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Why Is This Rabbi in Vietnam?

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It is my first visit to Vietnam, and I want to let you know why I am here and what I am learning.

It is Sunday evening in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon. Why is this rabbi in Vietnam? The question has been asked of me over and over during the last couple of months since I decided to come on this interfaith mission. I jokingly told some people that there was evidence that the lost tribe of Dan had been brought here 2800 years ago by the Assyrians and I was going to witness the archaeological evidence. Of course, that is a bad joke, or weak humor.

I am here on a week-long, Ford-Foundation-sponsored trip to look at the residual impact of our country's use of Agent Orange on the people and the land here. Judaism teaches me to bear witness to the pains of this world and to see what can be done to remedy that pain. In the days ahead I am going to see some real agony, and my hope is that our community will find ways to respond to what has occurred here. Also, I feel that it is important that a delegation like this one (see its makeup below) have a representative of the Jewish people within it. These are the reasons, and this is my first blog entry after a very challenging, more-than-24-hour travel experience.

The situation is this. In the sixties and early seventies, during the Vietnam War, we used several dangerous chemical agents to devastate the Vietnamese countryside. One of those chemicals was Agent Orange, a compound that contains dioxin, a dangerous poison that contributes to a host of deadly and/or debilitating diseases, the effects of which can have a very, very long duration. The impact has been considerable on both the Vietnamese and on American veterans and their families. The science of causality is imprecise, and our nation is not thrilled about claiming responsibility, but we have given a considerable -- if still wanting -- sum to our veterans and their families. However, we have given only about $9 million to Vietnam, yet the Ford Foundation itself has given close to $12 million. In Vietnam the injuries are not only to people (as if "only to people" is a limiting phrase) but also to the environment. The environmental damage is to the long-term sustainability of the countryside, and it is clearly the cause of several "hotspots" (one of which we will visit tomorrow) where the dioxin levels are overwhelming.

We will talk with government officials, medical personnel, and victims. We will view the countryside and, as I said above, visit the Da Nang "hot spot" left behind when the United States military pulled out in the Spring of 1975. (More about this in a later blog entry.)
The people on this trip from the United States are a quite impressive group. A list of the members of the delegation follows:

  • Delegation leader Bob Edgar, a former congressman and present CEO of Common Cause, as well as a host of other engagements that permit him to be a strong and caring leader of our small band.

  • Sister Maureen Fiedler, Sister of Loretto, Ph.D., host of the public radio talk show Interfaith Voices. We studied the Torah portion Naso together.

  • The Rev. Richard Cizik, President of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good and a Fellow at the Open Society Institute and UN Foundation.

  • James Winkler, General Secretary of the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society.

  • Dr. Carroll A. Baltimore, Sr., First Vice President of the Progressive National Baptist Convention.

  • Paulette Peterson, a clinical psychologist in the U.S. Veterans Administration.

  • Shariq A. Siddigui, the Executive Director of the Muslim Alliance of Indiana and Director of Legal Services at the Julian Center.

  • The Rev. Michael Livingston, Executive Director of the International Council of Community Churches and former President of the National Council of the Churches of Christ USA.

  • The Rev. Victor Hsu, former staffer for Asian Affairs at both World Vision and Church World Service.

  • Susan V. Berresford, convener of the U.S.-Vietnam Dialogue Group on Agent Orange/Dioxin, and former President of the Ford Foundation.

  • Charles Bailey, Vietnam Program Director for the Ford Foundation.


The heat here is oppressive. Sweat forms almost immediately all over the body in the sun of the day, and the nights are not so cool either. It is fitting that we should suffer in this way as we try and empathize with what has happened here and as we grapple with our nation's hoped-for efforts in trying to resolve the situation.

There is a Chabad rabbi from Israel here in Saigon. Although I spoke with him yesterday, I sadly do not think I will have time to visit him. Starting tomorrow we will travel to both Da Nang and Hanoi. I suspect we will encounter utter pain as we connect with the residual effects of war. We will learn in a deep way that wars do not end simply because peace treaties are signed. Judaism teaches us that knowledge must precede remedy, and we have embarked on what should be a journey for the acquisition of significant knowledge. Many of us lived through this war. Some like myself opposed our nation's involvement and found legal ways not to serve. I managed to attend many marches in Washington and Austin in opposition to American engagement. I fought for Presidential leadership that would have ended this war, particularly in 1968, spending days in Chicago at the Democratic Party convention there. My principles led me not to fight, but I must admit that the years have taught me that not serving leaves a residue of guilt -- why did so many of my fellow citizens die, particular those who were poor, while I used the privileges afforded me to live? I will try to deal some with these personal questions while I am here.

We are embarking on the thirty-fifth anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War and the fifteenth anniversary of the reestablishment of American diplomatic relations with Vietnam. It is a good time to see what we can and should do to ameliorate some of the agony, some of the pain.