Rev. Daniel Berrigan passed away last week, a moral giant. He’s best known for his opposition to the U.S. war on Vietnam and his brave action with 8 others to destroy draft board files in Catonsville, MD in 1968. He was put in jail for two years for that action.
He was awarded the Gandhi Peace Award in 1974 and wrote a letter of acceptance. He was supposed to receive the award in a ceremony in December. It was to be handed to him by Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement. However something happened that caused him to decline the award.
It all had to do with a speech he gave on Israel that October. He called Israel a “settler state” that was “seeking Biblical justification for crimes against humanity”. He talked about the racism its leaders showed to the people it conquered and excoriated its weapons exports.
This was 1974 when support for Zionism in the U.S. went wall to wall. There were cries of “anti-Semitism”, “inflammatory” and “a final crucifixion for the Jewish people” from some of his friends on the anti-war Left. The matter was considered important enough to be reported on in the New York Times at the time (and in his NYT obituary last week).
Nowadays almost all the Left would consider Berrigan’s speech prophetic, but in ’74 it was controversial and there were angry open letters and many cancellations for the dinner and award ceremony. The PEP Board started to poll itself to see if the award should be withdrawn. When that information got out to Berrigan he sent a note refusing the award.
James van Pelt, Promoting Enduring Peace’s current Treasurer, wrote about the incident in his book In Gandhi’s Footsteps: The Gandhi Peace Award 1960-1996 (chapter 11).
On hearing of Berrigan’s death van Pelt wrote that though Berrigan never received the Gandhi Peace Award, “His name honors the award.”
The May 6 program of Democracy Now! was entirely about Dan Berrigan.