“I always despised the slogan ‘my country, right or wrong,’ ” Theo Bikel used to say. “It’s cheap. It’s unworthy. My country is right when it’s right, and when it’s wrong, it’s to be put right.”
When Theo wrote his open letter to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), reprinted today in Tablet, he was 43 years old, living in New York’s Village, and shuttling between the coasts as a successful actor and bestselling recording artist. Having arrived in the United States a decade earlier, he was completely smitten with what for him truly was the goldene medinah. This was 1967, just after the Six-Day War. About to become a father for the first time, he was still playing in Washington Square Park with Shlomo Carlebach, or at the Bitter End with Phil Ochs, Judy Collins, Odetta, and the others. He had been nominated nine years earlier for an Oscar for his role as a humanitarian sheriff in The Defiant Ones—a movie that used the metaphor of two escaped convicts, one black and one white, chained to each other. The survival of each was dependent on the other’s freedom. Eight years earlier, he had originated the role of Captain Von Trapp on Broadway. A year earlier, Theo had played the Russian submarine captain in The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming, another film with a theme of universal brotherhood. He was constantly touring the country with concerts in Hebrew and Yiddish, singing folk songs from around the world (in 22 languages in all), bringing the songs of the civil-rights movement to synagogues and his unapologetic Jewish voice to the civil-rights and folk movements. He had already founded the Newport Folk Festival with Pete Seeger and several others.
Somehow, he also found the time to be deeply involved in the causes closest to his heart: civil Rights, peace, unions, Jewish life, and Israel, not in any particular order. For Theo, these things were basically synonymous. In his mind, in his heart, Judaism was the quest for tikkun olam. This is what his proudly Socialist Zionist father, Joseph Bikel z”l, had taught him daily. Theo’s best childhood memories are of the many walks with his father through Vienna, before Anschluss, before his escape to Palestine a year after his bar mitzvah. Papa would speak to young T’eo continuously, in Yiddish and in Hebrew, of the importance of loving one’s people, of the beauty and richness of our Jewish culture, and of the absolute dictate to stand up and fight on behalf of the poor, oppressed, and dispossessed, regardless of religion or race. In their hikes through the hills above the city, a picnic packed in their knapsacks, they sang Socialist and Zionist songs. “The Vienna woods would fill with the sound of our music,” he would remember, with a twinkle. Theo spoke frequently about the crime of remaining silent in the face of injustice. Remembering the shock and horror of the Anschluss, he said, “I cannot absolve the nice people next door who think that when the victims are not from your own group, it doesn’t count.”
And so it was that in the early 1960s, Theo became involved in SNCC. Of all of the groups working against segregation in the South, Theo liked SNCC because of its focus on voter registration and belief in nonviolence. Also, forever young (even later, at 91), Theo always loved the company of youth and of students. “‘Black and white together’ goes the second verse of ‘We Shall Overcome,’ ” Theo wrote in his autobiography, Theo. “We sang it, and we meant it. We needed each other.”
As part of the (disproportionately Jewish) Northern-white support group, he was not involved in policymaking or leadership but rather in fundraising and in helping the organization find ways to get its message out. Several SNCC press conferences were held in his apartment in the Village; he traveled to the South on several occasions to discuss, gather information, show support. On one of these trips, at a rally in a church in Birmingham, Alabama, Theo sang a Socialist Yiddish song, taught to him by his father, followed by his own English translation:
Un du Akerst un Du zeyst, Un Du fiterst un Du Meyst,
Un Du hamerst un Du shpinst, Zog mayn Folk vos Du fardinst
Brothers you that plow and sow, you that feed and you that mow
Wield your hammer night and day, tell me if your sweat is worth the pay
Now awake, the end’s in sight, see your power, feel your might
Were it not for your strong hand, not a wheel would turn in all the land
Later they all went out together to march and were arrested. Even the jail was segregated, and Theo and the other white protestors were kept in a separate cell. Just for fun, he insisted the jailors bring him a kosher meal. Theo was roughed up by the other white inmates, reminding him of the beatings he received from his non-Jewish classmates in the days after the Anschluss. He and the other activists helped each other pass the night by singing folk songs back and forth across the courtyard.
