Father Daniel J. Berrigan, S.J., hero of the peace movement and award winning poet and writer, died April 30, 2016. From our archives we share an extended conversation with the priest about pacifism.
Berrigan touched off a storm of controversy ln 1973 when, in an address to the Association of Arab University Graduates, he denounced the state of Israel as a "nightmare military-industrial complex . . . the creation of millionaires, generals, and entrepreneurs." Berrigan's remarks were, in turn, denounced by some of his former associates in the peace movement; Rabbi Arthur Herzberg, president of the American Jewish Congress, said the priest was guilty of "old-fashioned theological anti-Semitism."
Early in January 1974, Father Berrigan took part in a discussion of his speech on New York City's educational television station, WNET. Other participants were Professor Hans Morgenthau of the City University of New York, like Berrigan a prominent and steadfast opponent of American involvement in Vietnam, and John H. Hamilton, moderator of the WNET program "The Fifty-first State." What follows is a slightly abridged transcript.—THE EDITORS
BERRIGAN: One reason that speech, famous or infamous as it may be, aroused so much controversy and so much really deep opposition, was that I was trying to raise some questions that are forbidden in the American community. Among those questions I would put first the uses and misuses of violence by any state Then I had to be willing to swallow hard and take on some of the tremendous difficulties of talking about Israel, knowing as I did the bloody history of the Jewish people and the bloody history of the state of Israel itself, and knowing the profound feeling of the American Jewish community with regard to Israel.
I didn't do this thing lightly. And I tried my best to raise questions that would help both the Jewish and the non-Jewish community in what I considered to be a desperate breach of our country, and of Israel too.
HAMILTON: Father Berrigan, you not only raised some questions, but you made some statements. You called Israel "an imperial nation embarked on an imperial adventure." Do you still stick by that statement?
BERRIGAN: In context, yes.
MORGENTHAU: It is one thing to raise certain questions in the abstract—especially theological, ethical questions—and it is quite something else to raise the same questions in the concrete context of a particular political and military situation. You start from the assumption, which the Judaic-Christian tradition shares, that the world is evil, that violence is evil. But you then pick out the particular evil—that evil which you see in Israel—and equate it with evil as such. And here, I think, lies an injustice, an ethical deficiency: If you were raising that question as I think it ought to be raised in justice, you would have to compare the evil you see in Israel with the evil you see elsewhere—more particularly, around Israel—and then arrive at a conclusion which the church fathers call a Conclusion of Prudence. But you focus upon one little spot, Israel, and you forget about all the rest. And this, I think, is dangerous.
My second point is that you haven't got your facts straight. You are making statements which are demon.strably not correct. To call Israel a "monstrous military machine" is, I think, an injustice, and incorrect empir.ically. The ethos of the Old Testament is certainly very much alive in Israel. If you look at the social and eco.nomic innovations in the form of the kibbutzim, you see an attempt to realize at least a modicum of justice in a world which is by its very nature evil.
You argue from your Vietnam experience, and from my Vietnam experience, where the evil of violence was virtually unmitigated. Generally violence in human history has a certain justification. Sometimes it is an invalid justification, sometimes it is a valid one. It is the senselessness of the slaughter of Vietnam that outraged you, as it outraged me.
BERRIGAN: These are also very serious points with me, I assure you. First, it seems to me that one can't really have a grab-bag of causes. There are causes, which are related to one's immediate life and there are causes which are out there in the great world, and one obviously can't take up everything. The question of Israel was a very important one for me because of my own background, because of my own training, because of my own meditation, my own knowledge of the Old Testament. And because in my active life as a priest, I had been close, extremely close, to the intellectual and religious community of the Jews in America.
Politically speaking, I felt that it was not in the best interests of Israel to pursue this Nixonian ethos, this Nixonian lying in the world, and to join with other countries as a kind of ring of control dreamed up by Kissinger and Nixon. So, I felt it was time for me to speak about Israel.
About violence—my experience and yours in the 1960s leads me to believe that if we are to err as Americans on any side in our critique of other countries, it should be in the direction of being skeptical and suspicious about the claims of violence. We have seen what violence does. I do not see an essential difference between the death of a Vietnamese and the death of an Israeli. I think slaughter is indivisible in its horror. I think I am justified in saying, "Stop here!"
MORGENTHAU: You don't, then, deny the Catholic doctrine of just war?
BERRIGAN: I deny it entirely, as indeed the Vatican Council has denied it, and returned us to the gospel of nonviolence.
MORGENTHAU: Of absolute nonviolence?
