Sixty-six years ago, Theodore Bikel, then a young actor in what would become the State of Israel, co-founded Tel Aviv’s Cameri Theatre. Today, Bikel is one of America’s iconic Jewish actors and folk singers, and is taking sides in a debate involving his fellow actors at the Cameri.
Known to many as Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof,” Bikel has signed on to a letter expressing support for Israeli actors, directors and producers who declared that they would refuse to perform in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Ariel.
“There’s an umbilical cord that ties me to Israel,” Bikel said in an interview with the Forward, “but I have to act according to my conscience.”
At the age of 86, Bikel, who fled his native Vienna for Palestine as a teenager after the Nazis’ takeover of Austria, still defines himself as a Zionist. But he no longer steers clear of criticizing the Jewish state, especially when it comes to its settlement policy. “Anyone who has strong feelings for Israel like I do, and that believes it is an absolute necessity to strive for peace, understands that the single most obvious obstacle are the settlements,” Bikel said.
That is why he joined the petition backing Israeli artists refusing to perform in the settlements. “I understand that art and politics should not mingle, but art also has to be part of the world,” he said.
The petition, published September 6, was signed by more than 150 showbiz figures, including Jewish artists who have long been involved in issues relating to Israel. Among them are Bikel, actor Ed Asner and playwright Tony Kushner. Other Hollywood and Broadway stars who signed the petition include composer Stephen Sondheim, Cynthia Nixon of “Sex and the City” and actor Mandy Patinkin.
“As American actors, directors, critics and playwrights, we salute our Israeli counterparts for their courageous decision,” the petition states. It goes on to praise the Israeli actors who “have refused to allow their work to be used to normalize a cruel occupation which they know to be wrong.”
Jewish Voice for Peace, a national left-wing Jewish group that refrains from defining itself as Zionist, organized the petition. The organization’s executive director, Rebecca Vilkomerson, said the idea was to provide support for the Israeli actors who were coming under attack at home after joining the Ariel Theatre boycott. “The first to sign on were the older ones, like Theodore Bikel and [Broadway producer] Hal Prince, because they remember the McCarthy times and the civil rights struggle,” she said.
Notwithstanding the stature of some of the signatories, Jacob Dayan, Israel’s consul general in Los Angeles and liaison to the film industry, said the letter heralded no shift against Israel in Hollywood. “I think our standing is really, really good,” he said.
The decision by several dozen Israeli actors, directors and playwrights to boycott the new theater hall in Ariel, a settlement in the central part of Judea that is home to 17,000 Jews, drew fierce reactions from the Israeli government. Limor Livnat, minister of culture and sport, accused the actors of creating a rift within Israeli society. She and other officials noted that the theater companies to which the actors belonged received state funding. Livnat added a veiled threat that mixing politics with art could lead to the government intervening in artistic content. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that the government should not support financially “those who are trying to advance a boycott from within.”
Asner said he applauds the Israeli actors for “putting their necks on the line” and for their willingness to risk their careers. “I would like to see this kind of courage among American actors,” Asner said in a telephone interview with the Forward. The eight-time Emmy Award winner praised the Israeli actors for “taking a stand on an issue that no one else wants to touch.”
Asner’s views on Israel are skeptical at best. “I was an ardent Zionist at the beginning, but a lot of the fervor has cooled,” he said. Asner, 80, expressed his disappointment with Israel not becoming “a beacon for the nations,” but said he still believes “in Israel, but not in Israel with settlements.”
Bikel, too, said his views of Israel have shifted over the years, beginning with the 1982 massacre committed by Christian Phalangist allies of Israel in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in Lebanon. An Israeli government commission found that then-Defense Minister Ariel Sharon bore “indirect responsibility” for the killings.
Today, Bikel is willing to state that he sees “some sort of similarities” between the situation in the West Bank and apartheid in South Africa, where he refused to perform until racial segregation was abolished. But he is ready to take on anyone who labels him anti-Zionist. “They are plainly wrong. I think I am more Zionist than anyone who thinks you should accept everything they say in Jerusalem as truth,” he said.
Contact Nathan Guttman at email@example.com
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, was the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.