Thanks to television and the internet we see so much more human suffering, yet this suffering of the other seldom truly shocks us. It never motivates the nations to change the world. Business as usual – no matter how ugly the horror we see.

Daniel Berrigan’s 1973 reflection on the imperialist and colonialist Zionism of the State of Israel as the “tomb of the Jewish soul” is at once one of the most prophetic and discomforting pieces written on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As a Jesuit priest who was imprisoned for his anti-war activism during the Vietnam War Berrigan, on account of his sickness at war, rejects all partisanship. He approaches both the Jewish Zionist and the Arab Palestinian as a witness who declares his love for the symbols of both Judaism and Islam as they were before their “reversal.” It was Judaism, he says, that taught the world to believe Thou shalt not kill, and now – from the trauma of the Holocaust – in becoming a nation like the nations that oppressed it, it has become like its oppressors; like “Babylon and Egypt and Assyria.”

Berrigan regrets the contradiction that Israel has become; not that it is any more wicked than other nations, but that in becoming just like the other nations the Jewishness of statist Zionism has lost its vocation as a judge and guide to the world. It is no longer the exception to the way of the world. It has become the world, and this is where his insight becomes truly painful. Against the backdrop of the “Vietnam holocaust” – in which “some six million Southeast Asians had been maimed, bombed, displaced, tortured, imprisoned or killed” – he laments that Israel of the prophets has become as indifferent to the suffering of humanity as the rest of the world:

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.”
– Daniel Berrigan, Responses to Settler Regimes.

There is something rather mystical in what he is touching on here. He is evoking a religious idea, not a Christian idea, but a Talmudic Jewish idea of the Gentile reminding the Jew of his or her obligation to perform the mitzvot – the laws of the Torah (tractate Bavli Megillah 3b). Israel’s “Jewishness” – that is state Judaism – has, in becoming the world, acquiesced to the law of this world and in so doing has become complicit in its injustice and suffering. By putting aside the Torah in favour of the secular priorities of security, economy, material consumerism, and power Israel has failed to become the homeland for the wandering Jews. Instead it has become the tomb and final resting place of the Jewish soul. This is what causes Berrigan the most pain.

Daniel Berrigan, a man who preached peace and practiced civil disobedience.

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