Martin Luther King and Israel, then and now


Not a year goes by without an attempt by someone to associate the name of Martin Luther King, Jr. with the Palestinian cause. It’s particularly striking because while he lived, no one had much doubt about where he stood. Here, for example, is the late Edward Said, foremost Palestinian thinker of his day, in a 1993 interview:

With the emergence of the civil rights movement in the middle ’60s—and particularly in ’66-’67—I was very soon turned off by Martin Luther King, who revealed himself to be a tremendous Zionist, and who always used to speak very warmly in support of Israel, particularly in ’67, after the war.

With the passage of time and memory, some have suggested that King would have supported the Palestinians, if only his life hadn’t been cut short by assassination in 1968. So argued New York Times columnist Michelle Alexander on last year’s Martin Luther King Day. Her conclusion: “If we are to honor King’s message and not merely the man, we must condemn Israel’s actions.”

But as I pointed out in an essay last March, King didn’t lack opportunities to condemn Israel while he lived, during the twenty years between 1948 and 1968. Instead he praised it.

Not only that: he knew the “plight” of the Palestinians perfectly well, having visited Jordanian-held East Jerusalem in 1959, where he got a tutorial over dinner from the leading lights of Arab Palestine. Yet he never left a quote in support of any aspect of the Palestinian Arab cause.

This is a source of Palestinian frustration on every Martin Luther King Day, since supporters of Israel have their pick of King quotes that favor Israel (“an oasis of brotherhood and democracy,” in King’s words). A few years back, I myself validated the origins of one of the most contentious of these quotes: “When people criticize Zionists, they mean Jews. You’re talking anti-Semitism!”

It’s not that King didn’t have a solution in mind for the region. He believed that the Palestinian refugee problem, if not the Arab-Israeli conflict as a whole, could best be resolved through “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.” Today that would be called “economic peace,” and it’s had a succession of champions, up to and including Jared Kushner.

On one occasion right after the 1967 war, King echoed the proposition that Israel should trade land for peace with the defeated Arab states: “I think for the ultimate peace and security of the situation it will probably be necessary for Israel to give up this conquered territory because to hold on to it will only exacerbate the tensions and deepen the bitterness of the Arabs.” (This was in a televised interview on June 18.) His position was in line with the emerging American view that Israel’s conquests, while neither illegal nor immoral, should be exchanged for peace.

And this was pretty much the outer limit of King’s vision for the Arabs. True, his carefully worded support of Israel wasn’t ebullient, and he never got around to visiting it. (The 1967 war scuttled his one concrete plan to do so.) There is also clear evidence that he wished to be seen as balanced in his approach to peace. But he regarded Israel’s creation as just (he said Israel had “a right to exist”), and whatever cost it involved was an unfortunate injury that needed repair, not a moral blight on the scale of Vietnam or segregation.

A Reciprocal Deal?

It’s sometimes claimed that King kept his silence on Israel to win Jewish financial or political support for the civil rights movement. That’s the claim of UCLA historian Robin D.G. Kelley in a recent article. King was “growing more critical of Israel but remained silent” for fear of “losing valuable allies and financial support.” He didn’t want to “further jeopardize what was already a dwindling funding stream.”

One imagines that King’s advisers never lost sight of the money. But this notion of a quid pro quo takes no account of the spiritual dimension of King’s ties to Zionist Jews. The two who were closest to him were refugee rabbis from Hitler’s Europe, who regarded the creation of Israel as redemption. And just as the Holocaust drove their passion for civil rights, it steeled their devotion to Israel.

The first was Joachim Prinz (1902-1988), a social activist, pulpit rabbi, and Zionist organizer, who personally knew nearly all of Israel’s leaders. Prinz allied himself with King in 1958, and at the 1963 March on Washington, he spoke in the slot before King’s historic address. The following year, Prinz consciously emulated King’s protest tactics by getting himself arrested near the Jordanian pavilion at the New York World’s Fair. (The pavilion featured a “bigoted” mural putting the blame for the Palestinian refugee problem on Israel.) That summer, Prinz told Golda Meir: “It is the greatest tragedy of my life that I did not come to Israel.”

The second was Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972), philosopher and theologian at the Jewish Theological Seminary, and an heir to one of the great Hasidic dynasties. King described Heschel as “a truly great prophet,” who famously marched in the front line with King in Selma, Alabama in 1965. Immediately after the 1967 war, Heschel wrote one of the most ecstatic Zionist tracts ever compiled, his Israel: An Echo of Eternity (1968). “One of the insights learned from the great crisis in May, 1967,” he wrote,

is the deep personal involvement of every Jew in the existence of Israel. It is not a matter of philanthropy or general charity but of spiritual identification. It is such personal relationship to Israel upon which one’s dignity as a Jew is articulated.

For King, these men were not “supporters,” they were fellow visionaries, with whom he shared prophetic values. They spoke too as personal victims of racism, and gave voice to the millions who had perished in the Holocaust. The idea that their eloquent commitment to Israel didn’t affect King underestimates both him and them.

What would King think of Israel today? It’s an idle question. But he thought well of Israel then, and its flaws in his day weren’t far fewer, nor were its virtues much more numerous, than they are in ours. Whether he deserves to be called “a tremendous Zionist,” as Edward Said claimed, is a matter of perspective and definition. But the attempt to make him into an advocate for Palestine is an offense to history.

(Cross-posted at The Times of Israel.)