Commentary Magazine

Berrigan's Diatribe

Surely one of the most shocking documents of American response to the latest Middle East war is Daniel Berrigan's October 19, 1973 speech to the Association of Arab University Graduates. (The full text appears in American Report, October 29, 1973.) It is not that there is anything startlingly new about the views of Israel which Father Berrigan articulates—one has heard them often enough issuing from Damascus, Baghdad, Cairo, Moscow, and from the spokesman of the Palestine Liberation Organization. What is shocking is that such views should be taken up by a man whom many Americans had come to regard as the exemplary hero—if you will, martyr—of conscience and political struggle in this country, our paragon of courageous and idealistic activism. It is encouraging to note that not only Jews have been dismayed by the Berrigan address. Several clergymen prominent in the peace movement have spoken out against it, and the Rev. Donald S. Harrington, who last month was to have presented Berrigan with the Gandhi Peace Award on behalf of an organization called Promoting Enduring Peace, withdrew from the proceedings, denouncing the prospective recipient in the plainest terms: “Father Berrigan has ceased to be a witness and an influence for peace, and has become the opposite” (New York Times, December 22, 1973). Subsequently, the directors of the organization announced that they were reconsidering the award and Berrigan, in turn, rejected the prize.

It would be surprising, of course, if anyone so involved as Berrigan in the 60's political climate of the Left with its stereotypical formulas about global politics should be particularly sympathetic toward Israel. Berrigan, however, is not content, like many of his New Left colleagues, merely to castigate Israel's more vulnerable policies and to affirm his identification with the suffering Palestinian people. Impelled by a peculiar animus, he takes pains to weave out of malicious invention and crude distortion an entirely mythical image of a sinister Israel that will be a worthy object of his invective. It is a question worth pondering why this supposed man of conscience should have shown such eagerness to pronounce the big lie—and to pronounce it, moreover, with frequent protestations that his chief concern is to be a zealous guardian and a brave protagonist of the truth.

Berrigan begins his address, on a proper note of rhetorical humility, by announcing that he is “a non-expert in every field of human expertise,” including the one he is about to explore. The disclaimer, however, can hardly justify the outrages on factuality which he then proceeds to perpetrate. One may be understandably disenchanted with professional experts, but that does not entitle, say, a lecturer on Lapland to be unaware of the fact that Lapland has a very cold climate; yet that is the order of Berrigan's ignorance, whether willful or innocent, of the history of Zionism, the development of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the nature of Israeli society, even, one suspects, of Middle Eastern geography. Berrigan's twisting of facts is so crude that it hardly deserves point-by-point refutation. What I will do instead is simply to review the main points he makes about Israel—to cite them is to expose them—with some reflections on the rhetoric in which they are couched and what it may imply. For no one should imagine that the Berrigan document is an impetuous if misguided outburst made in the heat of war. On the contrary, its studied use of anaphora and metaphor, its careful orchestration of biblical echoes, its manipulation of invidious comparisons and emotionally-weighted word-choices, suggest that it is above all else a cunningly contrived rhetorical instrument in which every gesture is the result of patient calculation.

The Jews, Father Berrigan informs us, are “the classic refugee people,” and everything he says about them is implicit with a powerful regret that they have not elected to continue their noble vocation as refugees but instead have presumed to meddle in the Gentile sphere of history. This people of ex-refugees “is now creating huge numbers of refugees.” The slipperiness of the “now” here is typical of Berrigan's rhetorical slyness. If it means 1973, the whole statement is a barefaced lie; if one edges it into something more general like “the last twenty-five years,” it recedes from a lie to a distorted and gravely misleading simplification. The Arab nations are, quite plainly, “a people invaded”—whether one uses 1948, 1967, or 1973, this, by contrast, is the sort of lie that is exactly antithetical to the truth. Israel itself is a “de facto state,” hence worthy of no more than de facto recognition, an assertion supported solely by its own rhetorical context, while we are left wondering why Israel, established by a vote of the UN General Assembly, should be a de facto state, though the de jure status, for example, of Jordan, created through a fiat of British imperialism, is left unquestioned.

