Remarks by Theodore Bikel To the 35th World Zionist Congress

Categories: Letters From Leadership

Today let me speak to you of passion. There are some who would consider it unseemly or anachronistic for us to show the youthful enthusiasm of the early Zionist movement. After all, Israel is now 58 years into statehood and we are a long way from the time when the notion of Israel was a dream, a hope, a yearning. One might argue that in this time of a country facing the mundane business of governing amidst harrowing concerns about security, talking of Zionist ideals and dreams is no more than an exercise in nostalgia.

Yet speak of the dream we must, so that forgetfulness will not shunt it aside and what remains will be little more than the tasks of crisis management.

We, of the secular arm of the Zionist movement may not conceive of Israel as the fulfillment of a messianic vision, but we are no less imbued with the transcendent importance of its birth and existence. To us a world without Israel is an unthinkable world. But just as unthinkable to us is an Israel that is only a place of refuge in case history should obscenely repeat itself with Jews once more as the target. The Zionist vision saw this enterprise as a miracle yet a strangely attainable one. That signal vision has brought about what must surely be the most compelling project in all of Jewish history.

Not all of us here assembled see eye to eye on every issue affecting the Zionist movement and the State of Israel. There are often sharp disagreements among us about policy and directions for the future. But no matter how sharp or pointed the debate may be, let me be perfectly clear about one thing: We of the peace movement are as devoted to the welfare and safety of Israel as anyone in this assembly.

Yet our passion for Israel’s well-being is matched in equal measure by our passion for justice; social justice and equal rights for all who inhabit this land.

It grieves us to note that one in five Israeli families lives in poverty, including one-third of all Israeli children. That is shocking. It is double the poverty rate of the 15 core states of the European Union. Even though Israel is a comparatively rich country, the inequality between rich and poor is alarming. These statistics may be skewed at the lower end because of the numbers of Israeli Arabs and the numbers of the orthodox with their disproportionately large number of children. All of this raises questions about the social and economic condition of Israel’s non-Jewish population on the one hand and of the integration into the social fabric by the ultra-orthodox on the other. Must they remain separate and unequal?

That also leads us to one of the most consistently troubling problems, namely the entanglement of religion with the state. For decades the Israeli establishment, whether on the left or right, has danced around this problem without a real desire to come to grips with it. We in America know only too well that when government and religion mix, both tend to be corrupted and the nation as a whole suffers.

At this point there was a loud and prolonged interruption of boos and jeers from the religious bloc in the hall. There was also loud singing seeking to prevent the speaker from continuing. Mr. Bikel addressed the hecklers as follows:

“I have been booed before when I spoke and sang of Jews and Israel. The boos usually came from Jew-haters and Israel-bashers. I could deal with them; I can deal with these boos also. Because I know that even a single one of my songs speaks more of the love of Israel than do all the boos in the world.” As the disruptions continued he called out to the hecklers: “Derekh Eretz!” (‘Respect’) – When the boos subsided Mr. Bikel continued his speech.

Zionism was conceived as a lofty and noble enterprise with a promise of a better life for Jews and, by example, for everyone else. When the dream was put to the test of reality and flaws began to appear as they were bound to, we comforted ourselves with the slogan of our being goy kekhol hagoyim,, a people like any other. The trouble was that we also continued to proclaim that we are OR LAGOYIM , a light unto the nations, often in the same breath.

Who knows, we may yet prove to be worthy of being called OR LAGOYIM but that will take resilience, determination and a change of direction. Foremost in importance within that change of direction will be the need to rethink policy, to reassess plans for unilateral action vis-a-vis the Palestinians. Let us be frank: unilateralism (or realignment, or any other semantic circumlocution of the same theme) — unilateralism rests on an assumption of failure; it is a resolve that dismisses in advance any real prospects of a negotiated peace.

Further, the usefulness of erecting fences is questionable. While they are built for the purpose of security, such fences achieve quite another purpose, intended or unintended: the creation – neither by treaty nor by any other form of bilateral agreement — of a de facto boundary. Temporarily such a fence may lead to a measure of security; it will hardly lead to peace. It is said that ‘good fences make good neighbors.’ It follows that bad fences make bad neighbors.

Mr. Chairman I have spent a lifetime carrying the word and the song of freedom even to places where such sounds had not been permitted to be heard for generations. I have carried the Jewish song to the Golan Heights in the midst of war, to the gulags of oppression, to the jail cell of freedom marches and from there even to the highest seats of government.

I trust this has given me the right to say to the assembled here that the song of hope has value only when it is preceded by the song of peace.

About Theodore Bikel

In a career spanning half a century, Theodore Bikel has starred in countless movies, plays and television shows, and has recorded numerous albums showcasing folk music from around the world. The original Captain Von Trappe of "The Sound of Music" and the Treya of the original run of "Fiddler on the Roof", Bikel went on to portray a German U-boat captain in the film "The Enemy Below" and was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance in the 1958 movie "The Defiant Ones". An accomplished musician, Bikel reguarly performed on the weekly television series Hootenanny, before co-founding (with Pete Seeger) the Newport Folk Festival. His autobiography, "Theo: The Autobiography of Theodore Bikel", was recently re-issued in paperback by University of Wisconsin Press and his latest CD, "Theodore Bikel's Treasury Of Yiddish Theatre And Folk Songs", is now available on Rhino Records and Hatikvah Music.
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