Theo Bikel


"I’m a very old man now. I don’t know that if in my lifetime I will see any results to the dream I’m working for. Where did my dream go? Is it still there? Do I cling to it for sentimental, nostalgic reasons or is there a pragmatic outcome even at this late stage, even at a time when everybody else will tell you that the dream is all but gone. It’s not."

Peace Activism
1988 – 2015
Partners for Progressive Israel
Americans for Peace Now
American Jewish Congress

Interview Date
May 5, 2015

Interviewed By
Aliza Becker

The Interview

“I grew up in a home that was socialist and Zionist both. My father was a leftwing Zionist. In fact, it saved our lives, frankly, because when the Nazis came into Austria and we were scrambling to get out, the British gave a very limited number of entry permits into Palestine. They turned it over to the Jewish Community Council who in turn gave it to Zionists.  Why give it to non-Zionists to enter into Palestine?  My father headed the list of the Labor Zionists and he saved our lives. We actually legally left Austria, legally entered Palestine, which was very rare in those days.

“I grew up with a dream. I mean as a boy I read Herzl's Der Judenstaat, which is a utopian description of a Jewish state in which all human beings have equal rights, equal opportunities. He saw a Utopia that of course never realized itself because there were already a people in Palestine before the Jewish immigration. 

“In the beginning it was a kibbutz-oriented, egalitarian society, which it was when we got there in 1938, a place where nobody locked doors, where everybody called each other chaver (friend, comrade), the kind of dream of a Zionist Socialist society which had never left me… It was bequeathed to me by my father, and I still consider myself to be the keeper of that dream.

“As things turned out, the other people who lived there who were not Jews needed to be reckoned with, needed to be taken into consideration, needed to be acknowledged. Nobody in the end expected there to be a love affair between two people who have built-in enmities, built in hostilities. But what they are expected to do is to be able to live next to each other, not necessarily with each other, not necessarily intertwined socially and societally, but as long as you stop shouting at each other or worse shooting at each other, as long as you cooperate in terms of economics, water rights, agricultural rights, civil rights, you are on the right path...

So what of the Arab neighbor?  When he engages in acts of barbarism or terrorism he has to be opposed. He has to be fought. What cannot be done is put them all into one pot. All Arabs are dot, dot, dot. Since when?  Where?  Does that mean all Jews are Bernie Madoff, dot, dot, dot?  There's no such thing as “all.” Entire peoples can be tarred with the same brush. I agree that the lines have been more acerbically drawn recently.  . . .

“There are sane people everywhere, and there are sane people in Israel. The sane people who are Jews, Israelis, and there are sane people who are Arabs. Identify them. Identify with them. Talk to them.  . . .

“I resent being asked to feel grief only when a Jewish child dies. I grieve when a child dies, period. Any child is entitled to a future.

Tzedek is justice; tzedakah is charity. We’re a long way from realizing the difference. ‘You don’t owe Arabs charity. You owe them justice.’ We are a charitable people. We’re willing to give here and there. But what about tzedek, justice?

“The Israel that exists today…has turned into a pale imitation of America –a consumerist society with a heavy capitalist emphasis; a society in which many thousands of children go to bed hungry.

“It is a society that is intolerant, a society that does not acknowledge the rights of non-Jewish Israelis who are citizens of Israel. Nobody expected there to be a love affair between two people who have built-in enmities and hostilities, but they are expected to be able to live next to each other –not ignored and swept under the rug.

“Nuanced political thought no longer exists in Israel or in the world. It’s either black or white, good or evil. There are no shades. Any positive statement about Israel is welcomed as a pro-Israel declaration. Any statement critical of Israel is characterized as anti-Israel, inimical, hostile for Israel. Since when? If I see flaws and I ask that they be corrected, I love Israel more, not less.

“Our world, especially the world of intellectuals, is a world of shades, of nuance. It’s not a world of absolutes. You cannot live that way. You cannot think that way. You cannot love that way, and you cannot hate that way. I am one of those who negates hate. I’m an opponent of not just violence, but of violent thought, of intolerance.

“What is important to me is a vision of peace that is very elusive. I still believe in a two-state solution. It is the only possible solution to the conflict. That presupposes, however, that the one thorn in the flesh of both Israel and its neighbors, which is the Territories and the settlement of the Territories, must be solved or must be dissolved.

