Fifty years ago this month, Pete Seeger was in Israel, singing in kibbutz dining halls, moshav auditoriums and development town community centers. Seeger, his wife Toshi and their three teens were on a year-long tramp around the globe. They’d been to Africa and Asia, and after their stop here they traveled to England, France and then across the Iron Curtain.
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Israel was the fulfillment of a promise that Seeger had made to his friend and collaborator, the Israeli folk singer Ilka Raveh. Already for years Seeger had sung Hebrew songs that reflected, he said, “the spirit of a people fighting, working and building.” One of these songs was "Daroma Le-Eilat” (South to Eilat), and Seeger was eager to visit the town and perform there. After that, he was taken to Grofit, an army outpost on its way to becoming a kibbutz. Seeger spent an evening recording songs the soldiers sang for him, and then singing for them in return.
The next morning, ignoring a desert storm, he and his family motored out for Jerusalem. Some hours later, an army patrol from Grofit discovered the Seegers parked on the Arava road, 45 kilometers north of the kibbutz. A wadi had swelled with the rain, washing away a length of road. Unable to pass, the five Seegers, Pete with his banjo, clambered on the roof of the car and passed two hours in song, which is how the soldiers found them. The car was hoisted over the barrier, and the family was on its way.
Three years after that, in May, 1967, during the anxious week before the Six-Day War, Seeger was back, eager to sing for peace. When his promoter refused to organize a joint Jewish-Arab concert, Seeger used his own money to rent a hall in the Tel Aviv Hilton and a thousand Jews, Muslims and Christians came to see him. Seeger announced that ticket sales would go to a Palestinian teen he’d met in Lebanon, whose parents had fled Acre, and who couldn’t afford university. I am not a smart man, Seeger told the crowd, and I don’t know how to bring peace any better than you. But I know there are hundreds and thousands of ways to help. Reviewing the event, journalist Tzvi Elgat found himself wishing that he could believe, with the entranced crowd, that war can be brought to an end: “When Pete Seeger’s banjo roars, the canons are silent.”
Many in Israel adored Seeger. “If I Had a Hammer” topped the Israeli pop charts in 1963, which is better than it had ever done in America. His concerts were broadcast on the radio, and lyrics to his songs were translated and printed in the daily paper. Where I grew up, among progressive American Jews and Zionists, he was revered, too, for standing up to McCarthy, fighting for unions, marching from Selma to Montgomery with Reverend King and Rabbi Heschel, and for leaving no doubt that in the better world he imagined would soon be upon us, we would have a place. For singing Tzena, Tzena along with We Shall Overcome.
Three years ago, Seeger was drawn into the grim debate over Israel, at first lending his name to a boycott, but later helping raise money for the Arava Institute. There was no contradiction. “I understand why someone would want to boycott a place financially,” Seeger was quoted, “but I don’t understand why you would boycott dialogue.”
There is much we could learn from Seeger. We could learn that even when we don’t know how to bring peace, there remain hundreds and thousands of ways to help. We could learn that when things are at their bleakest, it’s best to keep trying. We could learn, faced with an insurmountable barrier, not to fret or rage but to clamber to the roof in song, certain that the future holds something, inevitable if unforeseeable, that will in time hoist us forward.
Noah Efron teaches in the Graduate Program for Science, Technology & Society at Bar Ilan University, hosts the Promised Podcast on TLV1, and played bass for the now-defunct band, Liquid Plumr.