In America, the third Monday in January is a national holiday celebrating the birthday, and, of course, more importantly, the achievements of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. For many in the Black community, this day is a kind of “State of the African-American Union”, where we remember Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and gauge how close we have come to the goals he espoused for both Blacks and Whites during his historic march on Washington in 1963. The answer, all too frequently, is not close enough.
This year, as for the past several years, I am somewhat distanced from the full impact of MLK Day, because I live in Israel, where, although people have heard of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., they really don’t think about his legacy, except when I have to explain why there’s no answer if they happen to want to call a U.S. government office on that day. Then, when I tell them that it’s a national holiday, they agree that he was a great man, and that they are willing to wait one day to check on the status of their visas which will allow them to sell Dead Sea products to unsuspecting mall shoppers. But sometimes, I wonder, given the outcome of a lack of violent protest against the anti-Semitism, and eventually, the Holocaust that purged Europe of so many of their relatives, if Israelis would have followed Dr. King if he had been alive to comment on the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In the “I Have a Dream” speech, Dr. King expresses his hope that one day “the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.” He ends the speech stating when we allow freedom to “ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
Most people, of course, would consider these to be admirable sentiments, and I agree. Having lived for most of my life on the border of the United States and Canada, I am used to being able to visit another country by car or by bus without thinking about it twice. Would I like to visit Jericho to see some of its history? Sure! Would I be in favor of improved access to markets for Palestinian farmers for their goods and services? Absolutely! Do I think that’s a pipe dream? Definitely!
Whoa. Wait a minute. Now, is a pipe dream necessarily a bad thing? Let’s ask the fine people of Colorado. I daresay quite a few of them will be dreaming on MLK day through the liberal use of the newly legalized marijuana, and will be brandishing a shiny new pipe to do so. Because of course, there are all different kinds of pipe dreams, aren’t there? And so the question is whether cooperation between Palestinians and Israelis is more akin to smoking some pot, or to full on Breaking Bad levels of crystal meth.
I believe the answer to that question lies in another of Dr. King’s quotes, taken from his principles of nonviolence. “Nonviolence is a way of life for courageous people. It is active nonviolent resistance to evil. It is assertive spiritually, mentally, and emotionally. It is always persuading the opponent of the justice of your cause.”
Israelis are frequently called upon to show restraint in the face of threats to our country. When we are confronted by rockets from what is expected to be part of a future Palestinian State, we are asked not to retaliate, and to be brave. When Arabs sneak into our villages and attack and kill our citizens, we are asked to be brave. When a peace plan proposes that we move back and allow the Palestinian people to take control over land a hair’s breadth away from our most sacred city, we are asked to be brave.
And yet, I don’t hear from the Dr. Kings on the other side, championing that cause of non-violence. According to a poll in November 2013 by the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center, almost a third of the Palestinian people feel armed resistance was the best way to achieve their goals. I’m trying to imagine what would have happened to America’s Civil Rights movement if, instead of listening to Dr. King, the Black community had chosen to follow a more militant group like, say, the Black Panthers. I suppose it might have ended up with America looking much more like the Middle East.
It is unrealistic to expect that Israelis will simply hand over territory to a people, a third of whom willingly admit that they are okay with threatening our population. That’s just an evolutionary response to want to protect yourself. And so, I encourage the Palestinian people to take up the banner of nonviolence, and persuade me of the justice of your cause. I am willing to sit down over a peace pipe or two and see what dreams we can create together. Who wants a hit?