Pete Seeger’s Evolution on Israel
Last night, in my appreciation of Pete Seeger I wrote about the Weavers mega-hit, Tzenah. I noted the fullsome praise of the new Zionist nation that characterized its lyrics. I also noted that, at the time, neither Seeger nor many others outside the Arab world understood the deep injustice that had been done to the Palestinian inhabitants of Israel during the Nakba.
Today, Mondoweiss published an amazing passage from a talk Seeger delivered in Cambridge in November 1967, only a few months after the Six-Day War. In his remarks, you can see how Pete’s thinking had evolved and he’d come to understand everything he’d missed back in 1952. This is a mind that is nimble and sharp to moral and political nuance (audio here):
“I said if the Israelis would admit the injustice that was committed when they decided that they would start a new nation where a million people already lived. Uhh … Vermont is approximately the size of Israel…Vermont has 400,000 people in it. There were one million farmers and small townsmen in Palestine at the time the Zionists decided that this was where they must establish a national home …”
“… Now, in many ways I agree with them that after 2000 years of never being allowed to be a first class citizen, anywhere! Not in Spain, not in France, not in Germany, not in Russia, not in Poland, not in England … not in America! The Jews had a right to wanna find one little spot on this Earth where they could be first class citizens …”
“At the same time, not to realize that there were one-million people there, I think was very foolish. Why didn’t they insist that every new settler learn the Arab language? Why didn’t they? Martin Buber said they should, but they didn’t listen to him.”
10 thoughts on “Pete Seeger’s Evolution on Israel – Tikun Olam תיקון עולם إصلاح العالم”
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I bet Seger had/s many fans iin Israel. And he certainly expressed sympathy for Jews. Thus, I think it would be great if his 1967 comment could be well-distributed in Israel. Maybe they’d listen to him more than to internal or Diaspora Jewish critic.
Pete was long on questions and short on answers.
Pete leaves unanswered several questions. Where on earth were the Jews supposed to go?
Had any modern nation(s) extended the Jews an invitation to settle, en masse, where the could live as first class citizens?
Wasn’t Buber a supporter of a Jewish State in Palestine? Why did Buber choose to live in an abandoned Arab house in Jerusalem?
Pete Seeger impressed me as a very moral guy, but no deep thinker.
Where the could live as first class citizens???????? Come-on. Jews have been the most successful (religious) minority ever around the world for a long time. Even before WW2 Jews were overwhelmingly the best educated and wealthiest population group in Europe. The “front-runners” in science, trade and banking were Jews. Jews were ministers in Britain, Germany, France etc. Nuclear physics was created by mainly by Jews. Etc. Diamond and arms trade were in Jewish “hands”. Countless indisputable achievement which simply were/are not possible for second class citizens.
Romani people (gypsies) were (are) Europe’s real second grade citizens. They were (=are) in reality not in propaganda beggars, unemployed, uneducated, extremely poor etc. Jews were not in that position. They were diamond traders, university professors, media owners, politicians, bankers, millionaires etc. For example in Poland Jews represented 10 percent of the population before WW2. 56 percent of all doctors were Jews. Of teachers 43%, of journalists 22% and of lawyers 33%. Jews controlled much of the industrial and trade sectors of Poland. Still we gentiles are “demanded” in tales to believe that Jews then were discriminated in Polish universities.
Many of the oligarchs who emerged absurdly rich in the post-Soviet “New Deal” were Jews. Real second class citizens or privileged first class citizens? Jews are in many ways on top in most European countries and USA today. Not all but a “disproportional” amount compared to their share of the total population. All the time even in present days we are bombarded constantly with propaganda how exploited and discriminated Jews are when the obvious evidence around the world proves, that they are mostly very well off and live in total peace. There is no real evidence, that Jews have to live as discriminated second class citizens (like Israeli Palestinians have to) in any country. If there is name where?
Surely there has been dark and one very dark periods in history when the Jews were used as a “blow-off valve” in some countries internal tensions. Like the wealthy Chinese minorities around Asia (outside China, for example Indonesia). The reason it worked well was the envy and bitterness the majority people felt against the more clearly more successful Jews.
Usually the dark periods for Jews were dark periods for everyone. For example Martin Luther expressed anger at Jews during a period of religious warfare in Germany and in particular when there was an apparently correct perception of double-dealing.
There were several elites in pre-modern European society. These elites usually include military, ecclesiastical, landed-political, and finance-mercantile strata. Jews generally belonged to the last elite stratum. Polish Lithuanian law clearly reflected this reality in that when a Jew converted to Christianity he did not become a peasant or a member of the petite bourgeoisie. He became a member of the szlachta (nobility).
