Pete Seeger died in January 2104 at the age of 94. Seeger was a pioneer in the modern folk music revival as well as lifetime political activist involved in the labor, civil rights, anti-war, and environmentalist movements. He was at home on the banjo, guitar, recorder, tin whistle, mandolin, piano, ukulele, picket line, and protest march. In 2011, Pete endorsed a boycott of Israel (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions or BDS) in protest against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and blockade of Gaza. In memory of Pete and in protest against the Israeli invasion of Gaza I decided to wear a "Free Palestine" t-shirt to the July 20 tribute to Seeger at Damrosch Park at Lincoln Center.
According to National Public Radio (NPR) "On the Media" report, American attitudes towards conflict in the Middle East, particularly between Israel and Palestine, have shifted as a result of recent widely reported "horrific" events. They include the attack by Israelis on a Palestinian American youth, the revenge killing of a Palestinian teenager by Israelis identified with a rightwing religious group, and the death on July 16 of four young boys playing on a beach during an Israeli bombing attack on Gaza City.
I am not sure whether I agree with the NPR report about a shift to more unbiased coverage of the Israel-Palestine conflict. For example, in an article on Sunday July 20, 2014, The New York Times repeatedly referred to Israeli officials and soldiers, but identified the Palestinians allied with Hamas as "militants." Even so, a Fox News "terrorism" expert accused the Times of trying to "humanize the terrorist group."
Israeli reports continually describe Hamas as terrorist and they are repeated nearly verbatim in much U.S. media coverage. While the United States and Israel have branded Hamas a terrorist organization, since 2007 Hamas is the legally elected government of Gaza. In fact, the escalating conflict between Israel and Palestine may well have been precipitated by the growing political role Hamas plays on the Israeli occupied West Bank.
While the focus of media reporting may or may not have changed, American politicians remain hesitant to criticize Israeli actions. President Obama reported that he spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu twice in three days to reaffirm his "strong support for Israel's right to defend itself," but he also expressed concern "about the risks of further escalation and the loss of more innocent life." Secretary of State John Kerry was taped complaining to an aide that the Israeli airstrikes on Gaza City were "hell of a pinpoint operation," but when confronted on the air he refused to publicly criticize Israel. Meanwhile, the United States Senate passed a unanimous resolution supporting the Israeli invasion of Gaza and bombing of Gaza City as part of its defense of its own citizens.
As an informal and very unscientific experiment on where New Yorkers stand on the latest war between Israel and Palestine and whether attitudes had significantly changed about the decades long hostilities, on Sunday, July 20 I wore a "Free Palestine" t-shirt to the Pete Seeger tribute concert at Lincoln Center. Some of the responses surprised me and I am still not sure what to conclude.
At the corner grocery store near my home in Brooklyn, two young women from a Palestinian American family greeted me with excitement. One gave me a high-five and the other a "shaka" thumb-and-pinky raised friendship sign.
As I walked to the subway I did get one prolonged stare from a White male but he averted his eyes when I stared back. On the subway a Black woman in her mid-thirties who was traveling with her young daughter gave me a positive nod as did an Asian couple that appeared to be on vacation.
As I walked to the tribute a received a mixture of dirty and curious looks but no open support or hostility. At Lincoln Center things changed a bit. I got more dirty stares as well as a couple of angry looks and one woman refused to give me directions saying she would not speak to me because of my shirt. But I also got a couple of thumbs-up signs and one enthusiastic sixty-something White woman chanted "free Palestine."
After at dinner I was approached by a young woman who identified herself as Palestinian and she thanked me for my support. On the subway back home I had two encounters. Two young White women who appeared to be Orthodox Jews based on their clothing moved away from me to another part of the subway car when they saw my shirt. I was also approached by a young man wearing a Jewish head covering or yarmulke who disagreed with the Israeli attack on Gaza and its occupation of the West Bank and wanted to know how he could get a "Free Palestine" shirt.
Very few Americans understand the extent that the Israel-Palestine War is an American war. A number of American citizens are serving in the Israeli army that invaded Gaza and two were recently killed. It is not illegal for an American citizen to serve in a foreign army as long as that country is not engaged in hostilities with the United States.
Since World War II Israel is the largest recipient of United States military assistance. It received $30 billion between 2002 and 2011 of which three-quarters was used to purchase weapons from American companies. Since 2007, Israel has received approximately $3 billion a year from the United States. As a result, Israel has the largest fleet of F-16 fighter jets outside the United States. Funding for the development, arming, and deployment of the highly regarded Israeli "Iron Dome" missile defense system which has prevented Palestinian missiles from reaching Israeli cities was provided by the United States. In January 2014, President Obama signed a bill that gave Israel an additional $235 million for the Iron Dome system. In return, Israel agreed to pay approximately 55% of the money to U.S. contractors.
Given the huge United States involvement in this conflict, a recent position paper released by the Green Party of the United States deserves attention and consideration. According to a Green Party, "The U.S. Government policy to aid and abet the terrible violence in Gaza not only kills and dehumanizes Palestinians, but it also runs counter to U.S. law, wrecks our diplomatic reputation, and further endangers Israelis. We do not accept the excuses or blame shifting by any group for civilian deaths." It demands that the U.S. call on Israel to "end military operations in the West Bank and Gaza with the threat of cutting off diplomatic ties if operations do not cease" and that the U.S. end "military aid to Israel in compliance with the 1961 Foreign Assistance Act prohibiting aid to nations which have acquired or transferred nuclear materials outside of the non-proliferation treaty." The Green Party also demands that the U.S. "cease using its United Nations veto to provide immunity for Israeli breaches of international war crimes" and support Palestinian membership in international institutions.
Judy Collins opened the Seeger Tribute Concert singing "Turn! Turn! Turn!," a song written by Pete Seeger in the 1950s. The lyrics are adapted from Chapter 3 of the Book of Ecclesiastes. In the song, Seeger reminded us "to every thing there is a season." There is a "time to reap that which is planted," "a time of war, and a time of peace," and most importantly, "a time to speak." As Pete Seeger would have said through song, this is a time to speak out against Israeli actions and United States policies.