Daniel Berrigan’s 1973 prophecy: Israel is becoming ‘the tomb of the Jewish soul’

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After Daniel Berrigan, poet, priest and antiwar leader, died last April 30, the New York Times referred unfavorably in its obituary to a 1973 speech that was unflinching in its criticism of Israel’s militarism and repression of Palestinians, and that earned the Jesuit the enmity of many Israel supporters. We publish that speech in full below because so many of the points that Berrigan made 43 years ago are as fresh today as then, notably his understanding of: the destruction of Palestinian human rights and property, the importance of refugees, the complicity of leading American Jewish organizations in Israel’s militarism, and, most crushingly, the spiritual effect of Israel’s emergence on the formerly “peaceable” Jewish presence in society. 

On the scales of the spirit, as the nations are finally judged, it is a tragedy beyond calculating, that the State of Israel should become the repository, and finally the tomb, of the Jewish soul…. in place of Jewish compassion for the poor and forgotten, Israel should legislate evictions, uprootings, destruction of goods, imprisonment, terrorism.

Titled “Responses to Settler Regimes,” the speech was given to the Association of Arab University Graduates in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 19, 1973, shortly after Berrigan completed his parole in a federal sentence for acts of resistance against the Vietnam war. The speech was printed that month in American Report, a publication of Clergy and Laity Concerned, the anti-Vietnam War group. We dug up the original on microfilm, and Tamara Nassar transcribed it. –Editors. 

Responses to Settler Regimes

I come before you this evening, as a non-expert in every field of human expertise, including the subject you have invited me to explore. I wish to include also in my field of inexpertise my own religious tradition; I am a non-expert Christian, by any conceivable standard.

This admission is in the interests of both clarity of mind and of moral conduct. I am interested, as a Christian, in one thing only; in so simple a thing as sane conduct in the world. The experts in my tradition, the theologians, the biblical scholars, and by and large, the hierarchy, go in another direction than mine. “Sane conduct” (whatever that means) is taken for granted; what really counts is the jot and tittle of the tradition, or its worldly prospering, or its honorable reception among peoples. Sane conduct is taken for granted; are not Christians by definition sane, in touch with the truth, destined to share infallibly in their reward?

I say no. The exemplary conduct of expert Christians, as indeed of most experts in human disciplines is to fiddle while the world burns. Hardly sane! A kind of lethal fatalism, looks equably upon combustible human flesh, shrugs its shoulders the better to nestle the violin, and coax from its entrails the immortal (and irrelevant) stroke…

Sane conduct in the world. Let me explain. I do not believe it is the destiny of human flesh to burn; and for that I am in trouble, as are my friends, to this day. I do not believe that a violin concerto, however immortal in execution, is the proper comfort to offer a napalmed child. I believe that the fiddler should come down from the roof, put his violin aside, take up his extinguisher, raise a cry of alarm, break down the intervening door. I believe that he should on occasion of crisis destroy property in favor of human life.

You see, I am a heretic in a consuming and killing culture, as well as in a complicity church.

These are troublesome statements; but do not call them naïve, or shrug them off as generally accepted by the civilized; or, in the presence of scholar, as irrelevant. Do not say: it is of course the generals who light fires, we deplore that. I answer: Most scholars, most priests, most Jews, most Arabs, while they would prefer some less horrendous sight than the burning flesh of children, are not seriously shaken in their style of mind, their taxpaying, their consumerism, their spiritual, economic, or political complicity, by such “incidents.”

I begin in so odious a way because I do not wish to narrow our question so sharply as to exclude ourselves from its orbit. I do not wish to take us off the hook, even while I wish to say something unequivocal about one instance of cruelty, racism, murder, as political tools.

It is of course scarcely possible to open the moral question of Israeli or Arab conduct today, without exciting the most lively passion, and risking the most serious charges. A war is underway. We are assured by the Israelis, and by most of the Jewish community throughout the world, that the war is a war of survival. We are assured just as vehemently by the Arabs that the war is one of expansion and aggression by Israel.

