I could scarcely believe my ears when staff members at Tikkun told me that Pete Seeger had just called to ask if he could perform at the first national Tikkun conference in New York City in 1988. I had raised my son on Seeger’s music, and had myself been moved by some of his radical songs. He was already a legend, and I was already a fan when I was in high school.
Seeger understood that the kind of Judaism we espoused was rooted in the universalist and prophetic tradition that had led so many Jews to become deeply involved in the movements for peace and social justice – not the chauvinist nationalism that was becoming dominant in large sections of the organized Jewish community – and he told me that he had followed my case in the 1970s when the Nixon White House had indicted me (at that time I was a professor of philosophy at the University of Washington) for organizing anti-war demonstrations. The trial was called “The Seattle Seven,” and eventually all charges were dropped after spending some time in federal penitentiary for “contempt of court” – a charge overturned by the 9th Circuit Federal Appeals court.
Seeger became a fan of Tikkun and a supporter of our activities, and his appearance at our conference was one of the highlights of the event. Even Jewish folksinger Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, who also performed at that conference, told me he felt joy and awe at Seeger’s presence at the Tikkun conference.
Seeger told me he particularly respected Tikkun‘s tone of respect for those with whom we disagreed politically and our refusal to demean personally those who had fallen into reactionary ideas (e.g., our refusal to make fun of Reagan’s intellect which was a popular move among lefties in the 1980s, our refusal to accept the notion that Americans were racist simply by virtue of voting for Reagan, and our commitment to try to address the rational needs that were leading people to support irrational politics). Seeger also said he respected our willingness to endure the hatred of the Jewish establishment (and eventually the boycott we faced from most synagogues in the United States) for being critics of Israeli policy toward Palestinians but without ever demeaning the desire of the Jewish people for the same security that most other people had obtained through a national state and an army. Like Tikkun, he too wanted that same protection for the Palestinian people.
I kept in touch with him for many years, and he was always an amazingly sane voice in contrast with leftists who sometimes lost touch with the needs of rank-and-file Americans. He persisted in an egalitarian democratic tradition that had led him to be a communist (though not an apologist for the Soviet union) and a cultural agitator. We at Tikkun will deeply miss him. And his music will remain alive among all of us spiritual progressives (of every faith, including secular humanists and atheists) from generation to generation. May his memory always be a blessing!
(Read Pete Seeger’s obituary in the Guardian.)