As Berrigan moves into the main part of his argument, it becomes clear that his refusal to accord Israel full legitimacy of national existence is based on what he conceives as moral rather than strictly legal grounds. Israel, he affirms again and again, is a “settler state,” like South Africa and the United States. (Unless he is talking about the frontier era, I find it hard to see how that term applies to the United States, but in any case South Africa would appear to be the analogy he has most steadily in mind.) “We had known,” Father Berrigan tells us with a fine homiletic flourish, “criminal Christian communities,” and though he is a little vague about their identity, the emphasis on community—which is, after all, a collective entity of men, women, and children—suggests that he is thinking again of South Africa, and of Nazi Germany, more than he is of the United States or, for example, of Spain during the Inquisition. In our own time, however, Zionism has created a new thing in history: “a criminal Jewish community.”

This radical Jesuit's bill of complaints makes it clear that he intends the criminal label in all seriousness, not as a mere figure of speech. The wisdom of Israel has become “an Orwellian nightmare of double-talk, racism, fifth-rate sociological jargon, aimed at proving its racial superiority to the people it has crushed.” One hardly needs add that no specific documents of this alleged flood of racist pronouncements are offered in evidence. Israel, Berrigan would have us believe, is a state that exists through a systematic policy of terrorism, violence, and murder directed against its own dissidents. He knows in his bones that if he were a Jew living in Israel, the state would suppress him, for he can confidently assert of Israel's peacemakers that “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.” I don't know what the particular source may be for this dramatic fantasy, but it is obvious that the rhetorician who spun it has never been in Israel, never read the Israeli press, knows nothing of the actual figures and parties that constitute political life in Israel, where I think it is safe to say that more freedom has been accorded to dissent than in any other society under continuous critical stress.

The Berrigan document offers other, equally vivid vignettes of Israeli life, or what his Arab listeners on October 19th must have rejoiced to accept as such. Thus, to illustrate the militaristic ethos that he imagines has become the heart of Israel, he tells us that “Her absurd generals, her military junk, are paraded on national holidays before the narcotized public”—and again he goes on to invoke Orwell in order to provide the aptest image of the Zionist state. Now, one would not want to require such an avowed non-expert to have a mastery of arcane sources, but presumably he has had access at least to the New York Times, which since Israel Independence Day of 1969 has prominently featured photographs of the children's parade that the “narcotized” Israelis, with the sense of an appropriate symbol for the kind of nation they wanted to be, decided to substitute for the display of troops and weapons. The decision to hold a military parade on the twenty-fifth anniversary only—for the sake of tourism!—was vehemently criticized within Israel, the opponents of the parade including even Moshe Dayan; but in any case what Father Berrigan is looking for here is a rhetorical handle, a symbolic image to fit the symmetries of a myth, not a statement that will have the least responsibility to verifiable historical fact.


Lest it seem that I have been exaggerating the virulence of Berrigan's attack on Israel by citing brief statements out of context or by my own interpretation of their tenor, I would like to conclude this summary of his October 19 speech by quoting continuously three of the central passages of his argument. There is scarcely an assertion in them that cannot be challenged on the basis of solidly documented facts, but after the first sentence, I will resist the temptation to intervene because I think any reader with a minimal knowledge of recent Middle Eastern history can readily see how gross fabrication has been piled upon gross fabrication in the service of a transparent propaganda.

The Jews arose from the Holocaust, a cause of universal joy [a joy not conspicuously evidenced in the policies of the nominally Christian nations from 1945 to 1948 toward the establishment of a Jewish state]; but the Jews arose like warriors, armed to the teeth [that is, with antiquated rifles, improvised armor, and a few rattletrap planes, against the modern weaponry of five invading Arab armies clearly intending their annihilation]. 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 idolators, 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.

I am not sure whether the imperial adventure referred to is Israel's extensive program of technical and economic aid to the new African states, or Israel's preemptive thrust in June 1967 into the staging-grounds of the surrounding armies that had massed to attack and destroy the Jewish state. Be that as it may, Berrigan sees in Israel a confirmation of Frantz Fanon's idea that “the slave became master, and created slaves”; and having thus concluded what he is pleased to think of as a resume of Israel's history, he proceeds to offer a description of Israeli society as it has evolved. Israeli intellectuals have often wrestled with the question of what some of them call “the price of Zionism”; Father Berrigan for his part knows what it is in the most unequivocal terms:

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, the 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 [sic] the violence and repression of the great (and little) powers; a common method, a common dead end.

