We join the many who mourn the passing of Pete Seeger, who died on January 27, 2014 at the age of 94. Seeger wasn’t Jewish but he embodied values we hold dear, chief among them the notion of tikkun olam.
He had a complicated relationship with Israel: admiring and then questioning, but always open to discussion. Below is an excerpt from Seeger’s obituary in The Jerusalem Post:
The musician first visited Israel in 1964 to spend time on several kibbutzim with his wife and children, JTA reported. He also visited again right before the 1967 Six Day War, performing the hit Hebrew song “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena,” which he had recorded with the Weavers in 1950, according to JTA. The Weavers version of the song, originally written by Polish immigrant to Palestine Issachar Miron in 1941, made No. 2 on the Billboard charts for 1951 – second only to another song of the Weavers, “Goodnight Irene.”
In addition to performing “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena,” Seeger also recorded a version of “Dayenu,” from the Passover Haggadah, in the 1959 album Folk Songs for Young People. Seeger also performed “Hineh Ma Tov” with the Weavers in their 1963 Reunion at Carnegie Hall – Part 2 album.
In November 2010, Seeger performed in an online peace rally “With Earth and Each Other,” in support of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, despite widespread calls for him to boycott the event. At the Kibbutz Ketura-based institute, students from around the world, including Jewish and Arab Israelis, as well as Palestinians and Jordanians, partake in environmental studies and research programs.
Seeger resisted the call of more than 40 organizations, led by Adalah-NY: The New York Campaign for the Boycott of Israel, to skip the event and “join the growing list of artists who have respected the Palestinian boycott call.” At the time, Arava Institute executive director David Lehrer stressed that the event was not designed to be a political rally but “to show the world that there is another side of the conflict, in which people across borders are striving to work together for the betterment of all.”
The musician expressed similar sentiments prior to his performance, telling JTA that, while he could understand why someone might want to boycott a place financially, he could not understanding a boycott of dialogue.
“The world will not be here in 50 years unless we learn how to communicate with each other nonviolently,” he told JTA.
“By March 2011, however, Adalah-NY reported that Seeger had met with representatives of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions and said that he supports the anti-Israel BDS movement, according to JTA.”
“Afterwards, Seeger told JTA that while he “probably said” that, he is still learning about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and that his “opinions waver with each piece of information” he receives.”
“After learning about Seeger’s passing, Lehrer told The Jerusalem Post that “this is indeed a sad day” for the Arava Institute and for “all those who love folk music and believe in the power of song to change the world.” Lehrer fondly recalled visiting Seeger at his home in Cold Springs, New York in 2010, when he and his daughter enjoyed singing a few songs with the musician as well.”
“Pete Seeger stood for justice and for standing up for the weak and the powerless,” he said. “Mr. Seeger supported the Arava Institute because of our commitment to environmental justice in the region and because of our commitment to building bridges between people instead of walls,” Lehrer continued.
“We join with the rest of the humanity in mourning the loss of an important voice for peace, sustainability and human dignity.”
The founder of the Arava Institute, Prof. Alon Tal, recalled the “tremendous pressure on Pete Seeger to pull out of the virtual rally.”
“But Pete refused,” said Tal, a faculty member at Ben-Gurion University’s Blaustein Institute of Desert Research, on sabbatical at Stanford University.
“He sought peace in the Middle East and expected Israel to pursue peace more expeditiously, but he was not an anti-Zionist,” he added.
Commending Seeger’s commitment to the environment, Tal stressed that the musician’s work to preserve natural resources must be remembered by all those working toward a more sustainable future.
“Pete Seeger’s efforts, indeed unflagging efforts, to restore the Hudson River to its former glory constitutes one of the great conservation stories of recent US environmental history,” he said.
Tal – who is also a banjo and fiddler player in the Arava Riders bluegrass band – said he learned to play banjo using the “Peter Seeger method.”
“Pete Seeger will first and foremost be remembered as someone who popularized the social conscience in the American folk tradition,” Tal said.
Crediting Seeger for transforming the five-string banjo “into an acceptable acoustic instrument and not just a marginal twanging oddity,” Tal said he appreciates that Seeger made the instrument mainstream.
“Most of all he loved to sing and got a lot of us who grew up in the ‘60s to love to sing the great American folk repertoire,” Tal said. “And I will always remember that he never stopped singing Israeli folk songs like ‘Hineh Mah Tov.’ Let’s look at the entirety of his remarkable life and not this or that political statement that he might have made – and sing a song in this great man’s honor today.”