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“I have never been in favor of boycott and divestment and sanctions directed against Israel. I am an advocate of boycott of its Territories. I would not buy goods that are produced in the territories even though Israel tries to pretend that there's no difference between what is produced in the territories and what is produced in Israel proper. But there's Israel proper and then there's Israel improper, which are the Territories. Artists who came, who were invited to appear in the Territories, some of whom are my friends, colleagues, refused to go.

“I've never been in favor of cultural boycotts of any kind. I'm an artist. I believe in the free exchange of art and artist's products. But as I once read Pablo Casals in an interview, who spent most of his life in exile, and he said, ‘My cello is my weapon. I choose what I play, where I play and before whom I play.’  So, we make a statement by our presence and we make a statement by our absence also. And I supported those artists who refused to go to the Territories and in their name and their talent.

“Once I gave a concert at the Hollywood Bowl and the Jewish Defense League was heckling from the audience, calling me an enemy of Israel. As they were being escorted out, I told them that one of my songs speaks more of my love for Israel than their declarations of hate ever would or could.

“I’m a very old man now. I don’t know that if in my lifetime I will see any results to the dream

I’m working for. Where did my dream go? Is it still there? Do I cling to it for sentimental, nostalgic reasons or is there a pragmatic outcome even at this late stage, even at a time when everybody else will tell you that the dream is all but gone. It’s not. I still am an idealist. I am still a socialist. In fact, I’m still a Zionist.

“Who will carry the flag? Who will carry the banner of peace, of understanding? There are enough people. I believe the present government of Israel to be totally on the wrong path. My hope is for an awakening, a realization of the Israeli people that they are capable of better.

“Curiosity is the first step to understanding. Be curious about the ways of peace; be curious about what is possible, about the array of possibilities.

“I have always been quite outspoken about the need for peace. I have not always been as cognizant of all the ramifications of it. But then I learned and I found my way. This is my way; these are my thoughts. These are my views. It’s what I believe, the credo that I live by, and I’ll take it with me wherever I’m going.”




Theodore Bikel was born in 1924 and passed away on July 21, 2015 at age 91, just two months after being interviewed for the American Jewish Peace Archive. He identified his occupation as “singer, actor, activist.” He distinguished himself in all of these endeavors.  As an entertainer, he was both an internationally-recognized singer of folk music (in multiple languages) and an actor on stage, and in cinema and television.

He combined his performer and activist identities as a founder of the Newport Folk Festival, being closely associated in that venue with such folk giants as Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and Peter, Paul and Mary.  And he served his industry’s unions as president of the Associated Actors and Artistes of America and Actors' Equity in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

He starred on Broadway with Mary Martin in “The Sound of Music,” and the now-classic anthem, “Edelweiss,” was composed explicitly with Bikel in mind.

In 1967, Bikel took over from Zero Mostel as Tevye in the original Broadway production of “Fiddler on the Roof,” appearing in more than 2,000 performances, and becoming iconic in that role.

He began a prolific movie career as a World War I German naval captain in “The African Queen” with Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart (1951) and was nominated for an Academy Award for his portrayal of a Southern sheriff in “The Defiant Ones” (1958).  His comic roles include playing a Soviet submarine commander in “The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming” (1966), and a pedantic Hungarian linguist in “My Fair Lady” (1964). 

He acted in numerous classic — and not so classic — television shows: from Gunsmoke, Dr. Kildare, Rawhide, Murder She Wrote and The Twilight Zone to Star Trek: The Next Generation and Babylon 5.

After being fortunate enough to get out of his native Austria in 1938 with his family because of his father’s Labor Zionist activism, he spent most of his teen years in what became Israel.

Bikel became involved with Partners for Progressive Israel (PPI) (formerly Meretz USA) until his death and on several occasions as a star attraction for fund-raising events. He also led the organization in an important new policy direction, when he declared his solidarity with 150 Israeli performers who publicly pledged to boycott the new theater in the large West Bank settlement town of Ariel.  This prompted PPI to endorse an economic boycott targeted at West Bank settlements (as opposed to Israel proper).

In 2013, he participated in PPI’s joint effort with Rabbis for Human Rights, T’ruah and others with an online video and an op-ed article protesting Israel’s mistreatment of thousands of its Bedouin citizens, whose villages in the Negev go unrecognized by the government, which repeatedly subjects them to the threat and fact of wholesale demolition and displacement.

Bikel represented an alternative voice to mainstream American Jewish attitudes toward Israel.  In his autobiography, he noted that: “The American Jewish response to Israel is woefully monolithic. We who are so capable of intricate thought are almost boorishly insistent about viewing the complexities of Israeli society and political makeup through a one-channel, narrow prism.”

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