As the last sentence here suggests, one of the reasons why Berrigan's hatred of Israel is so undiluted is that the Jewish state provides him—at least as he chooses to imagine it—with an intensely focused image in miniature of the corporate America he hates. That confusion of images is conspicuous in this climactic diatribe, and with it, at the beginning of the passage, an element of theological outrage that will bear further consideration:

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.


It is hard to think of a more dismaying instance in recent years of a figure looked up to as a moral guide who has so totally betrayed his intellectual trust. Words create a climate of thought; words can kill; and the words Father Berrigan has permitted himself to speak, in extravagant defiance of the most elemental facts of the issue, are the sort that could help endanger the survival of two-and-a-half million human beings. It is clear that he knows nothing whatever of Israeli laws or of civil liberties within Israel; of the Israeli economy, the way the distribution of incomes within it is controlled, the role of the proletariat in the economy and in political life; of the kibbutz, the moshav, and other forms of social experiment in Israel, or of Israel's programs of social welfare; of the real economic and living conditions of Arab workers (by no means migrant) in Israel; and, most fundamentally, of the iron necessity of self-defense that has held the Jewish state in its grip for twenty-six years, which could not for a moment be ignored if the nation was to exist at all.

With all this burden of ignorance, Berrigan does not flinch for an instant—indeed, he has since continued to defend his remarks of last October—at grossly misrepresenting Israel in the most extreme terms of vilification—violence, repression, torture, terrorism, murder, slavery, racism, militarism, imperialism—and as an impartial man of peace, he is happy to propose that Israel unilaterally withdraw to the 1967 borders, allowing hostile tanks and missiles to be positioned in what are virtually the suburbs of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, while all the Arab refugees are to return to their pre-1948 homes in a great eschatological wave. The Wall Street Journal, in an editorial on Berrigan occasioned by the controversy over the Gandhi Peace Award (December 21, 1973), has formulated the shameful irresponsibility of Berrigan's political views on the Middle East with dry succinctness: “His apparent inability to understand why Israel sometimes resembles a garrison state does not say much for his perception of world realities. Nor does his refusal to address himself to the question of what would happen to an Israel that found a ‘biblical justification’ for unilaterally beating its swords into plowshares.”

There is little more to be said about the substance of Berrigan's argument, such as it is. What may still trouble one about this whole verbal onslaught is its motives. Arthur Hertzberg, in an effective rejoinder to Berrigan (American Report, November 12, 1973), has provided, I think, at least part of the answer. “I am a Jew,” Berrigan announces in his address in a characteristic rhetorical gesture, and he repeatedly affirms that the spiritual heritage of the Jews is his heritage, the dream of Israel (whatever he may think that means) his dream. Having put up his shingle as a symbolic Jew, Berrigan, as Hertzberg observes, “has no patience with the Jewish community, and judges it to be horribly sinful for living with some semblance of normalcy in the world.” Berrigan, I should say, introduces his attack against Israel by first excoriating the American Jewish community, which he represents as having no political concerns except Israel, and he particularly stigmatizes the leadership of the American Jewish community, which he imagines to have almost unanimously adopted what he calls “the Nixon ethos.” This is, of course, still another extravagant lie, since two-thirds of the Jewish vote went to McGovern in the 1972 elections, and many of the most prominent figures of American Jewry strongly opposed Nixon; but this is a lie Berrigan desperately needs. A real Jewish community is an encumbrance or an embarrassment for a Christian of such aspiring spirituality, and, as Hertzberg notes, “He wishes it would go away and leave to him the role of the true Jew.” This frame of mind, which has antecedents going all the way back to the Gospel according to St. John, has a familiar label, as Hertzberg the historian is keenly aware—theological anti-Semitism.


