Remembering Theodore Bikel, Israeli

The late actor and musician Theodore Bikel, who played an important part in American and American Jewish cultural life, spent twelve years of his youth in pre-state Israel. That experience was later memorialized in important recordings of Zionist and Israeli folk songs, as Edwin Seroussi writes:

A lot has been (and will be) written about Bikel. Most obituaries stressed, with a substantial measure of justification, his cosmopolitan persona or his career as an American theater and movie actor, entertainer, and folk-song revivalist. . . . Bikel made a career out of his cosmopolitanism by assiduously playing the “other” on the stage or on the screen, exploiting his virtuosic capacity to speak, and also to sing, in countless languages.

However, in Bikel’s mind, the Israeli period of his life remained a vivid experiential presence. Bikel lived in . . . Tel Aviv from 1938, when he arrived from Vienna with his family as a fourteen-year old refugee, to 1946, when he moved to London to pursue a career as a professional actor at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. . . .

The genesis of Bikel’s career as a professional singer was marked by his first landmark [record] of songs, eventually titled Theodore Bikel Sings Songs of Israel. . . . [T]here was a demand [at the time] for Israeli “products” among North American concentrations of Jews, and Bikel was the right person at the right time and place. The sound and the packaging of Bikel’s album catered to this Jewish market and its imagination of the new Israel. The suggestive cover of Theodore Bikel Sings Songs of Israel—[in the producer’s words], “a kibbutz girl in the kibbutz uniform and pert hat, . . . her sun-bronzed legs marching happily across a field with a hoe on her shoulder”—which we now know was in fact a fake, visualized Israeliness as the target audience wanted to imagine it: a young, hard-working laborer firmly attached to the land, free from the shackles of religious Orthodoxy and sexually appealing.

Read more at Jewish Music Research Center

More about: American Jewry, Arts & Culture, Israel & Zionism, Israeli music

Israel Can’t Stake Its Fate on “Ironclad” Promises from Allies

Israeli tanks reportedly reached the center of the Gazan city of Rafah yesterday, suggesting that the campaign there is progressing swiftly. And despite repeatedly warning Jerusalem not to undertake an operation in Rafah, Washington has not indicated any displeasure, nor is it following through on its threat to withhold arms. Even after an IDF airstrike led to the deaths of Gazan civilians on Sunday night, the White House refrained from outright condemnation.

What caused this apparent American change of heart is unclear. But the temporary suspension of arms shipments, the threat of a complete embargo if Israel continued the war, and comments like the president’s assertion in February that the Israeli military response has been “over the top” all call into question the reliability of Joe Biden’s earlier promises of an “ironclad” commitment to Israel’s security. Douglas Feith and Ze’ev Jabotinsky write:

There’s a lesson here: the promises of foreign officials are never entirely trustworthy. Moreover, those officials cannot always be counted on to protect even their own country’s interests, let alone those of others.

Israelis, like Americans, often have excessive faith in the trustworthiness of promises from abroad. This applies to arms-control and peacekeeping arrangements, diplomatic accords, mutual-defense agreements, and membership in multilateral organizations. There can be value in such things—and countries do have interests in their reputations for reliability—but one should be realistic. Commitments from foreign powers are never “ironclad.”

Israel should, of course, maintain and cultivate connections with the United States and other powers. But Zionism is, in essence, about the Jewish people taking responsibility for their own fate.

Read more at JNS

More about: Israeli Security, Joseph Biden, U.S.-Israel relationship