In August of 1968, I was busy with my rabbinic studies, going for a master’s degree in English from Hunter College, and trying to be a good husband and father. I had little interest in the protests of the day, but kept abreast of them by reading the newspapers. Watching The Trial of the Chicago 7, a fascinating recreation of the characters and societal problems that played out in the media at that time, gave me a better understanding of the issues that were at stake during that tumultuous period in American history.
The country was experiencing many demonstrations against the Vietnam War. The anti-war faction felt that a peaceful protest at the Democratic National Convention would be a good place to make their views known and put pressure on the United States government to exit from a seemingly endless conflict. The plan was to challenge representatives of authority even if it might lead to a confrontation with police, which it did.
The film essentially begins with the trial after the Chicago riots, in which seven of the demonstrators are tried for conspiracy to cross state lines and start a riot. The seven demonstrators included Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, John Froines, Tom Hayden, Lee Weiner, and David Dellinger, most of whom did not know one another and had different motivations for participating in the protest.
The SDS, Students for a Democratic Society were led by Tom Hayden, a moderate group interested only in bringing an end to the War. The Yippies, led by Abbie Hoffman, was a militant group that challenged the entire social order. The defendants were represented in court by William Kunstler and Leonard Weinglass. The judge in the case was Julius Hoffman.
The trial is filled with interruptions by the defendants, some of whom make fun of the judge and draw contempt of court citations. The outrageous antics of activists Hoffman and Rubin, in particular, undermine the defense strategy of Kunstler and Weinglass. In the end, both sides are given an opportunity to explain their motives, and the jury decides the verdict. As the credits come on, a coda tells us what happened after the verdict was handed down and what the defendants did with the rest of their lives.
Political dissent is the subject of The Trial of the Chicago 7. The film raises the question of how do we express dissent in a way that will accomplish our ends. America in the past four years has become more polarized with extreme positions on both sides of the political spectrum. Rabbi Efrem Goldberg writes about the need for tolerance of the views of others, reminding people that what unites us is far greater than what divides us. He cites the Talmud (Berachot 58a) that says. Just as the faces of people do not exactly resemble one another, so too their opinions do not exactly resemble one another. Rabbi Goldberg observes: “we should recognize that everyone’s opinions are the result of their being created differently and raised differently. Just as someone is entitled to look different, so too are they entitled to think differently and approach things differently without harsh disapproval or condemnation.”
Interestingly, he brings a proof for this perspective from the liturgical practice of taking three steps backward at the conclusion of the silent prayer known as the Amidah: “Jews take three steps backward at the conclusion of the Amidah, as the Talmud says, (Yoma 53) The one who prays must take three steps back and only then pray for peace. Rabbi Menachem BenZion Zaks explains that we cannot pray for, nor achieve, peace if we are not willing to step back a little and make room for others and their opinions, their tastes and personalities. After stepping back, we ask oseh shalom bimromav, God, please bring peace, and we then turn to the right and to the left. Explains Rabbi Zaks, achieving peace and harmony means bowing towards those on the right of us and those on the left of us, not just straight ahead on our path.”
This balanced, nuanced approach to how we interact with those whose opinions differ from ours is nowhere in evidence amongst the Chicago 7. Their comic antics may be entertaining, but there is little positive outcome from their mockery of established judicial institutions.