“Some political commentators would scoff at the efforts of white liberals and accuse them of patronizing blacks,” he writes in Theo. “Blacks themselves were not always sanguine about these efforts, for they were rightly suspicious of any hint of paternalism. In my case, there was no need to harbor such suspicions. I truly believed in equality, and was intent on working for it to become a concrete reality.” There was criticism from within the Jewish community as well. “There were quite a few people who used to chide me for being so involved in the black cause,” he has said. “They would say, ‘There is so much work to be done within the Jewish world, and you need to go spend your energy on others?’ Forget about the fact that I was actually very active in Jewish and Zionist causes.” (Theo was the vice president of the American Jewish Congress for several years, among many other Jewish and Zionist activities.) “Here is what they did not understand: For me, there are no others. And when I see a people being oppressed, persecuted, mistreated, they are Jewish. In my heart, all oppressed people are Jews.”
But changes in leadership (most specifically after Stokely Carmichael took the reins) brought a change in the focus and atmosphere of SNCC. By 1967, there was a move away from nonviolence and a growing reluctance of some of the leadership to associate with their white Northern allies. In August 1967, an SNCC newsletter published a thoroughly anti-Semitic caricature likening Jews to Nazis, accompanied by a strongly anti-Zionist article. Theo, who at that time was a staunch Zionist with no critique at all of Israel, reacted with his open letter, which was reprinted in many publications, including The Jewish Press. Some in SNCC who had been personally connected with Theo, even quite friendly, publicly denied that he had been involved in any way. When writing of this in his autobiography, he speaks with some bravado. But the truth is, the whole episode carried a serious sting.
Theo’s passion for civil rights and social justice remained a constant, and even intensified over the years. He left the Village and lived in a mansion in the countryside of Connecticut; he became successful beyond any dream he or his father ever had. But he continued to identify, in a very deep and emotional manner, with the oppressed and the disenfranchised. And so, as one year followed another after the ’67 war, Theo became increasingly concerned and then alarmed with the state of affairs in Israel, Gaza, and the occupied West Bank. His previously staunch and automatic defense of Israel began to wane as he was faced with growing evidence of Palestinian oppression. As usual, his heart went out to the underdog. His deep love of Israel remained, and even more so his absolute and unshakable identity as a Jew first and foremost, but he could not and would not say “my country right or wrong.” His convictions about remaining silent led him to be vocal about the terrible injustices of the occupation. During the latest war on Gaza, Theo published a piece in the Jewish Journal, titled “Grieving the Children of Gaza and the Dream of Zion.” In the article, he spoke of his pain for all of the children of the conflict—the Jewish children along with the Palestinian, Syrian, Lebanese—and of his resentment of those in our community who expect him to grieve harder for the life of a Jewish child than for any other child. He ends with these words: “In my mind, I have been offering my father apologies that his dream has been thwarted and that both he and I are left with the sadness of frustrated hope. I am an old man now but I know how to grieve over a boyhood dream that has gone.” The memory of the hate-mail he received still brings a flush of hot redness to my cheeks. “Good riddance to the traitor, to the hater of his people,” one woman wrote in the comments to his obituary.
A couple of months before Theo died (April 5, 2015), he was asked during an interview by MrMedia about the police shootings of unarmed black people and the formation of the Black Lives Matter movement. Do you think anything has fundamentally changed? the interviewer asked. “Of course, much has changed,” Theo answered. “But, as the French say, the more it changes, the more it remains the same. And as the protesters in the streets will tell you with their placards, we still have to march, we still have to say, black lives matter. That is such a sad commentary on our world.” Theo followed the development of the BLM movement with avid interest and enthusiasm, praising the commitment to nonviolence and the broad-based coalition. I guess he would not have been surprised by the anti-Israel rhetoric in the new BLM platform, or by the use of word genocide: After all, as the French say…
I’m sure he would have spoken out, and he might have done so with some force and bravado. But my guess is that with his wide-open heart, and abiding feelings of love between his brothers and his sisters, he would have felt that old sting, of a boyhood dream gone, once again.
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Aimee Ginsburg Bikel served as the India Correspondent for Yedioth Ahronoth for sixteen years. She is the founding director of the Theodore Bikel Legacy Project. She was married to Theodore Bikel from 2013 until his death in 2015.