Moreover, the interests of the super powers are deeply imbedded in Near Eastern soil. Those interests include western oil contracts, and, East and West, an impalpable element of outreach, something hard to define, a cold war afflatus perhaps, something called an “ideological sphere of influence.” In any case, both East and West are shoring up their interests with that most concrete and bloody proof devotion: arms, and more arms.

Certainly these facts must be respected, if this evening and the days to follow are to be more than an exercise in national or racial or religious frenzy. A ceasefire has been offered by Egypt; something unprecedented in the history of this conflict. Moreover, the terms of the ceasefire seem reasonable and clear of Arab arms-rattling. The offering includes a declaration of de facto respect for the existence of Israel, a de facto state; it asks for a return to the boundary lines which existed before the 1967 War, and some justice for the Palestinian people.

Suicidal Adventure

In the seriousness and sanity of the ceasefire offer, therefore, I believe that events themselves are helping set the stage for a fruitful study. In supporting the Egyptian proposal, I hope to answer those who would make the present war into an Israeli spasm of survival. Nothing of the sort. Or those who would make the critics of this war, into proponents of Israeli extinction. Nothing of the kind. Or those who would make critics of the united states, into supporters of the Soviet Union; nothing of the sort.

In calling attention to this proposal I am simply urging that attention be paid to the first sane option that has arisen in the course of this suicidal adventure. Indeed there are no sides worth talking about tonight. There are indeed immense numbers of people whose lives and rights are being violated, degraded and denied. Any real solution will take into account these peoples: the Palestinians—a people without a country; the Israelis—a people in danger; the Arab nations—a people invaded. How carefully one must proceed on these matters if he is not to worsen an already tortured situation. I endorse the Egyptian ceasefire proposal while opposing many aspects of the Egyptian regime, and of the Sheikhdoms, and of Jordan and Syria. We must take into account their capacity for deception, which is remarkable even for our world. We must take into account their contempt for their own poor, a contempt that would be called legendary if it were not horrifyingly modern. We must take into account their willingness to oil the war machinery of the superpowers making them accomplices of the American war criminals. We must take into account their cupidity masked only by their monumental indifference to the facts of their world. no, I offer no apologia tonight for the Arab states any more than I do for Israel.

I do not wish to begin by “taking sides”; nor indeed to end by “taking sides.” I am sick of “sides”; which is to say, I am sick of war; of wars hot and cold; and all their approximations and metaphors and deceits and ideological ruses. I am sick of the betrayal of the mind and the failure of compassion and the neglect of the poor. I am sick of foreign ministers and all their works and pomps. I am sick of torture and secret police and the apparatus of fascists and the rhetoric of leftists. Like Lazarus, staggering from his grave, or the ghost of Trotsky I can only groan: “We have had enough of that, we have been through all that.”

Thus this evening, and my presence here. When I received the invitation some months ago, I winced. Another crisis? If the nerve ends of Israelis and Arabs were raw, so were mine. More; why should I enter their back yard on a cleanup project when my own, America, was a moral shantytown? And the war broke; and I winced again; and very nearly begged off. Then a better, second thought occurred; something like this. If it was important to speak up while the peace, at least a relative peace, held—then why not when a war broke? Indeed, did not the need for dispassionate and reasonable courage increase, while the guns were cutting down whatever rational exchange remained alive? If the first casualty of war was the truth, might it not be important to prevent, at least on one scene, that mortal casualty from occurring?

Human Community

I do not wish to heap conflict upon conflict. If I seem to concentrate upon the conduct of Israel, it is for reasons, which to me at least, are profound, of long pondering and finally inescapable. It is not merely because my government, which has brought endless suffering to the world, is supporting Israel. It is not merely because American Jews, as well as Israelis, have in the main given their acquiescence or their support to the Nixon ethos. The reasons go deeper, and strike harder; they are lodged in my soul, in my conception of faith and the transcendent, in the vision Jews have taught me, of human conduct in a human community.

I am (to put the matter as simply as I know how), I am paying an old debt tonight. It is a debt of love; more properly, a debt of outraged love. I am a western Christian, in resistance against my government and my church. That position, as I read it, makes me something very like a Jew. It is of that uneasy circle, ever changing, widening, contracting, including, excluding, that I wish to speak. I am a Catholic priest, in resistance against Rome. I am an American, in resistance against Nixon, and I am a Jew, in resistance against Israel. But let me begin.

