All People Are My Brothers And Sisters
In service of a better world
Theo was raised by his proudly socialist father, Joseph Bikel z"l, to always do whatever he could to make this world a better place- a world of justice and of peace for all people everywhere. For Theo, as for his parents and for so many of the Jews of that place and that time, this was the very essence of Judaism- the fixing of the world, making the world better. For this, he believed, he was born : not that he could not have a wonderfully good time with life in the meanwhile!
Wherever there was a movement for human rights and social justice- Theo was there, often at the forefront. He was a committed activist for civil rights in the south of the United States, marching in Alabama and elsewhere (spending a few nights in jail); and in the anti apartheid movement (another night in jail for that one). With others, he led the effort to free Soviet Jewry, going there himself several times to meet and support refuseniks. He was a labor union leader: he led the Actors Equity and the 4A's, the two major performers unions, for 40 years- and is credited for many improvements in the lives of actors and entertainers in those years. He was the vice president of the International Federation of Actors, as well.
A devoted Jew (culturally and ethnically, if not religiously!), he was always involved in Jewish causes, fighting against antisemitism and for the continuation of Yiddish and Jewish Culture. He served as the Vice President of the American Jewish Congress, and, later, as the President of PPI- Partners for a Progressive Israel. In the last few decades of his life, he increasingly spoke out against the continuing occupation of Palestine by Israel, leading to many displays of anger and even hatred. But, although pained, he would not back down. He wrote about the end of his Zionist dream: a country devoted to the very principles that were fed to him as a baby: building a world of kindness, justice, equality and peace with every breath.
“Non-action is an act, and silence speaks” - Theodore Bikel
I am my sibling's keeper
Interviews, articles and texts
“That night, from my jail cell in Birmingham Alabama, I dreamed of a time when at least the jails in this country would not be segregated. How could I even imagine that two little girls named Sasha and Malia would be living in the White House? ” - Theodore Bikel
A Farewell To SNCC- Read Theo's famous public letter about leaving SNCC over their newer antisemitic stance.
Read Aimee Ginsburg Bikel's companion piece in Tablet Magazine
Grieving The Children of Palestine and The Idea of Zionism- By Theodore Bikel, The Jewish Journal
Theo's own words on Social Justice- and being a Jew
For one reason or another I am viewed not just as an artist who happens tobe a Jew but,despite a large body of work in the general artistic arena, as a“Jewish artist.” I do not resent the label, except for the fact that Idisapprove of labels in general.Lest my predilection toward my own Jewishness be misunderstood ormisinterpreted, letme emphasize that I am a universalist, quitepassionately devoted to the cause of equality within the human family. ButI came by this attitude precisely because of the Jew in me. I perceive theworld, especially American society as a kaleidoscope. The brighter eachparticle shines, the better for society as a whole and certainly for eachethnic component of it. A ‘melting pot’, as some are so often tempted todefine our society, is as silly a notion as it is dangerous; from it can comeonly cultural disaster. For it leads inexorably toward a no-shape, no-color,undelineated mishmash, reducing everything to the lowest commondenominator. Need I stress that in cultural terms that turns out to be bothlow and common.Apart from carrying the label of ‘artist’,I am also known as an activist.Myactivism had its genesis a long time ago, when I was a boy in Vienna, Austria.When the barbarians entered the city and paraded right under ourwindows on the main thoroughfare where we lived, there was anxiety anda gnawing fear of what might be in store for us. We were the only family onthe block that did not open their windows wide to welcome the conquerorswho passed in open sedans, first the fat one and then the ogre himself, theone with the little moustache. Muchlater when people we knew, Jews,were dragged into the street, subjected to brutal indignities, and wewatched when some were bundled into trucks and driven off, there weresome decent gentile neighbors who did not participate in the brutality. Butthey saw it, just as we did, and did not call a halt. And today neither you norI nor history itself can absolve these ‘nice’ people of guilt and complicity.I was not able to formulate my feelingsuntil much later as an adult but Iknew that I would never allowmyself to become like these nice neighbors.Now, whenever I witness injustice and discrimination I do not have theluxury–as they thought they did-of saying ‘it’s not my fight.’ it is my fight;it is always our fight. The victims may be of any color, race, gender,ethnicity or religion–in my mind they become Jews.45 years ago I stood in black churches in Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi,