BERRIGAN: Pope John said there is no circumstance in modern life in which war can be looked upon as a just resolution of human conflict. I start there.
MORGENTHAU : But then, what would the Pope counsel a country surrounded by other countries that are resolved to destroy it? Are you going to use no violence, are you going to sit, are you going to join the six million dead and say, "There are two million more dead for your disposal"? How do you deal with this problem practically? Put yourself in the position of an Israeli.
BERRIGAN: I'm trying to. It seems to me that if anything has been made clear since 1967, it is that the continuation of the death game is useless except to multiply the dead on both sides. As those who are not immediately involved, our best service is to counsel a third way, and to get some sort of accommodation going on both sides.
MORGENTHAU: But, of course, the question is what is the third way when you have on the one side the remnant of a nation that refuses to die, and on the other side a large mass of people who, under the guise of justice and restoration of the legitimate rights of the Palestinians, really are resolved to destroy Israel.
BERRIGAN: I'm not sure that that resolution is so firm.
MORGENTHAU: There is very little doubt that this is what the leaders of the Arab world have in mind. Take the statement of the Egyptian foreign minister that Israel doesn't belong in the Middle East. Where is it going to go? This is the question that really led to the creation of Israel after World War II, when the remnants of those six million, those who happened to survive the slaughter, were packed into ships which went from port to port, and nobody wanted them. BERRIGAN: I know, I know. . . .
MORGENTHAU: They were human garbage, as it were, and they were smuggled into Palestine because that was the only place they could go. And aside from the moral and enormously strong allegiance of the Jewish people to Jerusalem and the Holy Land, the Promised Land. . . .
HAMILTON : Father Berrigan, the Jewish anti-war movement and the Jewish members of this movement were among your strongest allies when you were protesting the Vietnam war. Do you understand how some of them now could feel that you have turned against them?
BERRIGAN: Well, I understand all kinds of feelings because I've shared them, at least to a degree. Certainly in the 1960s I had a very harsh taste of what it was to be a minority figure and what it was to be hunted and to be in jail and to be in courts. I'm not altogether apart from that experience. My feeling is, though, that I should not be the issue. It was not the point of helping me, as though I were somebody off on a drug trip or somebody in need of mental care. I was trying to put my life somewhere. And if the Jewish communities, among other communities, joined me, that was an effort to humanize themselves as well.
I reject utterly the idea that one has to go from protest against the Vietnam war to a kind of automatic acceptance of other points of view—that if one was against the Vietnam war he must be pro-abortion and pro-Israel and pro-this, and so on. I don't think it's that easy.
MORGENTHAU: I fully agree with you.
BERRIGAN: And I'm really trying to invite the Jewish community to a deeper integration of consciousness— as well as my own community, as well as all America.
HAMILTON: Professor Morgenthau, I believe you fled Nazi Germany. . . .
MORGENTHAU: I didn't really flee it. I anticipated it and I left the year before Hitler came to power.
HAMILTON: So you know something about the arrogance of power and violence that Father Berrigan is. . . .
MORGENTHAU: But you see, we are talking about violence as some kind of abstraction. There are all kinds of violence. God asked Abraham to slaughter his son, which is violence. You made the point that present Israel betrays the prophetic tradition. But the prophets operated within a more or less secure political and military framework. And the Old Testament is full of victories over the Philistines and the Moabites and other people around. So, the idea that all of a sudden you can ask Israelis, of all people, to be the first to establish the Kingdom of God without violence, is a counsel for suicide. It is impractical, and I find it • unworthy of your intellectual acumen.
BERRIGAN: I might respond that the present course which you are advocating is equally suicidal and perhaps, politically speaking, even more so. I don't see how a long, endless series of armed clashes between these two peoples is going to guarantee life, borders, wellbeing for any side.
MORGENTHAU: With this I would most certainly agree.
BERRIGAN: And I am urging peace-making on both sides.
MORGENTHAU: But to say this is one thing and to attack Israel for taking care of its political and military security is quite another. We leave Israel standing there naked, in military and political terms. Certainly Israel has the same right as any other country, in this evil world of violence, to arm itself with those instruments of violence which it thinks necessary to defend itself. BERRIGAN: As in the case of the United States, any country is probably a poor judge in its own case, and outside critique in times of conflict is desperately necessary. No one is asking Israel to go naked. I am really seeking a mitigation of violence on both sides by the understanding, maybe within Israel, that there are friends around the world who believe there are other ways than killing—and thereby, it seems to me, reinforcing the life-giving energies of Israel itself. I don't believe that General Dayan speaks for the true tradition of Israel.
