As a child of the 1960s in America, I grew up (as did my parents) on the music of Pete Seeger. “If I Had a Hammer,” popularized by Peter, Paul and Mary, became one of the iconic songs of that decade. “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” is a powerful, haunting lament to the young people sacrificed in wars. He even popularized “We Shall Overcome.” Often called “America’s conscience,” Pete Seeger embodied a plain, common-sense opposition to injustice of every sort.
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His relationship with Israel went back many years. As a member of The Weavers, he made the folk song “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena” a popular hit in the United States, and in 1964 he performed in the Jewish state.
Pete Seeger came into my life in a personal way when I received a letter from him back in 2002. He had read about the work of the human rights organization I headed, the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD), and commended us on our efforts to bring about a just peace between Israelis and Palestinians, which he found inspiring. He then informed me that he was donating half the royalties of his popular song “Turn, Turn, Turn” to ICAHD – only the half representing the music he composed, however. The lyrics, from Ecclesiastes, he didn’t feel he had a copyright on.
He enclosed the lyrics and music of the song, asking if we could find Israeli and Palestinian musicians who might come up with a Hebrew and Arabic version, which he would like to sing (that project is ongoing). The handwritten letter was then signed “Pete,” accompanied by sketch of a banjo above the words: “82 and declining.”
About five years ago, while passing through the part of the Hudson Valley where Seeger lived (after he had successfully led a major campaign to save the Hudson River), I visited him at his mountainside home, set in dense woods. He and his wife Toshi were living in a converted barn, the log cabin they had built nearby now inhabited by their daughter and grandchildren. We talked at length, walked around the property where he climbed a tree and ran around with the dog – and then, as he did with many visitors, he took out his banjo and had me join in some songs. Nothing overtly political; this was a social visit.
The political was to come three years later. Pete was asked by the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies in the Negev to participate in an online, virtual fund-raising rally in November, 2010, entitled “With Earth and Each Other,” a supposedly apolitical event. He happily agreed, believing he would be contributing to saving the Negev environment.
The Arava Institute, however, is closely associated with and funded by the Jewish National Fund, which was then, as now, actively engaged in displacing Bedouin citizens of Israel from their lands, ostensibly to create a “national forest” like those planted over the ruins of Palestinian villages and towns.
In February, 2011, I again visited Pete at his home. My purpose was to inform him of the implications of his name being associated with the JNF, but not to ask him to endorse the boycott, divestment, sanctions (BDS) movement per se. After we spoke of the dissonance between the Arava Institute’s supposed “trans-boundary” work and the fact that it has never distanced itself from the racist, anti-Arab and ultimately anti-environment policies of its JNF patron – he volunteered the following statement: “I appeared on that virtual rally because for many years I’ve felt that people should talk with people they disagree with. But it ended up looking like I supported the Jewish National Fund. I misunderstood the leaders of the Arava Institute because I didn’t realize to what degree the JNF was supporting Arava. Now that I know more, I support the BDS movement as much as I can. You can let my views be known.”
Pete was already in his 90s at that time and was not really familiar with either BDS or the role the JNF plays in displacing Bedouin. So while I wouldn’t characterize him as a real “BDS supporter,” I do believe he could not ignore the wider issues involved in his endorsement of that Arava Institute/JNF event, especially given his life-long dedication to social justice. He was buffeted to by two conflicting instincts: to stand unreservedly against injustice, and yet to keep dialogue open rather than boycotting.
Despite strong pressures to recant, Pete stuck to his guns. He would urge us to continue dialoguing with those with whom we disagree, whether Israeli Jews or Palestinians, yet standing plainly and uncompromisingly for justice and resistance to oppression.