In the 19th century after the division of historic Poland and especially with fitful modernization in the Czarist Empire along with rapid population growth, Jews may have appeared relatively poor (in comparison with Western European populations), but they were relatively better off than the Polish szlachta and much better off than the Polish peasantry. Jews were loosing their pre-modern political economic niche, but so was everyone else.
Thus to claim that Jews were a poor, powerless, oppressed class anywhere in historic Poland is simply nonsense. In many ways, Jews reached a much more effective modus vivendi with the Czarist government than the Polish szlachta did. In fact Zionism which assimilated many ideas from Czarist imperialism among Muslim population was a sign of the growing closeness between Jewish and Czarist intellectuals, who included many crossover figures like Daniel Chwolson.
Shoshana: Seeger saw there were two problems:  the problem of nationhood and a safe place for Jews and  the problem that Palestinians already lived there. If one complains that he did not solve both problems, please note that neither did the Jewish Agency or anyone else. Judah Magnes (and perhaps Buber, Ha’am and others) proposed living together in peace instead of Jews conquering Palestinians. That seems better than what the JA (later IDF, etc.) did. for they only recognized problem . not problem . And Israel/AIPAC today are no better. So don’t complain about Seeger.
I listened to the audio, and in order to provide a complete picture, I am transcribing the sentence in the middle that was left out of Mondoweiss’s post:
“And surely, their ancient homeland, which they remembered for two thousand years, and refused to forget for two thousand years (that’s a long, long time!), surely that would be the logical place.”
It’s important to note that despite becoming cognizant of the difficulties raised by this particular location and wishing that the Zionist movement had related differently to the local Arab population, he remained sympathetic not only to the desire for a Jewish homeland, but to the value of its being specifically in Eretz Yisrael.
@ D.C.: I didn’t listen to the tape all the way through & should have. Clearly, the Mondoweiss author was a bit uncomfortable with that sentence & for good reason since it’s essentially an anti-Zionist site.
Pete Seeger clearly isn’t anti-Zionist, if that’s what you’re saying. He was in the Brit Shalom camp, as his reference to Buber makes clear. But Brit Shalom was a whole different brand of Zionism than classical Zionism. Pete believed that the establishment of the State of Israel, as carried out by the Zionist Yishuv, commmitted a grave injustice against the native Palestinian population. He did not approve of Israel as the Jewish supremacist state it has become. That doesn’t mean he wanted to destroy it. He wanted justice for the Palestinians. Full justice. That’s a far cry from the current situation.
If it took Seeger 25 years to figure out the problem, than that only reinforces my claim that he wasn’t a deep thinker on Middle East issues. Feeling people’s pain isn’t a solution. It’s a start, but not a solution.
How come the Greeks managed to find a secure homeland where there hadn’t been one?
Hasn’t history proven that millions more people can live comfortably in Palestine than the 1,000,000 that had been there in the thirties?
Who was the first to resort to ethnic violence in Palestine?
@ Shoshana: You must’ve missed subtraction when your class covered it in elementary school. 1967-1952=15 years. As for not being a deep thinker, I think we should be looking much closer to home on that score. Deep thinking clearly isn’t your specialty. Hasbara however is.
There is no doubt that more than 1-million people could live in historic Palestine. The newcomers just can’t do so by stealing their land, destroying their villages, and forcibly exiling them in order to resettle it and rename it as “Jewish.”
I have to agree with Richard. Deep thinking means continuing to nuance your opinion and thinking, not blindly sticking to something. Also, fifteen years is certainly faster than say sixty two. Simply saying ‘where else would they go’ is not very deep, the point is the process and the end result. Seeger was not afraid to admit he was wrong, or incomplete in his thinking. Sometimes his flaw was being too trusting of people.
Note how he changed his nuances on communism also.
He was also a pretty deep thinker if you examine his stance on free speech and willingness to be held in contempt of congress. Unless you were an adult during the 50s with all that was going on both domestically and internationally, you don’t realize how deep his thinking was and how far ranging his curiosity was. Deep thinking indeed.
My mother as a teen sat in camps in Italy in 1948 listening to the soon to be government of Israel form. The passion and thinking of the group then (as described to me, so I take my mother at her word) was a far cry from the way those leaders evolved, even 15 (or 25 years).
But, perhaps the deep thinking that is important by Seeger is no matter the history, it is still worth voicing and decrying injustice, even with people you once respected and admired and more importantly with yourself. Seeger was not afraid to admit when he was wrong, or that there was more work to be done.