As I march into my first Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in America, a distinct and personal memory comes to mind. Around three years ago today, I woke up in East Jerusalem on Mt. Scopus. Jet-lagged, but eager to begin my semester abroad at Hebrew University, I was up and full of energy at 6am. I was inspired to start my journey in Israel with zest and spirituality, so I availed myself of the unusual circumstances and went to attend morning prayer services at a local synagogue. Although the room was filled with weary, and not the most welcoming, elderly men, I was still intoxicated by the holiness of my surroundings. Prayer in the land of Israel is unlike prayer in exile.
I emerged from the prayer services renewed, body and soul, and optimistic about what the next few months were to bring. At that moment, Martin Luther King, Jr. came on my ipod, equally optimistic about what lay ahead when he gave that fateful speech on August 28, 1963, coincidentally my birthday. Walking along a path overlooking the Palestinian side of East Jerusalem, I took in a beautiful and distressing view of Arab villages, the separation barrier, and the desert. As I mulled over the similarities between my own circumstances and the speech, I couldn’t help but think of how poignant and relevant his words are for Jews and Arabs as they were for whites and blacks. “One day … little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers” conjured up images of a romantic future in which Palestinian children play alongside Jewish children. The “sweltering heat” of Mississipi mirrors the heat of the Judaean desert that will one day see an oasis arise. “The sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners” reflect the soldiers and terrorists of yesterday who will “be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood” tomorrow.
The idyllic future is perhaps beyond reach in Israel, but Dr. King wasn’t speaking of reality as it is or even necessarily as it will be. His words were words of prayer, rising above our present reality. He even alludes to the Book of Isaiah: “one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight.” Sometimes the hostility between Arabs and Jews seems so deep that it will take a miraculous change in nature before things get better.
Yet, Dr. King’s vision was a universal vision. His struggle a universal struggle and message a universal one. His prayer is our prayer. Although the situation is tragic, the eternal words of Dr. King give us refuge to escape our reality and reason to believe in a better tomorrow.