David Siegel’s tachlis diplomacy

Teaching Eritrean soldiers drip-irrigation technology was not how David Siegel envisioned the start of his career in public diplomacy. But that’s exactly where he found himself in 1995, when he was assigned to be deputy chief of mission at the Israel Embassy in Eritrea in the heyday of the Oslo Accords.

“Israel was reaching out to African countries, and Eritrea was ending its civil war,” he told me over coffee last week at Factor’s Deli. “Growing their food supply through agriculture was a huge priority for them, so we offered our help, and they were very grateful.”

That lesson must have stuck, because two decades later, as Israel’s consul general to the Southwestern United States, Siegel is still offering Israel’s help.

At a time when the pro-Israel community is struggling to find effective responses to threats like the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, Siegel’s approach has been remarkably concrete and simple: Make Israel helpful.

“Israel has so much to offer to so many groups,” he said. “Why not take advantage of that?”

Since he began his tenure in 2011, he has indeed followed that practical approach — what he calls “tachlis diplomacy.” He rattled off a long list of agreements between Israel and local groups that have showcased Israel’s value to the region.

The biggest is the Israel-California Strategic Partnership, signed on March 5, 2014, by Gov. Jerry Brown and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Their memorandum of understanding has formalized a strategic partnership between California and Israel in areas such as water conservation, cybersecurity, biotechnology, education, innovation, agricultural technology and cultural exchanges.

But Siegel’s office has also been involved with partnerships more tailored to local needs.

In West Hollywood, for example, Siegel and his team reached out to neighborhood leaders and established an HIV/AIDS task force that has connected medical experts and groups in West Hollywood with their counterparts in Israel.

Siegel has taken this “How can Israel help?” approach to other municipalities throughout the region, as well as to ethnic groups such as the Latino and African-American communities. The idea is to further entrench Israel’s standing as an invaluable asset.

Just like those Eritrean soldiers who appreciated learning about drip irrigation, the result of all these partnerships, he said, is plain old gratitude.

“It’s all about building relationships based on real needs,” he said.

And yet, so much of this positive activity has remained beneath the radar. Media coverage of Israel frequently revolves around the drama of conflict. Remember the incident a few years ago when a Jewish UCLA student running for office was asked if her Jewish identity would bias her performance? That one incident probably got more media coverage than all of the initiatives Siegel’s office has undertaken.

This is the nature of the media beast, and Siegel knows it. The BDS movement, in particular, is so loud and aggressive that it has become a nonstop media magnet. Siegel’s office has done its share to fight anti-Israel propaganda, and to become a resource center and unifying force for all pro-Israel groups. But his biggest contribution has been proactive, not reactive. “It’s not enough to fight back,” he said. “You also have to build things. And Israel is very good at building things.”

So, while Israel’s enemies have been screaming about boycotting Israel, Siegel and his team have quietly built a wide network of bipartisan partnerships that promote the exact opposite of boycotting.

Inside the Jewish community, Siegel has also been proactive, working to bridge differences with Israel on issues such as the Women of the Wall. 

Siegel is careful to give plenty of credit to his predecessors, whose efforts he said he’s building on.

In a way, the story of his five-year tenure, which ends this summer, has been the story of Israel itself: Focus on the concrete while the enemy focuses on PR. It’s clear that the ultimate PR victory for Israel will come only when its conflict with its Arab enemies ends. But who knows when that will happen?

Until then, local diplomats like Siegel will continue to make the case for Israel with everything at their disposal. They can’t influence the peace process, but they can influence how Israel contributes to local communities.

When we met, Siegel spoke of the need to “normalize” Israel. I knew what he was trying to say: Because of the way Israel is unfairly targeted by so much of the world, being seen as “normal” would be a wonderful upgrade.

But what I could have told him is this: When a tiny country surrounded by enemies can become so helpful to the rest of the world, well, there’s nothing normal about that.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

Jews at the helm of U.S. Ebola response

The United States’ two main point men in dealing with the Ebola crisis, Ronald (Ron) A. Klain and Thomas (Tom) R. Frieden, have some things in common.

Both are 53, high achievers and Jewish.

Each is well-known in his professional circles, and now as both men find themselves in the national and global spotlight, they are subject to intense scrutiny, including both warm praise and fierce criticism.

Frieden, born in Manhattan and raised in suburban Westchester County, has served for the past five years as director of the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which has an annual budget of nearly $7 billion. In that role he has been under fire in recent days over the CDC’s handling of the care of Thomas Eric Duncan, the Liberian man who became the first person in the U.S. to be diagnosed with Ebola, and over the missteps that exposed hospital workers and may have exposed others to Ebola as a result of Duncan’s illness.

Frieden became accustomed to political pressure while serving as New York City’s Commissioner of Health and Mental Hygiene from 2002-2009. In 2005, when he was honored for his work as Public Official of the Year by Governing magazine, a laudatory article started:

“Consider [Frieden] the consummate Jewish mom — except that he isn’t nudging you about wearing a scarf so you won’t catch a cold. Rather, the admonitions that [he] slings relate to much more serious illnesses — HIV/AIDS, heart disease, lung cancer, tuberculosis, hepatitis and diabetes.”

