Daniel Berrigan and Rabbi Ben-Zion Gold: Missing Voices for Human Worth

Daniel Berrigan and Rabbi Ben-Zion Gold: Missing Voices for Human Worth May 5, 2016

By Shalom Goldman.

April saw the passing of two very courageous American religious figures, the Rev. Daniel Berrigan and Rabbi Ben-Zion Gold. Berrigan, a Catholic priest and member of the Jesuit order, had reached the age of 94. Rabbi Gold, a Conservative rabbi, was 92.

Berrigan was born in 1921 to a working-class Catholic family in the Midwest. Gold was born in Poland in 1923 and with his family was deported to Auschwitz at age 17; he was the only one of his family to survive.

For both men, the commitment to justice and social change spanned decades. Each was able to exert influence through teaching and preaching at universities. Berrigan’s affiliations were more peripatetic; Gold’s were more stable.

Conservative Catholic institutions were wary of Berrigan; his Leftist politics and his increasingly daring acts of civil disobedience alarmed them. He found, however, an audience in Catholic groups of a more progressive stripe, such as the the Catholic Worker Movement and Plowshares. Berrigan was also welcome at secular institutions and in addition to teaching at Loyola University of New Orleans, over the decades he taught and ministered at Columbia, Cornell, and Yale. In the last years of his life he was affiliated with at Fordham University. As the result of his principled opposition to the war in Vietnam and the American escalation of the arms race with the Soviets, Berrigan engaged in many acts of civil disobedience, and in 1970 he was arrested and spent a year and a half in federal prison.

Rabbi Gold’s opposition to militarism and the arms race was equally forceful but took very different forms than Berrigan’s. Berrigan was a pacifist of sorts who described himself as practicing non-violent resistance; Gold was not. Gold did not engage in civil disobedience or go to jail. His courage was of a quieter type and not as dramatic as Berrigan’s but, I would contend, it was no less courageous. Gold used his privileged position as Jewish chaplain at Harvard to speak on many occasions against injustice wherever he saw it, and especially when he saw it in Israel. Gold led the Harvard Hillel for a remarkably long period, from 1958 to 1990. And for for the first twenty-five years of his tenure, years that American Jews now fondly recall as the “heroic period” of Israeli history, he addressed injustices in this country, not those in Israel.

An overlapping concern of both Berrigan’s and Gold’s was Israeli treatment of the Palestinians. I am not contending that they agreed on Israel but that they both objected to automatic American support for Israeli policies and actions, however harsh these actions might be.

In 1973, Daniel Berrigan strongly condemned Israeli policies toward the Palestinians. He was accused by Jewish leaders of “theological anti-semitism” and excoriated by many liberals, both Jewish and Christian, for his remarks, and for his refusal to retract them. In an article in The Progressive, Berrigan pointed to the “difficulties of talking about Israel” in the U.S. He said that

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.

Rabbi Gold’s criticism of Israel took longer to emerge. In the 1970s, Israeli policies were still a sacred cow among American Jews (though not of course among Israeli Jews). In the late ’70s and early ’80s the expansion of the Settlements under the governments of Prime Ministers Begin and Shamir—and the subsequent 1982 Israeli war in Lebanon—led to deep disillusionment among a small but vocal group of previously uncritical Zionists. By the late 1980s, these voices were being heard in some of the more liberal Jewish forums. One of them was Harvard Hillel.

In his sermons at Harvard, Rabbi Gold often challenged the drift to the right of the “official” American Jewish organizations. He was especially critical of the idea that American Jews had to endorse Israeli government policies and actions.

In 1988, he opened a Sabbath sermon with a dramatic response to the demands of the the Israeli Prime Minister. “Yitzhak Shamir tells American Jews ‘shut up’. Here is why we shouldn’t.” He chronicled the failures of the Israeli government to work toward toward a negotiated peace with the Palestinians and condemned the Settlement project in the Occupied Territories. These condemnations were the equivalent of religious heresy in the Jewish conversation of the 1980s.

Rabbi Gold later elaborated on the need for an American Jewish view of Israel that is independent of the community’s “official voice.” In a speech delivered at Harvard Hillel and then published in an April 2002 article for the Boston Review, he said,

There is no elected body that is authorized to speak on behalf of American Jews. The Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, with a right-of-center orientation, has presumed to fill that vacuum, and they have consistently supported the policies of right-wing Israeli governments in the name of American Jews. The American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) exists for the purpose of lobbying Congress to support Israeli governmental policies and actions. These oligarchies have persistently reduced Israel to their ideological preference by ignoring its critical opposition. Most American Jews have accepted their view and are zealously opposed to criticism, ostensibly because it would bring down the roof of American support of Israel.

One might have hoped that religious Jews who pray several times daily for peace and who affirm the traditional teachings about the supreme worth of human life would rise up against the subjugation and humiliation of the Palestinians. Most regrettably, the opposite has been the case.​

In that speech, Rabbi Gold, retired from Harvard and free to express himself fully on Israeli issues, chronicled his lifelong commitment to Zionism and Israel, while at the same time asserting his right, and the rights of others, to criticize that state that he had been devoted to throughout his life.

But my devotion, which began with unquestioning support for the policies of the Israeli government and the actions of Israeli society, became increasingly critical beginning with the building of settlements in the West Bank and especially during the Lebanon War in 1982. I felt that the settlers were taking advantage of twice-defeated and helpless refugees. I wondered, where is the compassion and generosity that is traditionally attributed to Jews? As a religious Jew I was also offended by the use of Biblical texts to justify the outrage. I was convinced that the accumulated hatred from the persistent injury and insult eventually would fuel the fires of revolt and vengeance.

What Rabbi Gold said in 2002 is even more true in 2016. American voices raised against “the moral travesty of the settlements” or other Israeli policies are effectively shut down and condemned as “anti-semitic” if uttered by a non-Jew, or as “self-hating” if expressed by a Jew.

Today, as Donald Trump seems assured of the Republican nomination and his endorsement of Israeli Settlements is made public in the British press, is a day when the voices of Rabbi Gold and Father Berrigan will be sorely missed.



Shalom Goldman is Professor of Religion at Middlebury College. His most recent book is Jewish -Christian Difference and Modern Jewish Identity: Seven Twentieth-Century Converts (Lexington Books, 2015).


Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!