speaking of the curse of inequality, singing of freedom, holding hands withministers, civil rights workers and students. From the churches we set outto march proclaiming a burning quest for freedom and more often than notwe ended up in jail.I was there not only because my voice and presence were needed as werethose of so many other Americans--yes, liberals ifyou will (it was not yet apejorative term). I stood there chiefly because I needed to be there as adecent person, as a good American, and as a Jew.I also had to let them know all that, especially the last part, the Jewish part.How do you do that? Well, I am a very secular Jew, I travel and perform onthe Sabbath, I eat all kinds of cockamamie food–but when I was in that jailin Alabama I insisted on kosher food.We thought that with the passage of time America would learn and that theatrocity ofbombing a church and killing four young children in it would not--could not--be repeated. It was a vain hope.We live in 2008 now and it is sad to report that in the last two decadessome 125 churches were burned and many more vandalized. And it isescalating.What does that teach us?Who are these people?KKK, white supremacists, and members of--mark the term well--the“Aryan nation”. Remember how the word was used against Jews. It still is.Here’s a quote from one of their pamphlets: “non-whitesare ‘mud-people’and Jews are ‘children of Satan.’Is it only in the south? SC, NC, ALA, MISS, FLA, GA? No.–it is also in Seattle,Wash. And the so-called Aryan nation is headquartered in Idaho.“jerky kids?” “pranksters?”In some communities, even nowwith all the national focus there is awoeful lack of attention being paid.They say that white churches were also burned. True, but in these very fewcases it was found that thieves committed the arson so as to cover upburglaries. Different, quite different.̨Maybe it’s not a black thing, maybe it’s a church thing, a religious thing. So
what. All of it is to be condemned.All of it is criminal.In the fight for human dignity I had the distinction of being arrested inWashington D,C. twice within one year. The first was in front of the SouthAfrican embassy where daily protests about the evils of apartheid weremounted. The second arrest was at the Soviet embassy. The protest wasabout the treatment of Jews by the Soviet Union.This time there wereeight of us, seven men and one woman. We asked to be admitted to theembassy, asked to talk with the ambassador or the chargé d’affaires and,naturally, were refused entry. We stood in front of the gates anddemonstrated the only way one can in a peaceful manner: we sang. Wesang in English “let my people go”, we sang in Hebrew “hiney ma tov–howgood it is for brethren to dwell together in peace and unity,” and I sang inRussian “pharaonu gavaryu otpusti narod moy”–‘to you pharaoh I say, letmy people go.’The DC police were there with their paddy wagon, ready to do their bit. Afew minutes into our protest, the sergeant came up and recited his formulaof it being against DC regulations to demonstrate within 500 feet of anembassy. He ordered us to stop andleave. I said very politely: “werespectfully decline.” and we continued to sing. “In that case,” he said, “youare now under arrest.” They took us, one by one, to the van to behandcuffed. While this was going on the sergeant came up to me and said:“I’mleaving you for last; you’ve got the best voice.” I would not mindhaving those words on my tombstone.At times I do use my voice and whatever other talents I may have in theservice of a cause I believe in. When you do that you have to be careful nottoabuse an audience’s trust. After all, many of them came just to hearmusic. But neither can you allow your voice to be stilled in order to pleaseeveryone who listens. If you try to please everybody, you end up pleasingnobody, least of all all your own sense of justice.My passions, both as an artist and as an activist were informed by aconviction, instilled in me by my father, that those who are voiceless andpowerless must be empowered by men and women who have the voiceand eloquence to speak ontheir behalf. And so, as a natural consequence, I
