In memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., take this day to be kind to others pic.twitter.com/paqaAdKoie
— IDF (@IDFSpokesperson) January 15, 2018
On Martin Luther King day, and so many other days as well, the Israel Lobby trots out the few flattering quotations MLK delivered on Israel. The effect is a desperate attempt to make it appear that King was an ardent admirer of the State of Israel and would be today. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
Let’s delve into the historical background: as King was a distinguished figure in the American Protestant church, he naturally attracted a group of multi-denominational clergy supporters drawn both to his spiritual and political mission. Among them were distinguished Jewish rabbis like Abraham Joshua Heschel, himself a survivor of the Holocaust, and other rabbis in his Conservative movement. Among the first to answer the call to join in the civil rights protests roiling the south was Rabbi Everett Gendler, then a newly minted rabbinical student preparing for his first job in the pulpit.
Gendler, who later became the intellectual father of the Havurah movement and who also inspired the Jewish environmental movement, was a seminal figure in many of the most innovative Jewish spiritual and social developments of the past half century. As a long-time friend to King, the rabbi invited him to address the Conservative Judaism’s 1968 Rabbinical Assembly meeting. The convention took place only weeks before King’s assassination and so represents the culmination of his life’s work and thought up to that final moment. As such it is a poignant document. Poignant not only for what it reveals about the extent of his penetrating analysis of American society, but also because of how much it revealed that King’s views were, on some subjects, very much time-bound and almost archaic by today’s standards.
This certainly applies to his views on Black anti-Semitism, Israel and Zionism as expressed in that interview. Rabbi Gendler, who at 91 is a fiery, penetrating moral figure who considers himself a non-Zionist and supporter of BDS, was forced to articulate questions from his rabbinical audience that showed it to be typically white and liberal, and deeply threatened by the ascendant Black Power movement represented by figures like Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael and H. Rapp Brown.
One might say that the only thing that has changed is that such rabbis today would have switched the object of their paranoia from Black leaders to the Palestinians and Muslims in general. In fact, MLK’s responses to these questions often echo the precise formulations of such issues in discussing (and often disparaging) Palestinians and their national movement. For that reason, this is an important historical document worth reading even fifty years later.
To offer but one example highly relevant to the current uproar over BDS, stoked by the Israel Lobby: those who know their civil rights history will know that one of the first major campaigns in which King engaged was the Montgomery bus boycott. That’s why claims that boycotts are illegal or a violation of American laws or tradition are ridiculous. And in case you were uncertain of King’s views, read this passage on “Black Power” from the interview:
We have achieved some very significant gains and victories as a result of this program [Black Power], because the black man collectively now has enough buying power to make the difference between profit and less [sic] in any major industry or concern of our country. Withdrawing economic support from those who will not be just and fair in their dealings is a very potent weapon.
Political power and economic power are needed, and I think these are the positives of Black Power.
I quote substantial portions of their exchange to give full flavor to the thinking of both men on these subjects (and also the moral obtuseness of the rabbinical audience). Keep in mind that in the context of the conversation the questions that Gendler reads are not his, but were submitted by his audience:
“What steps have been undertaken and what success has been noted in convincing anti-Semitic and anti-Israel Negroes, such as Rap Brown, Stokely Carmichael, and McKissick, to desist from their anti-Israel activity?”
“What effective measures will the collective Negro community take against the vicious anti-Semitism, against the militance and the rabble-rousing of the Browns, Carmichaels, and Powells?”
“Have your contributions from Jews fallen off considerably? Do you feel the Jewish community is copping out on the civil rights struggle?”
“What would you say if you were talking to a Negro intellectual, an editor of a national magazine, and were told, as I have been, that he supported the Arabs against Israel because color is all important in this world? In the editor’s opinion, the Arabs are colored Asians and the Israelis are white Europeans. Would you point out that more than half of the Israelis are Asian Jews with the same pigmentation as Arabs, or would you suggest that an American Negro should not form judgments on the basis of color? What seems to you an appropriate or an effective response?”
Dr. King: …On the Middle East crisis, we have had various responses. The response of some of the so-called young militants again does not represent the position of the vast majority of Negroes. There are some who are color-consumed and they see a kind of mystique in being colored, and anything non-colored is condemned. We do not follow that course in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and certainly most of the organizations in the civil rights movement do not follow that course. I think it is necessary to say that what is basic and what is needed in the Middle East is peace. Peace for Israel is one thing. Peace for the Arab side of that world is another thing. Peace for Israel means security, and we must stand with all of our might to protect its right to exist, its territorial integrity. I see Israel, and never mind saying it, as one of the great outposts of democracy in the world, and a marvelous example of what can be done, how desert land almost can be transformed into an oasis of brotherhood and democracy. Peace for Israel means security and that security must be a reality.
