Today, the twenty-eighth of August, marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. The estimated 250,000 marchers makes it the largest political rally for human rights ever held in the United States. It is the event where, standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. The theme of the march was “Jobs and Freedom.” It was organized by a coalition of civil rights, labor and religious organizations. Notable is that in spite of the racial tension throughout the country at that time, particularly during the weeks and days leading up to the event, the march was remarkably peaceful.
This march is mentioned here not only because of its anniversary, but also because in a recent meeting I had with a visiting international church delegation, one of its members, a minister from the southern United States, chose to liken the historic relationship of American blacks and whites to that of Palestinians and Israelis. I begged to differ.
Of course it is similar, he contended. All the basic elements are the same; racism, apartheid, denial of equal opportunities for education and jobs, the resulting poverty and sense of hopelessness. This is what his group had heard and seen in their meetings with Palestinians.
When I respectfully explained to this visitor and his colleagues that a comparison between the two situations was fallacious on all accounts he responded with denial. The cognitive dissonance engendered by the contradiction between what he believed to be true when our meeting began and what he was hearing from me now was overpowering. His reasoning shut down.
This man was not even aware that Palestinians, in contrast to Afro-American citizens of the United States who are protected by the laws of the U.S. Constitution, are not and never were citizens of the state of Israel. As is often done by less educated visitors, he lumped Palestinians and Arab citizens of Israel together. He thus assumed that the state of Israel owes the Palestinians residing in Judea and Samaria the same rights and opportunities it is pledged to provide its citizens regardless of background. Needless to say, this individual was mostly clueless on the history of the region. His assumption, like that of others in his group, was that Jews came and “stole” Palestine from its Arab inhabitants because of the insistence on upholding ancient claims found in the Hebrew Bible.
Notably inappropriate about this comparison, especially on the anniversary of this historic march, are the stark differences in the men who served these groups as leaders. Martin Luther King, Jr. based his civil rights strategy on the non-violent philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi who led the Indian People in their struggle for freedom and independence while under British colonial rule. For a short while King’s leadership of American blacks was challenged by the more militant Malcolm X, who after affiliating with the Nation of Islam (Black Muslims) in the United States later became a Sunni Muslim. He espoused the racial superiority of blacks, denied the legitimacy of the United States and advocated its overthrow.
Even had Malcolm X not been assassinated in February 1965 there is no doubt that the non-violent approach taught by King was the one favored by the masses. Its message became the dominant theme of the Civil Rights Movement that brought about the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965. For his leadership qualities, his success, and his resolute commitment to non-violence, Martin Luther King, Jr. received the Nobel Peace Prize in October 1964. Following his own assassination on April 4, 1968, he was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal.
The seminal leader of the Palestinians, Yasser Arafat, was also awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, jointly with Israel’s late Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin and then Foreign Minister Shimon Peres “for their efforts to create peace in the Middle East”. That, however, is where any comparison between the Palestinian Arafat and Afro-American King comes to an end. Even that comparison is as bitter as it is ironic. As attested to by the 1963 March on Washington, as well as the many other large demonstrations organized by him in American cities, non-violence was paramount to King, not merely as a tactic, but as a personal value. Furthermore, apart from alleged peccadillos involving women, King was never accused of abusing his leadership position for personal gain. He never became rich off the movement.
It is offense to compare Arafat and King. Arafat most likely possessed a deranged mind that reveled in violence. The terrorist acts that he organized and executed around the world for over three decades were behind the murder of thousands of innocent people representing all nationalities and faiths. Furthermore, it is public knowledge that Arafat, as well as his key lieutenants in the Palestinian Liberation Organization, embezzled billions of dollars that were intended by their donors, mainly various governments, to improve the lives of the people who looked to him as their leader.
Arafat’s successor, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, is considered a “moderate” in comparison, but he too is no Martin Luther King, Jr. Whether or not there is “blood on his hands,” there is no way to credibly refute the accusation that Abbas played a key political role, beginning in the 1950s, which supported the terrorist activities of other PLO members. While he may never have pulled a trigger or detonated a charge that took anyone’s life, there is no doubt that some of Abbas’s best friends did just that. Even more recently Abbas’s public statements condemning Palestinian terrorist acts have tended to criticize them more for their tactical ineffectiveness than for their inherent immorality.
In contrast to the modest life style of Martin Luther King, Mahmoud Abbas is a rich man, though he has always officially worked as a civil servant. It is alleged that wealth came to him through various large business contracts improperly awarded his three sons. His personal wealth has been estimated at no less than $100,000,000.
While Abbas may be interested in signing a peace agreement with Israel, his statements that no Israeli, neither soldier nor civilian, will ever take up residence in the state of Palestine, his condemnation of Israeli home construction as a “war crime”, and his open celebration of the release from Israeli prisons of Palestinian terrorists “with blood on their hands”, undermine his stature as a true moral leader.
To no small extent, due to the values and the vision of exemplary leadership, black Americans succeeded in bringing about many, even if not all, of the political and social improvements they sought. Fifty years ago this week a quarter of a million Afro-Americans and their supporters stood together in Washington, D.C. and determinedly but peacefully insisted on change. Imagine the impact upon Israeli society if 250,000 Palestinians gathered peacefully in the central square of Ramallah and demanded that their leaders expedite an end to their protracted conflict with Israel. The improbability of this happening underscores the differences between the leadership of the black American community of the 1960s and the leaders of Palestinian society today. It is unhelpful, even misleading, to make deceptive comparisons.