A common assumption exists in the West, buttressed by massive historical and religious argument, to the effect that Israel is exempt from moral criticism. Her people have passed through the gentile furnace; how then shall the goy judge the suffering servant? And is not the holocaust the definitive argument for the righteousness of this people, heroically determined to begin again, in a promised land, that experiment in survival which so nearly went awry, so often, under such constant assault at our hands?

Mean of Love

In such a way, bad history is mightily reinforced by bad faith. The persecutor is a poor critic. His history weighs on him; like a bad parent, he alternates between cruelty and indulgence, without ever striking the mean of love.

In such a way, Christians yield to Israel the right to her myths; to indulge them, to enlarge them, to live by them, even to call them biblical truth. If the Jews are indeed the people of promise, and Israel the land of promise; then it must follow that God has willed the two to coincide. The means? They are swallowed up in the end, they disappear into glory. And if the means include domestic repression, deception, cruelty, militarism? And if the classic refugee people is now creating huge numbers of refugees? And if technological warfare has become the instrument of expansion, and pre-emptive warfare the instrument of so called peace? And if this people, so proud, so endowed with intelligence, so purified by suffering, sends its military missioners into every part of the world where minority people are bleeding under the heel of jackboots? Israeli military advisers in Iran, Israeli military advisers in Ethiopia? And if these advisers (that cruel euphemism under whose guise America kindled the Viet Nam holocaust) are sought and hired because Israelis have become as skilled in the fashioning of espionage and violence as ever were their oppressors? Are such means as these swallowed in glory? Or do they stick in the throat of those who believe, as Judaism taught the world to believe, “Thou shalt not kill”?

I started to say something about my own church, and I proceed to talk about Israel. I did so advisedly. I did so because today my church has helped Israel exegete her own texts—wrongly, harmfully, as I believe. My church has helped Israel in that project of the settler state—whether of South Africa or Israel or the United State—which is to seek a biblical justification for crimes against humanity.

For a Christian who is trying to understand and live by his own tradition, the confusion of bible and imperialism in Israel represents an altogether unique tragedy. We in the U.S.A. learned to bear the filthy weight of South African religious violence, even while we abominated it. We learned to survive the filthy weight of American religious violence, even while we abominated it. In both cases, we tried to separate out the corrupt cultural elements from the truth of a tradition, and to live by the latter. We learned to do this, because we knew at least something of the history of Christianity, in both its criminal and saintly aspects.

But you must understand our horror, our sense of impoverishment, almost our sense of amputation. For while we had known criminal Christian communities, and suffered at the hand of our own renegades, and seen Viet Nam assaulted in the name of Christian civilization—we had never known a criminal Jewish community. We had known Jewish communities that were a light to the gentiles, that were persecuted, all but erased, that remained merciful, eloquent, prophetic. But something new was occurring before our eyes… the Jews arose from the holocaust, a cause of universal joy, but the Jews arose like warriors, armed to the teeth. They took possession of a land, they exiled and destroyed old Arab communities, they (a minority) made outsiders of those who were in fact, the majority of citizens. Then, they flexed their muscles; like the goyim, the idolaters, the “inhabitants of this earth,” like Babylon and Egypt and Assyria; like those kingdoms which Israel’s own prophets summoned to judgment, Israel entered the imperial adventure. She took up the imperial weapons, she spread abroad the imperial deceptions.

In the space of 25 years, this metamorphosis took place. The wandering Jew became the settler Jew; the settler ethos became the imperial adventure. More, the thought of Nietzsche, of Camus and Fanon was vindicated; the slave became master, and created slaves. The slave master created a “shadowy other.” Israel had emerged from the historical shadows determined to take her place in the company of nations; an ambition no decent conscience could object to. But the price of her emergence was bitter and heavy; and it continues. That price indeed, neither Israel nor ourselves have yet counted up. But we do know a few of the human items who have been placed on the block of Israeli hegemony. They include some one and a half million refugees, whom Israel has created in the process of creating herself.