found myself involved in labor unions, specifically those that dealt with theperforming artist. In my role as president of the union representing stageperformers I helped in the establishment of federallysupported housing forartists. I also had a hand in bringing about the creation of the nationalendowment for the arts. Later I was appointed by president Jimmy Carterto serve on the National Council for the Arts, its overseeing body.It was not aneasy task because our nation, alone among others withinWestern civilization has little history and even less inclination of viewingthe arts as an essential expression of the nation’s well being. Those of uswho care have been champions of freedom for America’s arts and forcreating an environment in which such freedom is made possible. Wefought McCarthyism in the fifties and we are fighting for freedom of speech,including the freedom to dissent, even now as I speak.After 9/11 our world, our way of life will never again be what it was. Ourassumption that we are invulnerable, protected by two oceans and bymodern technology, has been shattered. We were wrong to have beencomplacent and for caring little about the turmoil elsewhere. Then it hit uswherewe lived and now we experience the fear others have always known.We were wrong to be complacent but we did not deserve this. I count onthe resilience of the American people but I wonder if we will be able todevelop the mechanism to deal with our new fears. The people of Anatevkain Fiddler on the Roof knew how to survive; they had their faith and theirstructured lives were informed by their traditions. But most of us inAmerica do not live by tradition. Finding a way to live in the post-9/11world is not a matter of pop psychology, sound bytes, quick fixes and shortmonosyllabic bursts. Sentient and intelligent human beings need to dobetter than quick fixes.We will find a way because we must. We may never get back the world wehad before September 11 but, in the words of the song, we will ‘try toremember the kind of September when life was slow and oh so mellow.’ tosuffer the loss of innocence is something we may have to bear; to lose thememory of it would be far worse still.And now we are in a war. A war that gives many of us doubts, fears for ourcountry, fears for the world, doubts about the wisdom of our leaders. At
such times it becomes the fashion of the day to silence all voices of dissent,with artists as the main target. But artists are also citizens–-often farbetter informed--and certainly no less entitled than the shopkeeper onthe street to give voice to their views.They say: actors should act and sing and keep their views to themselves.They say: Performers have no business usingtheir visibility to furtherpolitical causes. Strange though, the very people who say these things hadno problem cheering the political views of the actor Ronald Reagan or theof that other actor, the Wienerschnitzel who is the present governor ofCalifornia.The right of dissent is in the highest democratic tradition of a free country;and artists, indeed all citizens, have an obligation to speak truth to power(to use Elie Wiesel’s phrase.)Let no one say that dissent in wartime or in peacetime is tantamount todisloyalty, or worse, treason. One thing I know for certain: my colleagueswho stood in opposition to the war grieve for the American lives that arebeing sacrificed, grieve for America’s sons and daughters under arms, justas they grieve for civilian deaths. No one I know opposed this war becausethey supported Saddam--who was a criminal, a mass murderer, withoutwhom the world is better off. But the case for war was presented to thecongress and the American people based on two falsehoods: thattherewere weapons of mass destruction pointed at us by Iraq and that there wasa link between Saddam and al Qaeda.Even before the first shot was fired, there were cogent argumentsto be made, questions to be raised about legitimacy, about unilateralism,about where we were, where we are headed, about our nationalequilibrium and about our moral compass. And yes, questions about theunembarrassed brashness of power.The simpleton who coined the phrase ‘my country right or wrong’ was aptlyanswered over one hundred years ago by Carl Schurz, a U.S. senator andformer general. “my country right or wrong,” he said, “indeed; when rightto be kept right and when wrong to be put right.”My attitude toward Israel is similar: those who care for Israel deeply–andIdo--must be prepared to see it fully, accept its glory but must with equalvigor attempt to correct its flaws.We must fight injustice, discrimination and oppression wherever we find it:
Specifically in Darfur, in all lands that oppress women, in Asia, in Africa, andyes, in our own country whenever baser instincts threaten to overpower itssense of higher morality.All this istikkun olam, a concept that originated with the 16thcenturycabbalist Isaac Luria. It roughly means ‘making the world better.’ I loveAmerica, my adopted country; and I also love Israel. Love them enough towant to help change them for the better. Tikkun olam–it is my task. It is our task.