Thoughts on Iran; Thoughts on Theodore Bikel—by Peter Eisenstadt

This is the news. The United States and other major powers after years of delicate negotiations, reached an agreement with Iran. Iran has promised not to develop nuclear weapons; the US and the other powerful nations agreed, in steps, to lift the sanctions that have been crippling the Iranian economy. It’s a complex agreement, with many moving parts, but it has the possibility of ending or ameliorating the deep enmity that has defined US-Iranian relations since the fall of the Shah, which could be a potential benefit in all sorts of ways; in Iraq, Syria, the fight against ISIS, for the Iranian people, and changing the basic dynamic in the Middle East. It holds the possibility of being the most positive change in the Middle East in several decades.

To the surprise of absolutely no one, Netanyahu was staunch and utterly unbending in his opposition to the Iran agreement. But what was surprising is how much support his position received in Israel from those not in his government. The other Zionist parties, notably Lapid’s Yesh Atid and Herzog’s Zionist Camp expressed similar reservations, if not as vociferously as Netanyahu. And even Meretz, all alone on the Zionist left, sounded wobbly, not supporting the agreement as strongly as one might have supposed, and talking about going into coalition with another party, which would probably mean a move to the right. And the reason for this, clearly, is that the Iran agreement is intensely unpopular with most Israelis, and to remain credible the Israeli parties need to echo those concerns.

All of this came as a considerable shock to progressive and left wing American Jews. American Jews, as polls show, rather like the agreement. They tend to like Obama, they tend to support arrangements whereby former adversaries (the US and the Soviet Union, the US and China, the US and Cuba) reach agreements to decrease regional tensions. And they see the agreement as the only alternative to a Middle East War, with Iran developing a bomb anyway.

The gap between leftist American Jews and the center of Israeli opinion has, perhaps, never been greater. Most Israelis don’t trust agreements between former enemies, seeing them as scraps of paper that lull the foolish and weak-minded into a false sense of security. Egyptian-Israeli relations have been in a state of cold peace since the time of Sadat and Begin, and Israelis wonder what might have happened if Morsi had stayed in power. The peace treaty with Jordan is okay, but the Hashemite kingdom is weak and always capable of being toppled. And please don’t ask about Oslo. American liberals like to say “you make peace with enemies.” Most Israelis say this is silly, you make peace with countries that can no longer harm you. Israelis are very fearful. There are perhaps good reasons for this—Israel has been in a state of near continuous war since its founding, without going into the question of who did what first to whom. And for most Americans, war is distant, something waged “over there,” without direct personal involvement or consequences. Nonetheless, it seems to me over the last few decades, Israel has grown stronger and stronger, it has grown more and more fearful.

But I don’t really want to talk about Iran. I want to talk about Theodore Bikel, who passed away last week, at the age of 91. When I was growing up Theodore Bikel was one of our household gods. We must have had about a dozen Theodore Bikel records. The man could sing. Yiddish folk songs, Russian folk songs, Israeli folk songs, American folk songs, Broadway show tunes, you name it. He seemed to represent, in the early 1960s, all the components of my American Jewish identity—an awareness of our eastern European heritage, at a time when that was still a living heritage, thanks to grandparents and the old folks, the promise of Israel, the dream of socialism, and the struggle for racial justice at home, and they all appeared to fit together into a seamless whole. They no longer do, if they ever did. Theodore Bikel was a voice for justice, for peace, and for the continuation of Jewish identity, in all of its complexity, for many decades.

And perhaps I am wrong, but when I think of Bikel and his generation, they strike me as not being driven by fear in their politics or their cultural worldview. This is perhaps odd—this was, after all, a generation that came of age in Israel with the direct experience of the Holocaust (or in Bikel’s case, knowledge of how lucky he was to avoid it by moving to Palestine) and the 1948 war.

Let me suggest that there are two types of fear, the fear of the disinherited, to use the language of Howard Thurman, the 20th century African American religious thinker; and fear of the comfortable and established. Both kinds of fear can be disabling, but if channeled, the fear of the disinherited those who have nothing to lose, can be inspiring and a great motivation for action. They certainly made mistakes, the generation of 48 in Israel, and their contemporaries in Jewish America, but they were not afraid of change, and indeed, sought it out.

By contrast the fear of the powerful invariably leads to inaction, support for the status quo, the feeling that any change would likely be the worse. I don’t think most Israelis really like the situation they find themselves in, either in the Middle East in general , or with the Palestinians, but don’t see how any agreement, any treaty, would do anything but further empower their enemies. And so remembering Theodore Bikel is more than a nostalgic trip down memory lane. It is a reminder of a time, not so long ago, when Jews were not paralyzed by fear. And it was a world that was, to Jews, at least as dangerous as the one we are living in now. The whole point of Zionism, the whole point of Jewish entrance in the mainstream of European and American life in the 19th and 20th centuries was to achieve a freedom from fear, an emancipation from fear, and not wallowing it. This was Theordore Bikel’s lifework.