Coinage of Israel

And let us not hesitate to state the price in Israeli coinage. Something like this; not only a dismal fate for foreign and indigenous victims, but the failure to create new forms of political and social life for her own citizens. The coinage of Israel is stamped with the imperialist faces whose favor she has courted; the creation of an elite of millionaires, generals and entrepreneurs. And the price is being paid by Israel’s Oriental Jews, the poor, the excluded, prisoners. Do we seek, analogies for this “sublime adventure of return”? They are not hard to come by. But they do not exist, alas, in the dreams of Zionist rhetoricians; they exist rather in the real world, where Zionist violence and repression joins the violence and repression of the great (and little) powers; a common method, a common dead end.

It is entirely logical for instance, that Russia, which crushed the Czechs, is now in the process of crushing the Ukrainians, and bottling the brains of political dissidents on the shelves of psychiatric morgues. It is entirely logical that the U.S., which determined to crush the Vietnamese, also spent a considerable part of the ‘60’s “mopping up” political dissidents at home. Imperialism has no favorites; it freezes all it touches. It is thus not to be wondered at that torture has been applied to Israeli citizens as well as to suspect Palestinian terrorists. It is logical that Israeli workers are exploited, even while the indigenous peasants are rooted out and their villages destroyed. Logical too, that racist ideology which brought the destruction of the Jewish communities at the hands of the Nazis should now be employed by the state of Israeli, fostering the myth of the “barbarian Arab,” and of Israel the “sublime expression of the liberation of the Jewish people.”

If only a people could know itself! If only a people could stand back from the welter of claim, the barrage of propaganda, the blood myths of divine election, the rhetoric which assures it that its case before history is unique and virtuous and in fact unassailable! If that could happen, Israel would see, as indeed some of her own resisters, some of her own victims, some of her own friends, do see; that she is rapidly evolving into the image of her ancient adversaries. That her historic adventure, which gave her the unassailable right to “judge the nations,” has veered off into an imperial misadventure; that she carries in the world, the stigmata of the settler nation; that she is ranged not at the side of those she once stood with, and succored and protected from extinction; the poor, the despised, the victims of the powers of this world.

Sacred Books 

No. she has closed those books, her sacred books. Her prophets shed no light upon her politics. Or more exactly to the point, she has not passed from a dispossessed people to a democratic state, as she would claim; she has passed from a dispossessed people to an imperial entity. And this (I say it with a sinking heart) is to the loss of all the world; to her own loss, and to the loss of Palestinians, and Americans, and Jews in the diaspora, and Jews in Russia, and the Pope in the Vatican, and Vietnamese, and Cambodians, and South Africans, and Chileans. For it is of moment to us all (I almost said of supreme moment) that Jews retain their own soul, their own books, their own vivid sense of alternate paths to the light, so that Jews might be the arbiter and advocate of the downtrodden of the earth. On the scales of the spirit, as the nations are finally judged, it is a tragedy beyond calculating, that the State of Israel should become the repository, and finally the tomb, of the Jewish soul. That in place of Jewish compassion, Israel should legislate armaments and yet more armaments. That in place of Jewish compassion for the poor and forgotten, Israel should legislate evictions, uprootings, destruction of goods, imprisonment, terrorism. That in place of Jewish peaceableness, Israel should legislate a law of expanding violence. That in place of Jewish prophetic wisdom, 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. My sense of loss here is something more than academic. Let me say this; when an American is resisting the murder of the Vietnamese people, one of his chief sources of strength is the conviction that around the world, there exists a spiritual network of those who have put their lives to the same resistance. A network of conscience. One is joined in this way, to Blacks and Cubans and Brazilians and Chileans and so many others, who have made it their life’s work to create a better method than murder for dealing with human conflict. Now at any moment of my struggle, in the underground or in prison, did resisters such as I take comfort from the conduct of the state of Israel? Could we believe the rhetoric that she was packaging and huckstering in the world? I must answer no, in the name of all. Rather than being comforted, I was tempered and sobered. I knew that I must take into account two bitter facts about Israel: 1) that if I were a conscientious Jew in Israel I would have to live as I was living in America; that is, in resistance against the state. And 2) the reaction of Israel to my conscience would be exactly the reaction of the United States; that is to say, I would either be hunted by the police, or in prison.

