This week marks the death of two twentieth century giants, Pete Seeger and Shulamith Aloni. In the United States and in Israel, both fought tirelessly for civil rights and human rights, human dignity and social justice. Who remembers these things? The fight for organized labor, the Spanish Civil War, the fight against fascism, the Palmach generation, the Zionist left and Israeli peace movement just before Zionism became a dirty word. Seeger’s American folk idiom was internationalist, including as part of it a Hebrew folk element. “Turn, Turn, Turn” “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena,” and this haunting version, sung by Seeeger in Yiddish and translated by him into English of the haunting partisan song from the Holocaust, “Quiet is the Night,” which I’m linking here.
Our world seems small in comparison, less capacious and rounded out. As always, J.J. Goldberg gets the Pete Seeger in Hebrew scoop far better than I can. You can find it here. It includes more youtube recordings of Seeger singing Hebrew and Jewish folktunes, while reminding us that Seeger was to become a critic of Israel, after 1967 and mostly sharply around the first Lebanon War, and that he sang, nevertheless in Central Park for the 50th anniversary celebration of Israel’s independence. What binds the internationalism of the Old Left, represented by Seeger (b.1919) and of Labor-progressive Zionism, represented by Aloni (b.1928) was the belief in justice, a certain kind of justice, whose common origin was mid-century, the historical time before and after the Second World War.
Less glowing are Seeger’s own missteps, having to do with his membership in the Young Communist League in the 1930s and 1940s. Before supporting the entry of the U.S. into the war, after the German invasion of the USSR, he had opposed it, after the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact partitioning Poland. About this Seeger later apologized. For good and for ill, our own time and place are more riddled by skepticism; for good and for bad, mostly bad, unmarked by the spirit of opposition. We don’t sing, and we don’t fight, not really, not like Seeger, not like Aloni, straight and direct, ever the party-parliamentarian street-brawler, the establishment critic of the establishment.