Heschel and the Vietnam War
As already noted, Heschel was an early opponent of the Vietnam War. He saw it as an act of violence against God as well as against fellow human beings, and by organizing Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam (CALCAV), Heschel sought to bring leaders of different religious traditions together to oppose the war. Heschel’s stance was controversial within the Jewish community and outside of it—he attracted the attention of the FBI—but it was he as much as anyone who helped bring Martin Luther King, Jr. into the anti-war movement, adding a powerful voice to the cause. Heschel introduced King when the latter came out against the war in a famous speech at New York City’s Riverside Church in April 1967.
Once, when asked why he was participating in one of many demonstrations against the war, Heschel responded that it was because he could not pray. “Whenever I open the prayer book,” he explained, “I see before me images of children burning from napalm.” For Heschel, it was impossible to speak about God and remain silent about the violence, terror, and injustice of Vietnam. In Heschel’s view, the war undermined the very values of justice, mercy, and compassion that he and the prophets before him had lived by.
Questions to Consider
- Why was Heschel’s vocal and very visible opposition to the Vietnam War so controversial in some quarters of American Judaism? What did American Jews have to lose by opposing the war? What might they gain by supporting it?
- What was the basis for Heschel’s opposition to the Vietnam War? How did he relate the teachings of the prophets to what was happening in Vietnam? Why did Heschel view the fight against Hitler in World War II as necessary, while the Vietnam War was a tragic and deeply unjust event?
- Why did Heschel, King, and other members of CALCAV hold a prayer vigil in Arlington Cemetery in February 1968? What was the significance of bringing the Torah scrolls to that protest? Do you think Heschel, King, and the others were taking a great risk?
- Benjamin Sax suggests that, by opposing the Vietnam War, Heschel was “putting at risk his life’s work to do the right thing,” and that Heschel was aware of what his actions might cost him. Do you agree with this assessment?
- Several commentators suggest that, by taking controversial public stands, such as opposition to the Vietnam War, King and Heschel sometimes found themselves socially or politically isolated. Nonetheless, they had each other to lean on, support, and take inspiration from. How do you envision their relationship? What do you imagine were its primary attributes?
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