Theodore Meir Bikel, z”l, human being extraordinaire, actor, singer, activist, and peace pioneer died on July 21, 2015 at the age of 91. May his memory be for a blessing.
Two months before he died, on May 6, 2015, I interviewed Bikel at his home in Los Angeles for the American Jewish Peace Archive: Stories of Pioneers for Israel-Palestine Peace. Following are excerpts from our conversation.
My Dream for Israel
“Once I gave a concert at the Hollywood Bowl and the Jewish Defense League was heckling from the audience, calling me an enemy of Israel. As they were being escorted out, I told them that one of my songs speaks more of my love for Israel than their declarations of hate ever would or could.
“I still believe a two-state solution is the only possible solution to the conflict. That presupposes, however, that the settlement of the Territories, which is the thorn in the flesh of both Israel and its neighbors, must be solved.
“I’m a very old man now. I don’t know that if in my lifetime I will see any results to the dream I’m working for. Where did my dream go? Is it still there? Do I cling to it for sentimental, nostalgic reasons or is there a pragmatic outcome even at this late stage, even at a time when everybody else will tell you that the dream is all but gone. It’s not. I still am an idealist. I am still a socialist. In fact, I’m still a Zionist.
Today’s political thinking
“Nuanced political thought no longer exists in Israel or in the world. It’s either black or white, good or evil. There are no shades. Any positive statement about Israel is welcomed as a pro-Israel declaration. Any statement critical of Israel is characterized as anti-Israel, inimical, hostile for Israel. Since when? If I see flaws and I ask that they be corrected, I love Israel more, not less.
“Our world, especially the world of intellectuals, is a world of shades, of nuance. It’s not a world of absolutes. You cannot live that way. You cannot think that way. You cannot love that way, and you cannot hate that way. I am one of those who negates hate. I’m an opponent of not just violence, but of violent thought, of intolerance.
“Mandatory Palestine was a kibbutz-oriented, egalitarian society, when my family got there in 1938 – a place where nobody locked doors, where everybody called each other chaver (friend). The dream of a Zionist Socialist society has never left me. It was bequeathed to me by my father, and I still consider myself to be the keeper of that dream.
“The Israel that exists today is a long way away from that. It has turned into a pale imitation of America –a consumerist society with a heavy capitalist emphasis; a society in which many thousands of children go to bed hungry.
“It is a society that is intolerant, a society that does not acknowledge the rights of non-Jewish Israelis who are citizens of Israel. Nobody expected there to be a love affair between two people who have built-in enmities and hostilities, but they are expected to be able to live next to each other –not ignored and swept under the rug.
Our Arab neighbors
“So what of the Arab neighbor? When he engages in acts of barbarism or terrorism, he has to be opposed and fought. What cannot be done is to put them all into one pot. Entire peoples cannot be tarred with the same brush.
“I resent being asked to feel grief only when a Jewish child dies. I grieve when a child dies, period. Any child is entitled to a future.
“Tzedek is justice; tzedakah is charity. We’re a long way from realizing the difference. ‘You don’t owe Arabs charity. You owe them justice.’ We are a charitable people. We’re willing to give here and there. But what about tzedek, justice?
“I have never been in favor of boycott, divestment and sanctions directed against Israel, but I would not buy goods that are produced in the Territories. Israel tries to pretend that there’s no difference between what is produced in the Territories and what is produced in Israel proper; there is a difference. The Occupied Territories are Israel improper.
“I’m not in favor of cultural boycotts. I’m an artist. I believe in the free exchange of art and artist’s products. Pablo Casals said, ‘My cello is my weapon. I choose what I play, where I play and before whom I play.’ So, we make a statement by our presence, and we make a statement by our absence also. I supported those artists who refused to go to the Territories.
Moving toward peace
“Who will carry the flag? Who will carry the banner of peace, of understanding? There are enough people. I believe the present government of Israel to be totally on the wrong path. My hope is for an awakening, a realization of the Israeli people that they are capable of better.
“Curiosity is the first step to understanding. Be curious about the ways of peace; be curious about what is possible, about the array of possibilities.
“I have always been quite outspoken about the need for peace. I have not always been as cognizant of all the ramifications of it. But then I learned and I found my way. This is my way; these are my thoughts. These are my views. It’s what I believe, the credo that I live by, and I’ll take it with me wherever I’m going.”
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