‘Her absurd generals, her military junk’ — Daniel Berrigan’s prophetic speech on Israel in ’73

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I believe this is called a drive-by shooting. The New York Times devotes a whole page or so to an obituary of the great Daniel Berrigan, the Catholic priest who died yesterday in NY at 94. But this is paragraph 39:

After visiting the Middle East, he bluntly accused Israel of “militarism” and the “domestic repressions” of Palestinians. His remarks angered many American Jews. “Let us call this by its right name,” wrote Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, himself a contentious figure among religious scholars: “old-fashioned theological anti-Semitism.”

The Boston Globe, too.

Father Berrigan’s involvement with politics did not end with his release from prison. He drew widespread criticism for a 1973 speech denouncing Israel.

Sadly the Times did not quote from the speech in any fair measure. Here is the NYT’s coverage of Berrigan’s speech to the Association of Arab University Graduates in Washington 1973. The Times article came out two months after the speech, when Jewish organizations had made it controversial, and sought to have Berrigan stripped of honors for the remarks; after they were printed in a publication of the Clergy and Laity Concerned group.

The speech was an antiwar statement that denounced Israel as a military settler state in the same moral basket as the United States, which was pursuing an imperial adventure in Vietnam.

Quotes in that New York Times PDF include Berrigan’s view that Israel was, like the United States and South Africa, “seeking a biblical justification for crimes against humanity.”

The world had known criminal Christian communities, he said, but “we had never known a criminal Jewish community.” In the wake of the Holocaust, the “Jews arose like warriors, armed to the teeth… Israel entered the imperial adventure.”

A similar racist ideology to Nazism was creating “the myth of the barbarian Arab.”

It was a tragedy, Berrigan said, that

in place of Jewish prophetic vision, Israel should launch an Orwellian nightmare of double talk, racism, fifth-rate sociological jargon, aimed at proving its racial superiority to the people it has crushed. …

Israel has not abolished poverty and misery; rather she manufactures human waste, the byproducts of her entrepreneurs. the military-industrial complex. Israel has not freed the captives, she has expanded the prison system, perfected her espionage, exported on the world market that expensive blood-ridden commodity, the savage triumph of the technologized West, violence and the tools of violence.

Her absurd generals, her military junk are paraded on national holidays before the narcotized public. The model is not the kingdom of peace, it is an Orwellian transplant, taken bodily from Big Brother’s bloody heart.

Berrigan said that were he a Jew in Israel, he would be living as he did in the U.S., in resistance to the state and being hunted by the police or in prison.

Berrigan also signaled the corruption of the Jewish establishment in order to lobby the U.S. government in the Vietnam era: “major American Jewish leaders were capable of ignoring Asia’s holocaust in favor of economic and military aid to Israel.”

Here is the JTA’s coverage at the time:

The 52-year-old Jesuit priest who served 27 months in Danbury Federal Penitentiary for burning draft records in Catonsville, Md. in 1968, attacked Israel as an “imperialist nation” and a “settler” state” which is “the creation of an elite of millionaires, generals and entrepreneurs.”..

Among the charges Berrigan made against Israel before the Arab graduates was that “she had turned the law of nature into a mockery, creating ghettos, disenfranchised peoples, exiles, hopeless minorities, cheap labor forces has expanded the prison system, perfected her espionage, exported on the world market that expensive blood ridden commodity, the savage triumph of the technological West–violence and the tools of violence.” In an interview published today in the NY Post, Berrigan was quoted as reaffirming his condemnation of Israel and saying he “was very depressed by the silence of my own church about Israel.” He denied, however, that he was anti-Semitic. “I’m as anti-Semitic as I am anti-Catholic, the Jesuit priest was quoted as saying.

That article quotes Jewish leaders calling for Berrigan’s reeducation.

In his book, Middle East Illusions, Noam Chomsky takes Berrigan’s side and describes Hertzberg’s characterization of Berrigan’s speech as “fabrication,” including Hertzberg’s claim that Berrigan sought the end of Israel. Berrigan called on Arab leaders to show “de facto respect for Israel, a de facto state,” and said that American Jews had expressed an “acute and legitimate concern for Israel.” Chomsky points out that Hertzberg regards Arab concerns about Palestinian refugees as “moral hysterics,” and Chomsky savages Hertzberg’s claim that Israel’s acceptance of Jewish refugees from the Soviet Union and Arab countries was an example of the “Jewish passion for the poor and forgotten.” In fact, Chomsky says, it was evidence of the Zionists’ need to build a Jewish state on an ethnocentric basis.

It’s a pity that the New York Times doesn’t explain that Berrigan’s critique of Israel was equally harsh to his criticism of the United States at the time; and more important, that it was prophetic.



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Thank you, Phil. It really is refreshing to learn that people of consuming conscience have, sometimes, applied that conscience not only to USA but also to South Africa and Israel. The mention of the biblical justification for war crimes by those three countries is valuable. Nowadays many such people are… Read more »

President Johnson traded the ship & crew of the USS Liberty for Jewish support of his war in Vietnam. He also cut off JFK’s intent to stop Israel from getting the bomb.

Of course, what Berrigan’s speech shows is that the radical left has always had a yen for Arab dictators, and that has led to its absorption of the antisemitism that pervades Arab societies. It’s also interesting that you leave out Berrigan’s anti-Arab racism. Berrigan claimed that Arabs have a “capacity… Read more »

Wow, what an uncompromising speech, and in 1973 no less. This makes me curious if Berrigan continued to work on the Palestine issue. Was he silenced?

The Berrigan brothers had a huge influence on millions of us who were growing up Catholic and focused on pro justice and human rights They along with Dorothy Day, Thomas Mertao. Dorothy Stang and many of the Notre Dame nuns I grew up with daily in my life walked the… Read more »