Let me briefly amplify that conclusion. Berrigan is a political messianist, and there is no more dangerous way of relating to politics. Anything that does not correspond to messianic reality can be denounced as an abomination in the eyes of man and God, and all practical steps to its abolition can be justified. If this way of thinking can be applied to political reality in America, it can be applied tenfold to Israel; for the people of Israel, as the carnal source of the messianic vision, can be seen most scandalously as the betrayer of the vision. To speak typologically, as Christians traditionally have done, Israel in the light of its waywardness is to be imagined as Esau, the false son who thoughtlessly casts off the inheritance of the Father, and not as Jacob, the Christlike true son who remains steadfast to his Father's behests. Such exegetical notions invite a direct translation into concrete historical terms: other nations may have varying degrees of inequity in their social systems, and may be criticized for it; but if anything less than the realized messianic ideal is perceptible in Israel, it has abandoned its great heritage, the language of Isaiah being invoked to underscore the theological scandal, and the outraged spirit may now proceed to denounce Israel as a criminal community, outcast of humankind and cursed of the Lord.

This terminology and this mode of thinking are by no means unique to Berrigan among Christian spokesmen. To cite one highly visible example, a whole vociferous clique of Protestant and Catholic Old Testament scholars in this country have since October 6 scrambled to the platforms of the various local news media with attacks on Israel couched sanctimoniously in the same biblical terms, inveighing against the Jewish state as the wayward son who is no longer “True Israel.” Thus, W. H. Brownlee (Claremont College) made public on October 16, 1973, a plea against American arms shipments to Israel in which he justified the Arab attack on Yom Kippur with a well-known text from Isaiah, “Your new moons and your appointed festivals My soul hates.” George E. Mendenhall (University of Michigan) concluded a letter to the editor of the Ann Arbor News with a phrase from Hosea (quoted in Hebrew) that makes explicit what is implicit in Berrigan: “Yisrael lo ami, Israel is not my people.” And the examples, alas, could be multiplied. In June 1967, many of these same Christian scholars rushed to the letters pages of American newspapers in defense of the Arab cause—members of the Yale Divinity School, for example, were conspicuous in the New York Times—but the theological anti-Semitism was by comparison muted. It was as though they were still looking over one shoulder wondering whether the moratorium on public anti-Semitism after the Holocaust was really over. Now, however, all doubts about that have vanished as the image of a militarily powerful Israel has canceled out the last vestiges of bad conscience for the Holocaust. Reverting to one of the classic points of departure of Christian thought, a certain kind of American Christian now feels no compunction whatever in again denouncing the Jews as the pariah people, pariahs usurping the land from which God justly expelled them.

In the case of Berrigan, the theological animus is so strong that his rhetorical habit—a somewhat antiquated one—of referring to the state of Israel as “she” blends perfectly with a pseudo-prophetic vision of the Jewish state as an allegorized Daughter of Zion who, in betraying her true Husband, has metamorphosed into an apocalyptic Whore of Babylon, courting the favor of imperialist faces, as Berrigan puts it with more attention to metaphor than to idiomatic correctness. It would be a mistake, however, not to note also what is distinctively Catholic, even Jesuitical, in this whole hate-filled harangue, and that has been done with great penetration by Michael Novak in a devastating expose of Berrigan (Commonweal, December 21, 1973). Concerned as a committed Catholic intellectual that the zeal of priests who became active in Left politics may in the end arrive at the same point as the fanaticism of a Father Feeney or a Father Coughlin, Novak observes: “The fascination of the Catholic Left with authority, with huge sun-blocking bureaucratic forces, with evils in administrative structure, with signs of doom, is all-too-Catholic, all-too-clerical. . . . And to find the Left mesmerized by armaments, by espionage, by prisons; by spies, by power elites, by industrial complexes, by millionaires (as if the world had begun only yesterday), and making no distinctions whatsoever between regimes, cultures, histories, concrete situations, is to feel again what one felt a dozen years ago in curial circles in Rome: an iron-tight, complacent, impenetrable, simple ‘truth.’”

