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.)

If so, then why didn’t MLK condemn Israel?

You’ll recall the piece by Michelle Alexander that ran in the New York Times this past Martin Luther King Day. Her money quote: “If we are to honor King’s message and not merely the man, we must condemn Israel’s actions.” It set me to thinking: why did MLK not condemn Israel’s actions in the twenty years between 1948 and 1968? It’s not as though there weren’t opportunities: Israel stood repeatedly in the dock during his lifetime. And why didn’t he say anything about the Palestinian “plight”? Especially as he got a high-level tutorial on the subject during a visit to East Jerusalem in 1959? I try to answer these questions in a new piece for Mosaic Magazine.

Read it here.

MESA, Bernard Lewis, MLK, and antisemitism (social media round-up)

Here’s a small selection of my latest short pointers from Facebook and other social media. I’ll send these to Sandbox subscribers every other month or so. (If you prefer to receive them by email as they appear, subscribe here.)

• The Middle East Studies Association (MESA) protests the New York Times’s removal of ISIS documents from Iraq. They belong to Iraq’s cultural heritage, and should be returned. Times correspondent Rukmini Callimachi says Iraqi forces who accompanied her “gave permission to take the documents,” but MESA asserts they were “unlikely” to have had the authority to do so. Well, that’s just a guess, isn’t it? After all, has the Iraqi government protested? No. Perhaps it wanted the Times to publish. Perhaps it doesn’t regard ISIS as part of Iraq’s “cultural heritage.” So the MESA letter is based on an unsubstantiated premise. (Just like MESA itself: the false premise that it’s a scholarly association.)

• The Embassy of Israel in Washington has named Bernard Lewis one of the “70 greatest American contributors to the US-Israel relationship” on Israel’s 70th anniversary. “Lewis never combined his natural scholarly sympathy for the Arab and Muslim peoples of the region with an antipathy towards Zionism and the Jewish people. Indeed, he has been a life-long Zionist and a friend to Israel.” (I’m mentioned in passing.)

• Katherine Franke is a Columbia law prof and self-important campus radical. She landed in Tel Aviv on a smear-Israel junket, and was promptly deported. Roger Cohen at the New York Times thinks that’s terrible, that she’s just a “tough critic” who “thinks differently” about Israel. But Franke isn’t just wasting her time promoting BDS. See this 2015 tweet, re: knifings of Israeli civilians. Sorry, you can’t excuse terrorism against everyday Israelis, and expect to stroll into Israel whenever you damn please. To me, Franke is just a variation on Sheikh Qaradawi, who’s banned from the US and the UK for preaching what she tweeted. That’s not “thinking differently,” it’s incitement. Keep out.

Katherine Franke and her tweet

• Brendan O’Neill: “If you only criticise Israel, or you criticise Israel disproportionately to every other state, and if your criticism of Israel is loaded with Holocaust imagery and talk of bloodletting, and if you boycott Israel and no other nation, and if you flatter the dark imaginings of the far right and Islamists and conspiracy theorists by fretting over a super powerful Israel Lobby, and if the sight of an Israeli violinist is too much for you to stomach, then, I’m sorry, that has the hallmarks of anti-Semitism.” Read it all.

• It is fifty years to the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Some years ago, I did a series of posts about his attitude to Israel from the Six-Day War until his death. Later, for my book The War on Error, I tied them all together in an article. Now, courtesy of my publisher, that article appears here. The next time someone quotes MLK on Israel or the Palestinians, save yourself the trouble and refer them to the link.

• From my Instagram feed: Jerusalem in the 1920s, photograph by pioneer photographer and cinematographer Yaacov Ben-Dov.

Jerusalem in the 1920s