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 [email protected].