Theodore Bikel (1924-2015), the actor and folk singer, was long active in the civil-rights movement and a veteran supporter of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC. On Aug. 25, 1967, he wrote the following open letter to the leadership of SNCC explaining why he could no longer be part of that organization. It was published in many publications, including The Jewish Press. To read an introduction to this letter by Bikel’s widow, Aimee Ginsburg Bikel, click here.
You know me well—or ought to. I am the fellow who, long before it was fashionable or safe, followed SNCC’s call for help and advice. I am the man who helped organize money and “bodies” at the bidding of Jim Forman, Robert Moses, Chuck McDew and John Lewis; who went to Alabama and Mississippi because SNCC needed his presence; who slept in a different loft each night because he would not sleep or eat where his Negro brother could not and because the sheriff resented his presence. I am the man who was called “kike nigger-lover” both to his face and in print.
You owe me nothing.
I did what I did as a commitment of conscience a commitment that is as real to me now as it was then, and one which will continue as long as I breathe.
But you do owe yourselves a reappraisal of recent actions and recent pronouncements. You who spoke of a “philosophical concept” behind your position on “Jewish oppressor” owe both friend and foe a clearer definition of such “philosophy.” It appears from your statement that you have arrived at your position after exhaustive research which took you as far afield as the Arab embassies and the Atlantic Public Library, the latter presumably because no Jewish, Israeli, or Zionist position was available to be explored. Since you speak of the establishment of the “illegal” State of Israel in 1948, or population figures and movements, of conquest and of oppression, omens presume you are guided by historical, political, socioeconomic, and demographic considerations. One must also hope that as a matter of principle you are engaged in an earnest search for truth—and justice.
Unfortunately, such hope comes to grief when confronted with your stated position.
Let us briefly consider the “illegal” State of Israel. Palestine was, from 1922 until 1948, a British Mandate. The Mandate gave the Jewish people the political right to re-establish Palestine as a Jewish State. It was neither a gift of land to the Jews nor did it take land from the Arabs. Lands were purchased—often at excessive prices—from their holders. Never in all history had Palestine been an Arab state. Turkish, yes; British, yes; and certainly from time immemorial, Jewish. When in 1948 the U.N. voted to accept Israel as a sovereign state, was that an “illegal” act? Surely the Rothschild who seems to be the villain of your memorandum did not buy both the U.S. and the Soviet vote on that occasion. And is the mantle of U.N. recognition any less legal when applied to a white state than it is for Mali, Chad, Ghana, or Zambia?
And, speaking of the emerging black African nations, I wonder if your researchers ever bothered to inquire from whence came the help and support for these countries in the days of their struggle? Was it Arabs or Israelis who trained their engineers, craftsmen, builders, seamen, and teachers? Ask who almost singlehandedly built Ghana’s merchant marines; ask whether emerging black Africa looked to Cairo or Jerusalem for their “bond of friendship and brotherhood.”
You seriously assert that the destinies of Arabs and Negroes are intertwined; you are, of course, perfectly correct in that assertion. History itself will bear out the constant relationship of Arab and Negro. Your own ancestors would hardly have arrived on these shores had it not been for the beneficence and diligence of Arab slave traders. And speaking of slavery, did it escape you — or was it conveniently glossed over — that at least one of the countries whose cause you have just espoused, Saudi Arabia, practices slavery today, in 1967? And that many of its slaves are Africans brought to Arabia and sold there by Moslems engaged in the Holy Pilgrimage to Mecca?
Indeed, what manner of governments are these, your new protégés? What political structures do they represent? Kingdoms and sheikdoms, on the one hand; dictatorships and military juntas, on the other, whose masses live in poverty, squalor, serfdom, or slavery, with a total absence of even the pretense of democracy. How do you think a cry of “black power” would be met in Riyadh or Mecca? How would “poor power” sound in Baghdad?
To top it all, you found yourselves actually capable of repeating the obscene comparison between Israelis and German Nazis advanced at the U.N. by the Soviet delegate, replete with hideous caricatures worthy of the finest anti-Semitic pamphlet. I feel nothing but the deepest contempt for such irresponsible behavior. It insults the memory of the martyrs who perished in the mass slaughter; it insults the dreams and hopes of their sons and heirs who built a home and a refuge in Israel, and who resisted being “pushed into the sea.” Their crime seems to have been that they were resisting their own annihilation successfully. Had the “Holy War” called for by Nasser and accomplices succeeded, you might have joined the list of those offering condolences for yet another case of genocide. For the annihilation would have been total, make no mistake.
War is cruel and inhuman, as is all violence. Only the open blade of a murderer can ever justifiably be met by force. Such was the case in the Middle East last June.
I am an American. I am a Jew. Thus I have a commitment, doubly reinforced by historical and moral commandment. I am determined to make equality and freedom a reality in this country, no matter what the setbacks. I am equally determined to honor the bonds to my ethnic and religious background. “For out of Zion shall go forth the law and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.” You have this day attempted to violate both my commitments. The violation of one alone would have been enough.
That you have for some time past made a mockery of the word “nonviolent” in your name, both in word and in deed, was inadequately defended by the facile explanation of violence begetting violence, chaos begetting chaos. That the innocent should have suffered — Negroes more often than whites — that in the wake of “Burn Baby Burn,” real babies got burned, and most of them Negro, is a responsibility which partly lies on your shoulders. I hope it lies heavily. Yet while I more and more disapproved of your methods, I still believed that your ultimate aims deserved support. I am no longer certain of that, either. I supported Black Power as a political concept; as a tool of anarchy, I find it reprehensible. Not that the concept of revolution is in itself frightening; our modern world and America itself have been built on the foundations forged by one revolution or another. What is frightening is a revolution without a blueprint. If it’s a case of “get whitey” first and worry about planning later, then the tactic seems both stupid and dangerous. The assumption that, by definition, all whites are enemies and all blacks are friends is as simplistic as it is untrue.
It is not my intention to prescribe what direction SNCC should take, either in theory or in practice. It is, as you will quite rightly argue, none of my affair. What is my affair, however, is whether or not I wish to associate myself, my name, my energy, or my resources with an organization with which I have fundamental disagreements. Thus it has become quite clear to me that, for the various reasons outlined in this letter, such loose ties as I may still have with SNCC will have to be severed forthwith. I cannot in conscience be part of any organization which condones injustice, let alone commits it. I shall continue to be part of the civil rights movement and to be active in it. But I shall choose to fight on the side of those who, like Dr. Martin Luther King, speak with the voice of sane and deliberative determination; who believe that this is a movement to unite men as brothers, not divide them by the litmus test of color; who seek not to establish one kind of supremacy doctrine in place of another, but who concentrate instead on the fight against the real enemies — poverty, ignorance, and hatred of fellow-man.
What you have wrought in this latest of a long line of missteps will be with us for a long time to come. It will not deter those among us who are secure in the knowledge that the Movement is bigger than your pronouncements and that it speaks responsibly and with reason. But many thousands not so secure will in bewilderment withdraw support from all civil rights causes because of your incontinence and folly. Thus once again you will have harmed no one but the Negro himself.
Not being able to turn my mind from your monstrous comparison of my brothers with the arch foe of my people — nay, of all people — I shall leave you this thought: You may want to spit in my face for being Whitey and a Fat Cat. But do not look to me for silence while you insult the memory of my people so recently martyred; you have no right to tamper with their graves. And think of Mickey Schwerner and Andy Goodman. You have no right to spit on their tomb; they died for a concept of brotherhood which you now cover with shame.
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Theodore Bikel (1924–2015) was an actor, folk singer, musician, composer, and activist.