By Jacob Kamaras/JNS.org
Speaking with me in Austin, Texas, in between his 55th and 56th speaking engagements for “Let There Be Water: Israel’s Solution for a Water-Starved World,” author Seth M. Siegel laments how the Barnes & Noble retailer places his book in the wildlife section. There isn’t a single animal mentioned anywhere in the volume’s 352 pages.
“They have me in the wildlife section because they don’t have a context,” Siegel says. “I would love to see a day, and I think it’ll happen soon, that there’s a water section in the bookstore.”
Indeed, at Siegel’s current pace, that day is fast-approaching. The New York businessman never believed he’d sell the book to a major publisher, but scored a deal with Thomas Dunne Books. He didn’t think he had a bestseller for any list, let alone the book’s eventual designations as a New York Times science bestseller and a Los Angeles Times nonfiction bestseller. He never expected his flood of invitations to speak nationwide—more than 300, of which he has accepted 120. Despite the natural Jewish interest in a book that tells a story about Israeli achievements, only a third of Siegel’s speaking invitations are from Jewish groups.
Everything considered, “Let There Be Water” is shaping up as not just a popular book, but a grassroots movement that Siegel hopes will help influence water policy around the world.
“Most authors, their goal is to sell as many books as they can. While to be sure I’m happy to sell as many books as I can, my goal here is to start a conversation,” Siegel tells me.
I caught up with Siegel at one of Jewish National Fund’s (JNF) ongoing series of water summits, which besides Austin have been held or are forthcoming in Albany, N.Y., Boston, Chicago, Denver, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Miami, New York City, Phoenix, San Diego, and Washington, DC. Given its own contributions to Israel’s water breakthroughs, JNF has championed Siegel’s book, which is among the topics the author discusses below in the rest of his interview with JNS.org.
JNS: Pro-Israel activists today face a balancing act between “bad cop advocacy,” namely addressing security threats and countering anti-Israel propaganda, and “good cop advocacy,” such as telling positive stories about the Jewish state. Is good cop advocacy one of your goals in telling Israel’s water story?
Seth Siegel: “I am completely not thinking of myself as an extension of the [Israeli] Foreign Ministry or as part of the Israel advocacy apparatus. But here’s what I will say: As one who feels strongly about Israel’s safety and security, what bothered me for a very long time is that we need positive stories. We need positive stories for ourselves, to keep ourselves engaged, and we also need positive stories to get people of our children’s generation motivated and excited—the same way that most everybody, unless you grew up in a strongly Zionistic or Orthodox household, had a galvanizing moment. Whether it was the Yom Kippur War or the Six-Day War or the Ethiopian airlift or the Russian aliyah or the raid in Entebbe, or something like that. I was tired of being in a position of saying ‘yes, but…’ in talking about Israel.
“The book was not written with the thought that it was going to be a Jewish book. The book was written with the idea that it’s going to be a policy book, and that as a second order of magnitude, it also comes out in a way that people can feel a very good feeling about Israel and that people who are strangers to Israel can be introduced to Israel in a whole new way.”
So you didn’t write it as an advocacy book—but as someone who has worked as a branding agent, do you think this is a story pro-Israel activists can use to “brand” Israel?
“I don’t think there’s a more positive story one could tell about Israel today—whether it’s the historical section about what Israel did, overcoming adversity, whether it’s how Israel through trial and error figured out its technological needs, or the last third of the book, where I talk about ‘hydro-diplomacy,’ how Israel used water as a way of opening the world to itself and changing its relationship with its neighborhood. I think those are all very inspiring stories. So I think it would be wonderful if people would use [the book] for that purpose [of branding Israel]. I’d be ecstatic. But I don’t want to take my eye off the ball and say that that’s my purpose. My purpose is to make sure that we start thinking about our water policy.”
Does it make a difference that this water story comes from an independent source like you rather than an entity with more “skin in the game,” such as the Israeli government?
“If the audience is a water commissioner in Texas, then I don’t think it makes a difference whether I’m the source or whether the Israeli government is the source. If it’s somebody who comes to this with more skepticism, then I think probably an independent party is better.
“That’s why the book is so heavily footnoted, and that’s why the book has such a deep bibliography. There are close to 600 footnotes in the book, there’s a 12-page bibliography. The reality is that I wanted to have that level of documentation because I thought to myself, the neutral people coming to this, they’ll accept it as is. But the people who come to this with a skeptical eye or even a hostile eye, I want them to know that there’s no game being played here. There is no propaganda in this. This is the story.”
The book discusses how from 1962 until the Islamic revolution in 1979, Israel to a large degree ran the water industry in Iran. Is that something worth mentioning in the debate over Iran’s nuclear program and the threat it poses to Israel?
“What I think should’ve been done [during the nuclear negotiations], and repeatedly, is to point out to the world that Iran once upon a time had a good water system, and that after Iran threw the Israelis out, and exiled or killed some of their water engineers, now Iran has perhaps among the world’s worst water systems. What I would have said is, ‘So how do they have the money to build this nuclear program, but they don’t have money to build up their water system?’”
What’s the role of JNF in the success of your book?
“When I made the decision that there was a book to be written, I needed to develop a sense of what the story was, and I had the good fortune of calling JNF. They not only were excited about this, but they were exuberant about the idea of sharing ideas and sources with me.
“I was a business guy, and a business guy who walked into their office and said, ‘I wanna write a book.’ I’m going to guess they must get five of those a day. They could not have been more supportive. They set up for me more than dozen of my first interviews.
“The second thing is that while this is primarily an Israeli story—a story of what Israel did for itself and now, a great benefit for the world—what I discovered along the way is that the one great supporter [of this cause] from outside of Israel was JNF.
“JNF-USA was the prime mover. Whether it’s the work down in the Be’er Sheva area with the river park, whether it’s the lake, whether it’s Israel’s national network of reservoirs, all of that is a JNF story. And there’s now some 250 of these reservoirs built in Israel, and the truth of the matter is, they probably never would have been built without JNF. Had they never been built, it would have taken Israel a generation before they would’ve been ready to be water-independent.”
Looking into your crystal ball, do you see the global water situation improving? If so, do you see Israeli ingenuity getting some of the credit for it publicly?
“If the world fixes its water problems, Israel will be just fine. First of all, it’ll reduce instability in its own region. Second of all, Israel—as a source of innovation—will benefit economically from selling its technologies elsewhere. Third of all, if it turns out that Israel does get credit, that’s good, but no deed is a better deed because somebody gets credit for it. It’s not about the PR value in my mind.”
CAP: Seth Siegel. Photo credit: Talia Siegel