On the other hand, we must see what peace for the Arabs means in a real sense of security on another level. Peace for the Arabs means the kind of economic security that they so desperately need. These nations, as you know, are part of that third world of hunger, of disease, of illiteracy. I think that as long as these conditions exist there will be tensions, there will be the endless quest to find scapegoats. So there is a need for a Marshall Plan for the Middle East, where we lift those who are at the bottom of the economic ladder and bring them into the mainstream of economic security.
This passage perfectly encapsulates both the tacit racism of the spiritual leaders of American Jewry, while also highlighting the limited perspective King had regarding Israel and Palestine (which was only beginning to appear on the political horizon at the time of his speech). I should add, that had history taken a different path, it might have been King who was correct in his (in hindsight) overly-rosy picture of Israel as an oasis of tolerance and brotherhood. As it was, history has proven the analysis of the Black militants and figures like James Baldwin as far more prescient.
Martin Luther King’s mission was the liberation of what would then be called the “American Negro.” He rarely ventured into the subject of American foreign policy with the important exception of the Vietnam War, which concerned him because the majority of the grunts and soldiers coming home in body bags were Black. King was far less conversant with the Israeli-Arab conflict. He was not someone like Malcolm X, who understood viscerally that the lives of American Black Muslims were inextricably tied to the Middle East, both for religious and political reasons.
Though King had visited the Holy Land once in 1959, on his way home from a pilgrimage to India to visit the historic sites of Mahatma Gandhi’s satyagraha movement, he was not overly familiar with the deep moral and political thicket surrounding the Israeli-Arab conflict. Interestingly, King and a number of his Jewish and Christian colleagues had devised, just before the 1967 War, a campaign to bring 5,000 pilgrims back to the Holy Land to visit sites in both Jordan and Israel. The goal was to explore both the religious power of the ancient lands and also offer a moral example of what a non-violent approach could offer both Arabs and Jews. It’s an interesting footnote to history to wonder ‘what-if’ the War hadn’t intervened, and what if Israel hadn’t become the colonial power it later became, and what if King had been able to offer his non-violent vision directly to both the Arabs and Israelis in the region.
King and His Jewish Base
While King’s followers were largely Black, his donor base was white and largely Jewish. As such, he was sensitive to their concerns as may be seen in a question from one of the rabbis asking if donations to the movement had dropped off as American Jews became increasingly alienated from the civil rights struggle. King understood that at that time, Israel was rapidly becoming a defining element of Jewish identity. That’s what informs much of the glowing remarks he delivered here.
That King’s views about Israel would have changed over time is incontrovertible (except by those like the IDF press office, which tweeted the passage above today in its timeline). King was not an ideologue. While he was a man of principle, he always remained a man willing to reëxamine his basic assumptions as reality and facts on the ground changed. In March 1968, when he delivered these remarks, Israel had not yet developed its campaign to settle the West Bank. The Greater Israel movement had not yet come to capture the imagination of large elements of Israeli society. Fifty years ago, an intelligent, thoughtful person might still be a strong advocate of Israel, because it had not yet committed many of the sins that would later be attributed to it.
It is true that the Nakba had occurred and the ongoing subjugation of Israeli Palestinians to the Israeli Jewish majority, which commenced in 1948, had already gone on for two decades. But aside from left-wing intellectuals and political activists and large portions of the Arab world (with which King was not conversant), these notions were not widely appreciated.
But over time, King surely would have developed a much stronger appreciation of the injustices Israel meted out on its Palestinian minority population. He would likely have understood viscerally that its suffering was akin to that of American Blacks over the course of their own experience first as slaves, and later as second class citizens.
We can see how this might have played out in Gendler himself, who has become a proud champion of Palestinian rights and a fierce critic of Israeli tribalism. He likely was not that person in 1968. It took the cold hard reality of Israeli Occupation and apartheid for many Jewish liberals to finally understand the bankruptcy of classical Zionism, as defined by Israeli political leaders and political parties for the past half century.
If, as Irving Kristol once said, a neocon is a liberal who’s been mugged by reality; then BDS supporters are liberal Zionists who’ve been mugged by Israeli reality (i.e. racism, Occupation and apartheid). King too would not have been blind to this phenomenon.
Finally, Black Zionist shills like Chloe Valdary and other pro-Israel advocates who quote King approvingly this Martin Luther King Day offer a Madame Tussaud version of this great man. When he lived, his thinking was not embalmed in wax or history. It changed and developed as circumstances required. That’s why King would far more likely have followed a path staked out by Nelson Mandela, who wholeheartedly endorsed Palestinian national rights.