There is, nevertheless, something that goes beyond theology, finally beyond the opposition between Christian and Jew, in Berrigan's orgy of falsification, in his very commitment to a complacent, simple “truth.” The obvious question poses itself of whether there is some psychological or political connection between Berrigan's anti-war activism and his current denunciation of Israel. If one admires without qualification Berrigan the burner of draft records, perhaps there is simply some inexplicable disjuncture between his actions then and now. This, for example, is the view emphatically spelled out by the Rev. David R. Hunter, Deputy General Secretary of the National Council of Churches, in a letter to American Report (November 26, 1973): “Dan Berrigan, whose courage and insight I have admired for years, has suddenly gone mad in this one aspect of his life and has given way to stereotyping which violates the hard cruel fact of truth.” The thesis of sudden madness is an interesting one, and the presence of anti-Semitism deep in the spiritual imagination of an otherwise enlightened man might well give support for such a thesis. Nevertheless, it seems to me more plausible to see a direct continuity of character between Berrigan the peace activist and Berrigan the anti-Zionist demagogue.

There are few stances trickier to maintain with some sort of moral integrity than civil disobedience. Circumstances within a given polity may well come to such a pass, as Thoreau first argued to Americans, that the only path a man of conscience can take is willfully to violate the law. But especially in a constitutional democracy, where there are open options of legal redress, however painfully slow and imperfect, a person who deliberately breaks the law in the name of conscience must have a very strong sense that he knows what is right and what is necessary, so he may decide on his own that he cannot wait, that the means he adopts are justified. The forthright conscience of civil disobedience may not be altogether separable from a certain disdainful sense of moral superiority. It takes courage to be a martyr, but, let us be frank, it is also soul-warming to be confirmed in one's rightness by public persecution at the hands of the Others, the wrong ones. We should not forget that an important moment of the whole experience of martyrdom—that is, two years and three months in prison for violating federal law—for Berrigan was The Catonsville Nine, a didactic play he wrote about his trial which is artistically vitiated by its dominant note of self-gratulation.


That same note rings clear and strong in his address to the Association of Arab University Graduates. The profession of strict impartiality he offers at the beginning, and the little wrist-slap he administers to the Arabs near the end for their occasional excesses, are in part a rhetorical ploy to appear impeccably fair, in part the expression of a real need to feel superior to both sides. In the climate of prevalent political opinion in America, of course, it is much more inviting for a dissident spirit to savor its superiority vis-à-vis the Jews than vis-à-vis Arabs. On the level of rhetorical strategy, there is no more comfortably-lined vehicle for spiritual superiority than Christian humility, and Berrigan rides it for all it is worth, confessing his limitations, his association through Catholicism with the historical victimizers of the Jews, even as he reminds us repeatedly of his own role as a rebel against authority who has courageously borne witness for the truth, and as he proceeds to libel in the most damaging fashion the living Jewish people in Israel and in America. His argument with both sides, he tells us at the end, “is made in a spirit of love and deep concern.” One should fervently pray that the people of Israel always be preserved from such love and concern, for it could be, quite literally, the death of us.


Having made a vocation out of performing spectacular acts of political righteousness, Berrigan would seem prepared to balk at nothing now in the quest for new causes in which he can express the adversary energies of his old cause, and tie old and new with the same worn ideological thread. The point is not that Israel need in any way be exempt from vigorous and probing criticism, whether from Gentile or Jew, but it is clear that Berrigan is not interested in criticism, or in the gathering of complex data necessary to make the carefully qualified judgments that constitute responsible criticism. What Berrigan is really interested in is denunciation, and that warm tingle of self-gratulation which denunciation carries with it; and for this purpose, mendacious stereotypes will serve much better than recalcitrant facts. Thus in his version Israel is not a nation with imperfections, that has made a variety of policy-decisions, some of them questionable, in the most trying circumstances imaginable; rather it must be thought of as an Orwellian nightmare of state terror, militarism, imperialism, and all the rest.

“Be not overrighteous,” Ecclesiastes warned long ago, to which the Rabbis (B'midbar Rabbah, 21:6) added, “so that no man come to dispense with the Law.” It is a warning that all commentators on the Middle East might bear in mind during this tense period when Israel urgently needs, from its supposed friends as well as from its enemies, the simple human recognition of its basic legitimacy as a nation, so that there will be some ground for a workable peace.

About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.