Frieden grew up the youngest of three sons of a cardiologist (father) and human rights lawyer (mother). The oldest brother, Jeffry, is now a renowned political economist at Harvard and middle son, Ken, is chair of Interdisciplinary Judaic Studies at Syracuse University, N.Y.

In interviews with the Journal, both older brothers described their upbringing as religiously secular, but culturally and intellectually intensely Jewish.

As CDC head, Tom Frieden lives in Atlanta, where the agency’s headquarters are located, but remains a New Yorker at heart. As The New York Times reported, he always returns from visits to his native city carrying a bagful of bagels.

Frieden is married and has two sons, but is as private in his personal life as he is public in his job, He has persuaded the media not to write about — or even mention the names — of his immediate family members.

Ron Klain, an Indianapolis native, was appointed last week by President Obama as “Ebola Response Coordinator for the Executive Office of the President,“ a title shortened by the media to “Ebola czar.” His job is to coordinate the U.S. efforts to combat and contain the deadly virus.

Klain’s appointment was quickly attacked by Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, and others, focusing on his lack of medical background, and he has been denounced as a purely political appointment. The Obama administration responded to the criticism by saying that what is needed in this situation is precisely a man who knows the politics of Washington and can draw diverse agencies together in a single-focused effort.

Klain has been a player in the capital’s political waters since graduating from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., in 1983, and then Harvard Law School, in 1987.

Klain has served as chief of staff for two vice presidents, Al Gore and Joe Biden, and is considered one of the best-connected Washington insiders. Already in 1999, Washingtonian magazine named him the top D.C. lawyer under 40.

He headed Gore’s efforts during the nail-biting vote recount of the 2000 presidential election and was portrayed by actor Kevin Spacey in the HBO special “Recount.”

Klain is married to Monica Medina, who was a classmate at Georgetown University and now works as an environmental lawyer for the National Geographic Society. They have three children, Daniel, Hannah and Michael.

The Klains were featured in a 2007 New York Times article on the “December dilemma” of interfaith couples of whether and how to celebrate Christmas and Chanukah.

When Ron and Monica married, according to the article, “they struck a deal: their children would be raised Jewish (for him), but they would celebrate Christmas (for her).

Ron Klain observed, “I grew up in Indiana, with a decent-sized Jewish community, but we were a distinct minority. Not having a Christmas tree was very much part of our Jewish identity in a place where everyone else did.”

The new high visibility of Frieden and Klain has been a particular boon to livid anti-Semitic bloggers, who see the two men’s roles as further “proof” that Jews are running the U.S. government.

This story was an update of this

West Hollywood, Israel join forces in HIV/AIDS task force

Israel’s Consul General in Los Angles David Siegel and West Hollywood Mayor John D’Amico gripped the handles of a super-sized pair of scissors as they cut a ceremonial red ribbon Sept. 18, marking their joint partnership in an HIV/AIDS task force.

The ceremony took place at Congregation Kol Ami, an LGBT-friendly Reform synagogue in West Hollywood.

“It’s a big honor for us,” said Rabbi Denise Eger about hosting the ceremony. “It’s a very important social justice issue, so we’re very honored to be a bridge between the city and the State of Israel, which this congregation is very committed to.”

The joint task force is part of a bigger collaborative effort between Israel and the State of California. In March, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu signed a strategic partnership agreement with Calif. Gov. Jerry Brown. According to the agreement, Israel and California will combine intellectual and economic forces to address issues such as water conservation, alternative energy, cybersecurity, education, agricultural technology, and health and biotechnology. Israel and West Hollywood’s joint HIV/AIDS task force falls under the spectrum of health and biotechnology.

Los Angeles is the second-largest epicenter of HIV/AIDS cases in the United States, according to a report released by the Los Angeles County Commission on HIV in March 2013. About 58,000 people are living with HIV, and an estimated 1,500 to 2,500 are infected annually. 

In July, the HIV/AIDS task force was approved by the West Hollywood City Council, marking the first joint HIV/AIDS task force between Israel and the United States, according to the Jerusalem Post. During the ceremony, Eger read a letter written by the Israel AIDS Task Force, which said that although Israel is breaking ground in the world of HIV/AIDS research — with stand-out institutions that include the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa — it lacks the social service expertise that West Hollywood offers. 

D’Amico and West Hollywood City Councilmember John Duran both spoke about being HIV-positive politicians. Duran visited the Technion and Weizmann institutes during a recent trip to Israel; after seeing the facilities firsthand, he said he’s excited and hopeful about the collaboration.

D’Amico said West Hollywood and Israel have much in common: “The morals and the values of the Jewish faith are, in fact, many of the values that were around when the city was founded. … I’m excited by [the task force] because a country like Israel and a place like West Hollywood understand that the luck and promise of providing for others is an actual thing and we can do that.”

Hillel Wasserman, a West Hollywood resident who serves on the board of Being Alive L.A., an HIV/Aids action coalition, told the Journal that he was diagnosed with HIV 27 years ago and with AIDS 19 years ago. He was thrilled to hear about the joint task force. 

