If I Had An (Anti-BDS) Hammer!
Wed, 05/28/2014
Special To The Jewish Week
BSD, not BDS: Pete Seeger, argues the author, champions Building Serious Dialogue.  Getty Images
BSD, not BDS: Pete Seeger, argues the author, champions Building Serious Dialogue. Getty Images

As a rule, BDS, the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, doesn’t keep me up at night. (And I don’t think it keeps my two boys up, either.) The reason is because, in my mind, the movement is destined to fail.

BDS only bothers me when it intrudes on my personal life, which it does when I find one of my Facebook friends has added another thread to the long list of anti-Roger Waters posts, telling me what the former Pink Floyd front man just said, or is reputed to have said. 

Of course, the posts share other BDS celebrity stories too, like why Danny Glover demanded one of his films be pulled from a Tel Aviv film festival. Should I feel personally slighted? Should I send him my picture of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching with Martin Luther King, or remind him of Palestinians dancing in the streets on 9/11?

While I am aware that BDS does harm some Israelis and Israeli companies, and that my friends are truly concerned, I feel that the movement is a dead end. Its finality comes from its focus on a single, negative idea — to cut off communications between those who support Israel and those who support the Palestinians. BDS is not out to build. It’s out to burn. 

Instead of embracing Israel’s brilliant scientists and academics, their counterparts around the world are pressured to exclude them from conferences and research fellowships. Vile though these efforts are, I think it is important not to lump all those who criticize Israel’s policies as “BDS-inspired Israel haters.”

Pete Seeger was a case in point.

In March, our local Jerusalem synagogue, which has a large population of English-speaking baby boomers, held a folk sing-in as a tribute to Pete Seeger, who had recently died. It was a sort of musical shloshim, or memorial service, 30 days after the folk singer’s his death.

When the event was announced from the pulpit at the end of services, one conservative congregant, who hated Seeger’s leftist activism, stood up and booed very loudly. Some of us laughed, and some of us tried to calm him down. However, when confronted, he was quick to explain that in 2011, Seeger had come out in favor of BDS, even donating a portion of his royalties from “Turn, Turn, Turn” (ironically, based on Ecclesiastes) to the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD), a BDS group, according to the group. (Seeger eventually backtracked.)

I’ll admit that, as an American whose Holocaust survivor parents moved to America to seek a new life, it was wonderful to hear someone sing out for love (“If I Had a Hammer”); against war (“Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”); for taking a stand against injustice (“Wasn’t That a Time”); and on behalf of Israel, too (“Tzena Tzena” — even if the Weavers did mangle the words and fudge the translation). We knew the words as well as we knew the Yiddish songs and zemiros we sang around the Shabbos table.

However, as part of a second-generation family whose parents spoke quite a bit about their wartime experiences and filled our heads with stories of love and loss, I am very sensitive about what I tell my kids about anti-Semitism and the BDS movement.

Being Israeli, they already know about the conflict from the news and friends. I want them to know what’s going on, but I also want them to feel safe. I want them to learn to recognize that to solve problems you need to communicate. I want them to know that hatred and racism don’t solve problems. Dialogue does. I want them to understand the difference between the righteous indignation of Pete Seeger and the self-righteous indignation of Roger Waters.

Waters, for all his protestations, appears to be both anti-Semitic and anti-Israel. Last year, the Wiesenthal’s Center’s Rabbi Abraham Cooper blasted the singer for his use of inflammatory, anti-Semitic imagery in his live performances of “The Wall,” as well as his anti-Israel sentiments. In an open letter he posted on Facebook, he denied the charge, insisting he has “many very close Jewish friends.”

At the very least, in his self-centered arrogance, Waters clearly blames Jews for their lack of appreciation of his “art” and political views. It’s apparent from his letter that he cares less for dialogue than diatribe. (To my knowledge, he has yet to see the need to apologize for his insensitivity — and I suppose the irony of his statement that many of his very close friends are Jewish completely escapes him.)

For Pete Seeger, however, I felt the booing was unjustified. I say this not only because he was a childhood icon whose music I admired and whom I respected as a supporter of Israel; but also because although he said he supported BDS, what he was really supporting was BSD — Building Serious Dialogue.

To use his own words: “My religion is that the world will not survive without dialogue. I would say to the Israelis and the Palestinians, if you think it’s terrible now, just think ahead 50 years to when the world blows itself up. It will get worse unless you learn how to turn the world around peacefully.”

In the end, we all forgot about the booing (the shul motto seems to be “never go to kiddush angry”), had a bit of a laugh and moved on. Two weeks later, the memorial concert went off without a hitch. We sang the songs, told the stories and shared what we remembered of the ’60s and ’70s.

As we sang, I remembered when, as a child, I first heard Pete Seeger singing “We Shall Overcome.” For me it wasn’t just the civil rights anthem, it was the story of my parents, who came out of Europe and raised a family in America. It was about me, and others like me who were able to say each Passover, “In every generation they arose to destroy us, but with God’s help we prevailed.” For me, it was the anthem of peace, calling on people to try to live in peace, walking hand in hand.

Pete Seeger once said he believes in the principles expressed by Hillel in Pirkei Avot: “If I am not for myself, who will be. If I am only for myself, what am I. And if not now, when.” Even if he believed Israel was wrong about its policies toward the Palestinians, his philosophy is close to mine and expresses the values I want my kids to uphold. He never closed the door to dialogue to his last day. No matter his opinions, I can truly say, were he alive today, he would still be welcome at our Shabbos table to sing, and maybe to talk. 

Rabbi Sid Slivko is an educator and writer who lives in Jerusalem with his wife, Michele Chabin, and their two 11-year-old sons. He is currently working on a book, “From God’s Mouth: The Evolution of Oral Law.”