MORGENTHAU: Well, what you are saying now you did not say in that speech.
BERRIGAN : Well, I say it now.
MORGENTHAU : I think you could have avoided a lot of misunderstanding and resentment if you had said then what you said just now.
There is another point, coming back to the problem of evil which you see in Israel: Look at the evil which the Arabs did to the Jews before 1967, when Jordan occupied East Jerusalem. The synagogues were destroyed or transformed into comfort stations. The ancient Jewish cemeteries were destroyed and the stones were used to pave roads. Which bishop protested against this? Which Protestant minister found this intolerable? But when the Jews, the Israelis, try to defend themselves, this is an outrage.
There is an element of anti-Semitism here in which it is not the individual Jew who is pointed at, but in which a whole people composed of Jews is pointed at as a kind of outcast, a kind of outlaw who does terrible things that no other nation is doing. This is a fantasy, and anti-Semitism is based on certain pseudo-religious fantasies.
HAMILTON: Father Berrigan, you have been accused by some of making anti-Semitic statements. Do you consider yourself anti-Semitic?
BERRIGAN: NO. I am about as anti-Semitic as I am anti-Catholic. This is a very cruel epithet to have hurled at one—probably the worst that could be hurled at me, and quite wounding.
It seems to me that Professor Morgenthau's remarks about the horrors perpetrated on Israelis by the Arabs reinforce what we already know in another context— that war is man at his very worst, at his most horrifying, at his most brutal, and that this will always be true. As technology grants us more ways of doing this, we'll do it more horribly than before. But to talk of belligerence here and horror there doesn't really shed much light; we're required to get beyond that and suggest how else we can act, especially in circumstances of great conflict. That is our office, the one that I am trying to exercise.
HAMILTON: Father Berrigan, you have been quoted as having accused the Israelis of adopting, in effect, the racist ideology of the Nazis against the Arabs.
BERRIGAN: The word "Nazi" was never used. I can't think of the exact quote, but there have been words used by Israelis about Arabs that are racist. I don't find anything spectacular in that. In war, the first casualty is the truth about the other side.
HAMILTON : You did accuse the Israelis of racist ideology?
BERRIGAN: Yes, racist language—
HAMILTON: DO you think you went too far or were too harsh in that regard?
BERRIGAN : No. MORGENTHAU: If you had to make that speech again, would you make it the way you made it, or have you learned something from the experience?
BERRIGAN: I've learned a great deal, not merely about myself but about the community—and, specifically, the American Jewish community—that has made me very sober about the whole question. I can think of nothing, essentially, that I would want to retract, but I would want to add something: I don't think I conveyed my sense of love for Israel and for the Jewish people, which is very deep. I did say at one point that my speech was an act of love, of outraged love, but I should have developed that more. And I should have spoken more about my admiration for the social achievements and the agricultural and industrial achievements of Israel, especially in those early years when it was so difficult.
MORGENTHAU: And you might have said something about the Palestinian refugees who have been kept artificially in the status of refugees for political reasons. Imagine, for a moment, that the West German government had, in the late 1940s, put all the refugees from the East into camps and said, "We don't care about them. We will wait until their legitimate rights are restored. Let the United Nations give them subsistence." And imagine that this would have gone on for twenty-five years. What would we have said of the ethics of the West German government? Yet this is what the Arab governments have done, though they are swimming in money and have enormous territories. They have done it brutally for only one purpose—-to have a dagger with which to stab at the heart of Israel.
BERRIGAN: I think, again, you simplify a question that has implications for Israel as well, but. . . .
HAMILTON: YOU have mentioned the reaction to the speech you made. What has it taught you?
BERRIGAN: In my worst moments, I think a great deal of this hate mail has to do with an effort to warn me and others to keep quiet and keep off the subject. I don't want to discount the fact that with more or less deliberation I stepped in where it was forbidden to step in. I took a chance, you know. But, on the other hand, I don't think it's a rational response for people to say that this man is functioning suddenly out of hatred, or irrationality, or anti-Semitism, or insanity. think the supposition about someone like myself ought to be, "Well, he certainly irritated us, and he probably was wrong on a lot of points, but maybe he's worth listening to."
MORGENTHAU: I would fully agree with the last sentence. My personal respect and affection for Father Berrigan has not been diminished at all. Perhaps my evaluation of his political wisdom has been somewhat impaired. •
From The Progressive Magazine, March 1974
Daniel Berrigan arrested for civil disobedience outside the U.S. Mission to the U.N. in 2006, photo by Thomas Good.