“This matters because this is my life, and it’s the life of others,” he said.

Siegel explained how the task force came to be: “We literally reached out to the City Council and said, ‘We have this great idea to partner with you and bring our scientists to work with your scientists, bring our NGOs [non-governmental organizations] to work with your NGOs, bring our practitioners to work with your clinics,’ and they loved the idea.”

But this isn’t a completely new relationship between the two parties. For the past six years, Israel has waved its blue-and-white flag during West Hollywood’s annual AIDS Walk Los Angeles, for example. 

In 2011, the Israeli consul general flew out Assaf Friedler from the Institute of Chemistry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem to collaborate with leading California physicians in the HIV/AIDS field. Last year, it brought out Ron Diskin from Weizmann. Friedler and Diskin, both of whom participated in the local AIDS walk, are standout names in the field of HIV research. 

“We’ve been doing this for years,” Siegel said. “What is new now is we have a California-Israel structure.” 

Dillon Hosier, political adviser to the Consulate General of Israel, helped draft the pact that was signed by Brown and Netanyahu. He discussed the importance of Israel’s outreach and partnership with California.

“We had a meeting a couple of days ago in West Hollywood with some of the service providers,” Hosier explained, “and these are people who may not engage in Israel, whose understanding of Israel may be simply what they see in the headlines.” 

Siegel echoed Hosier’s sentiments: “For us, it’s really important that people understand that Israel is not just about Gaza or ISIS or Middle East crises. [Those] will always be there, but we’re really about innovation and helping humanity.” 

A feast for Mollie Pier

In 1989, Mollie Pier co-founded Project Chicken Soup (PCS), a nonprofit organization that makes and delivers free kosher food to Angelenos living with HIV/AIDS, cancer and other serious illnesses. Today, at 92, she still volunteers, spending eight hours a month in the kitchen and calling recipients when their meals are ready.

On Nov. 11, Pier was honored at Temple Beth Am by Project Chicken Soup for her efforts over the past 23 years. The event featured food from Jewish chefs around Los Angeles as well as speeches from Pier’s colleagues, a silent auction and performances from the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles, Cantor Magda Fishman of Temple Beth Am, Cantor Juval Porat of Beth Chayim Chadashim and pianist David Silverstein. 

Of her honoring, Pier said, “It’s just overwhelming. I can’t believe this is me; I don’t think I deserve what everybody else thinks I do. It’s just breathtaking.”

More than 1,500 volunteers work for PCS each year, helping to serve as many as 30,000 meals. Every month, 125 clients each receive 20 meals, and the organization plans to double that number once fundraising goals are reached. 

“Most of our clients are low income, and many are food insecure,” said Cathryn Friedman, executive director. “There is evidence regarding the importance of appropriate nutrition for people living with HIV/AIDS and the role it plays in delaying [or] preventing the progression to late-stage disease. For people with cancer or other serious illnesses, an inability to acquire [or] prepare food results in food insecurity and negative health consequences. PCS services contribute to improved health status.”

Food at the event included all the traditional Jewish dishes, with a modern twist. Alex Reznik, formerly executive chef at the now-shuttered kosher steak house La Seine, served pickled herring and smoked whitefish, and Akasha Richmond, who owns AKASHA, made kale Caesar salad with olive oil croutons and parmesan. Susan Feniger of Street provided chilled Asian noodles with deviled egg and sriracha sauce. 

“Molly’s been the driver of some work that literally needed to be done,” Feniger said. “She’s made a strong statement certainly for all of us. We’re in the hospitality business, and we try to give back. To be here to support her is critical.”

Another guest chef, The Foundry on Melrose’s Eric Greenspan, who defeated Bobby Flay on “Iron Chef America,” made potato and apple kugel with garlic horseradish crust. “We spend so much time in an insular world in our kitchens,” he said. “It’s important every once in a while to poke your head out and take a look at the world around you and make sure that you’re a part of it. ‘Try to do a mitzvah a day,’ is what my dad always said, so this is definitely one of them.”

Joanne Feldman, a volunteer with PCS for five years who owns Mr. Pickles Kosher Catering, said she is proud of the work that the group has done. “We have been blessed to have somebody as wonderful as Mollie Pier being a part of the glue that holds this organization together,” she said. “She does it with such love and heart, and it’s amazing.”

Ronna Sundy, events coordinator at Temple Beth Am, said she and her family were given help by PCS when they needed it. 

“My adopted daughter’s father died of AIDS, and the family was fed through PCS,” she said. “They fed us during shivah, and it was a wonderful thing. What Project Chicken Soup has done for the community and for everyone is also part of Temple Beth Am’s being. We give back and want to help everyone. Mollie is volunteering, still, at 92 years old. I would only like to follow in her footsteps.”

Pier co-founded PCS not only to help the sick, but for personal reasons as well. Her son Nathaniel, a doctor who treated AIDS patients, came out as gay in the late 1970s. In 1989, he died of the disease, and she wanted his legacy to live on.

At the event, Pier said that was happening. “I think he’d be proud of me, as I was of him. I have a very spiritual feeling that he helped so many people with his medical knowledge.”

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