los Angeles, his wife, Myra, strikes a positively exuberant note.
“We didn’t know what to expect when we came here,” she said. “The warmth, the commitment, the can-do attitude of the people from every walk of life are beyond everything I have ever seen,” she said. “It has been an enormous privilege to represent Israel here and to meet so many amazing people.”
Quite amazing, too, were Myra Siegel’s commitments during her stay. She continued working full time at her job with the American Jewish Committee’s Project Interchange, while also assuming the social responsibilities of a diplomat’s spouse and shepherding three kids, currently ages 9, 13 and 16, through three separate Jewish day schools.
Asked what aspect of his job has been most frustrating, the consul general first maintained a diplomatic silence, then allowed that the American media, with their emphasis on crises and occasional violence in Israel, rather than on the country’s many accomplishments, can be tremendously frustrating.
He followed up with a shrug, “That’s the nature of the media.”
The Siegel family arrived in L.A. in September 2011 as the 2012 United States presidential election was beginning to crank up, and they are leaving just as the 2016 election promises a full display of fireworks.
Asked for a comment on the ongoing political campaign and candidates, Siegel raised his eyes heavenward and exclaimed, “God forbid,” adding “Israel must stay above the fray and must never be seen as a partisan.”
Siegel said he was surprised by how many young men and women from the L.A. region are volunteering to serve in the Israel Defense Forces, and he helped launch an organization to support the so-called “lone soldiers” while in Israel, as well as to provide moral encouragement to their parents and grandparents back home.
Upon his arrival, Siegel also inherited the long-festering problem of anti-Israel agitation and hostility on college campuses, especially, in his early days, at the Irvine campus of the University of California.
Over the past five years, the situation on the UC campuses has improved considerably, with visits to Israel by UC chancellors to meet their Israeli counterparts, and UC Irvine has now signed 12 agreements for joint research projects with Israeli universities in agriculture, water conservation and stem cell research.
Siegel and his family will return to Israel at the end of July, but before doing so, they are first embarking on the traditional round of farewell parties, with 15 scheduled so far.
In May, the first of these took place at the Skirball Cultural Center at a celebration marking Israel’s Independence Day, where Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and a string of public officials heaped praise on Siegel, citing his impact on L.A.’s general populace as well as its Jewish communities.
Other farewells are being hosted at L.A. City Hall as well as by a group of Hollywood friends, AIPAC and by San Diego’s Jewish community, among others.
Asked about future plans, Siegel said he is “looking at various possibilities,” but whatever he does, he said, will be in line with his commitment to Israel.
Sam Grundwerg, a native of Miami Beach, Fla., will succeed him in August. Coincidence or not, the two are the first American-born envoys to serve as Israel’s consul general in Los Angeles.
In addition, Israel’s current ambassador in Washington is Ron Dermer, who was born in Miami, and the two have been friends since their childhood days in Miami Beach.
Asked what advice Siegel might pass on to his successor, he mentioned the importance of the continuing fight against the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. He also urged creation of a long-range program to engage the energy and idealism of the millennial generation in the Diaspora. Noting that some 30,000 civic organizations currently exist in Israel, including some focused on Jewish-Arab ties, Siegel said a ready connection is available for any overseas volunteers or immigrants interested in strengthening and improving Israeli society.