Which brings me to a reflection nearer home; the American Jewish community and the Viet Nam war: by and large, that community’s leadership, I stress leadership, fervent in support of Israel, was also fervent in support of Nixon. It was a massive support indeed; and it did not gather in a political vacuum. Nixon is a political manipulator of great astuteness; religion and religious interests are part of the fulcrum he exerts on world events. So he was able to mute the horrific facts of the Viet Nam war in light of Jewish concern for the wellbeing of Israel. The plain fact was that Mrs. Meir wanted Phantom jets and Nixon wanted re-election. Another fact was also plain, if of less moment to either party; in Nixon’s first term alone some six million Southeast Asians had been maimed, bombed, displaced, tortured, imprisoned or killed. This was one of those peculiar facts which must be called free-floating; it was a statistic, it did not signify. To put the matter brutally, many American Jewish leaders were capable of ignoring the Asian holocaust in favor of economic and military aid to Israel. Those of us who resisted the war had to live with that fact. The fate of the Vietnamese was as unimportant to the Zionists in our midst as was the state of the Palestinians.

But I venture to suggest that it is not merely we, nor the Vietnamese who must live with that fact. So must Israel. So must the American Jews.

If there is an ultimate hope in all this one must, of course, pay tribute to the great majority of the Jewish community which refused the bait offered by Nixon, and peddled by their own leaders. Their acute and legitimate concern for Israel never became a weapon against Vietnamese survival. They refused that immoral choice offered them by a leader who would make a price of the safety of one people, the extinction of another. As you may recall, the American Jewish community rejected that choice, and for that we must honor them.

Ceaseless Rage

I cannot but reflect how strong is the irony of this occasion; a Jesuit priest speaking of the sins of Israel. A member of the classic oppressor church calls to account the historic victims of Christian persecution. History has spun us about, a game of blind man’s bluff. In America, in my church, I am a Jew. I am scarcely granted a place to teach, a place to worship, a place to announce the truths I live by. I stand in front of St. Patrick’s Cathedral to pray for the victims of our ceaseless rage, I stand in front of the White House. And a question arises from both powers; how shall we deal with this troublesome Jew?

How does a Jesuit, a member of the church elite, come to such trouble? How does the son of the oppressor come to be oppressed? Even while the oppressed, the Zionist, the state of Israel, becomes the oppressor? I can offer only the clumsiest of clues.

The power of the Jew, as indeed the power of the priest, arises from the questions which his life raises. It comes from no other source. It cannot come from adherence to the power of this world. When the priest becomes the civil servant of the Papal State, he loses his true dignity, he becomes a secular nonentity. His passion for justice is blunted, his sense of the sufferings of the world grows dim and abstract. And the same holds for the Jew.

And I venture, for the Arab. Human life today, if it means anything, is meant to raise a cry against legitimated murder. Our lives are meant to be a question mark before humanity, whether we are Arab, Jew, or Christian. When a Zionist or American Catholic or an Arab Apologist loses that momentous dignity, he becomes a zero, his soul is torn in two. Let Amos Kenan, the Israeli writer, speak the bitter truth: “I believe that Zionism came to establish a shelter for a persecuted people, and not to persecute other people. Even when facts strike me in the face and prove to me ex post facto that Zionism was nothing but a useful tool to deprive the Palestinian Arab people of their homeland, I will stick to the lie.”

Let him stick to the lie. But let him also know, the lie sticks to him. It sticks in the throat, it sticks to the very soul. To the point where a Christian must continue to ask of Israel those questions which Israel proscribes, ignores, fears. Where indeed are your men of wisdom? Where are your peacemakers? Where are your prophets? Who among you speaks the truth to power? Where are the voices that abhor militarism, torture, bombing, degrading alliances with the great powers? Israel knows the answers. She has dealt with “this people,” who are her truest people. Her peacemakers, her men of truth and wisdom, are dispensed with, are disposed of. They have neither power nor voice in the affairs of the Israeli state. Many of them are in prison, or hounded from the scene, living in exile. They are equivalent to Palestinians; no voice, no vote; non-persons.

Savage Triumph

These are among the most sorrowful facts of the world we live in. Israel, that millennial dream, belonged not only to Jews, but to all of mankind—it belonged to me. But the dream has become a nightmare; Israel has not abolished poverty and misery; rather, she manufactures human waste, the byproducts of her entrepreneurs, her military-industrial complex. Israel has not written justice into law; she has turned the law of nature to a mockery, creating ghettoes, disenfranchised peoples, exiles, hopeless minorities, cheap labor forces, Palestinian migrant workers. 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.

In Israel, military might is increasingly both the method and the goal of political existence. Her absurd generals, her military junk, are paraded on national holidays before the narcoticized public. The model is not the kingdom of peace, it is an Orwellian transplant, taken bodily from Big Brother’s bloody heart. In Israel, the democratic formula is twisted out of all recognition; the citizens exist for the well-being of the state; it follows, as the imperialist corollary, that that measure of terrorism and violence and murder is applied to dissidents, as shall guarantee the “well-being of the state,” as the ominous phrase is understood by those in power.

Who will save us from such saviors? I venture to say; neither Egypt nor Libya nor Syria nor Al Fatah nor Golda Meir nor General Dayan; neither Migs nor Phantom jets nor nuclear skills. After such saviors do the gentiles lust.

The present course, I suggest, leads to the same dead end for both sides. The settler state and the long settled state, both are in mortal danger, daily increasing, of metamorphosing into slave states, clients of the fascist super powers. At home, a slave mentality is progressively created; the reduction of rights of citizens, slave labor forces, slave wages, the domination of slave masters, politicized police, the militarization of national goals and policies.

Then the same process is in internationalized. Such a nation inevitably becomes the instrument of great-power politics. It serves as a foreign military for one or another of the world powers, to that purpose everything is mobilized, including the truth itself.

To demobilize the truth may be one useful way of putting our task. Other terms occur; to demilitarize the truth, to demythologize it. In any case, to snatch the truth from its betrayers and belittlers. I wish you well in the task.

Dear Friends, my concluding words are addressed especially to the Arab peoples. My argument with you is also made in a spirit of love and even deep concern. You have suffered greatly from colonialism and colonization and your demand for justice and self-determination deserved more attention than it has received.  Yet my central argument with you is ultimately my argument with the Jewish people, in the sense that both of you have ignored your own symbols and history. But in different ways. Israel has betrayed her exodus by turning it into military conquests. And the Arabs have often betrayed their resistance to rhetorical violence and blind terrorism. The question of the weekend is: What else can we do?

Some two or  three years ago Eqbal Ahmed suggested, I believe, at one of these meetings, a massive and worldwide reversal of symbols on the part of the Palestinian people. If I understand him correctly he was saying something like this: What if the Arabs throughout the world would raise a great cry and implement their cry after the manner of Gandhi and Martin Luther King and Cesar Chavez? What if your cry became “let my people go?” What if your people equipped boats to enter Israeli harbors to speak the truth and implement the Palestinians’ right to return? What if you were to begin knocking on doors of the embassies—Russian, American and Israeli—demanding peace, demanding the restoration of your  rights and your homes. Taking into account at the same time Jewish fears, welcoming Jews to a community of compassion, welcoming Israel’s people to your sides among your people?

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What a great human being, thanks for sharing that. So much in there to be impressed by. I think this passage is particularly notable vis-a-vis the issue of the profound change Zionists wrought post war: “But something new was occurring before our eyes… the Jews arose from the holocaust, a… Read more »

while entitled to his opinion he ought to have been focusing on the soul of his fellow catholics at the time and up until the present who were (and may still be) engaged in one of the largest pedophilia cover-up in history. that, in addition to all the soul searching… Read more »

1973 was 43 years ago.

I disagree. In my opinion, it is becoming the tomb of the White Supremacist interpretation of the Jewish soul, because the true Jewish soul is still strong within many both in Israel as well as the rest of the world. Similarly, America is also fast becoming the tomb of the… Read more »

From Daniel to Abby I had forgotten for a while how eloquent we all were before they killed the butterflies above our nation. When the new boss turned out the same as the old boss. And how much President Obama fits right into that mold. The high hopes entertained after… Read more »