It has recently come to my attention that once again, people within the pro-Palestinian movement are contesting basic historical fact. It is very difficult to have a productive conversation about an issue when many people on one side continually insist on twisting words and events. If we can’t agree on the facts to talk about, then what is there to talk about? Perhaps that’s the point; it’s much easier to use your own “facts” and simply try to insist on their authenticity than to have a real debate.
Regardless, this historical revisionism needs addressing. When Zionism is accused of rascism, and in response one brings up historical facts about black support of Israel and Jewish support of the civil rights movement, it isn’t taken well. The pro-Palestinian response often becomes an explanation about how the support wasn’t really there or wouldn’t apply today. There are claims such as Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. stood against anti-Semitism and with Jews, but not with Israel. Activists will point to the lack of anachronisms, such as the fact that MLK didn’t talk about the Palestinians, who were simply called Arabs in his time, or that he didn’t speak to the “occupation”, to prove that he would not have approved of Israel’s actions in the current conflict. Or they might claim that if MLK could see Israel today, he would no longer stand with her. Or that using MLK’s name to defend the current conflict is wrong because he was anti-war and using his voice in a current debate posthumously isn’t fair (this is usually said alongside previous statements, creating an obvious contradiction).
In reality, these are all acrobatics to try to get around the difficult fact that calling Zionism a racist ideology is a false claim, and that MLK stood with a movement Palestinian supporters despise. Even though we now know a popular letter attributed to MLK wasn’t actually written by him, that is actually a long way from showing that he didn’t strongly support Israel in general.
MLK most certainly did stand with Israel and not just with the Jewish people. Admirers of MLK who are pro-Palestinian may not like that fact, but that doesn’t change the facts. He once replied to a hostile question at Harvard University on the topic of Zionism saying “When people criticize Zionists they mean Jews, you are talking anti-Semitism.” To me, that shows pretty strong support. Somehow even that quote is reinterpreted with a new lens by those for whom it is terribly inconvenient. MLK did speak about the Arabs in the region (who we now call Palestinians), and after the Six-Day War in 1967, when Israel claimed a lot more land than they retain today, he never once called it an “occupation”.
We can see his views on Israel and Arabs in the region alike through a particular conversation he had with his colleagues at the Rabbinical Assembly in 1968, just ten days before before his death. In the course of that conversation, he said, “I think it is necessary to say that what is basic and what is needed in the Middle East is peace. Peace for Israel is one thing. Peace for the Arab side of that world is another thing. Peace for Israel means security, and we must stand with all of our might to protect its right to exist, its territorial integrity. I see Israel, and never mind saying it, as one of the great outposts of democracy in the world, and a marvelous example of what can be done, how desert land almost can be transformed into an oasis of brotherhood and democracy. Peace for Israel means security and that security must be a reality.” The rest of the conversation is definitely worth reading, and includes what should be done for Arabs in the region and forming judgments on the basis of standing with people of color.
I most certainly can’t speak to MLK’s views on the current conflict, as that would be inappropriate. By bringing up his name, I am not claiming to speak for him in light of current events. I am only claiming to accurately represent what his views were, and how that negates certain historical claims or accusations of racism as part of the Zionist ideology. However, for Palestinian activists to say that MLK would have felt the way they feel about the current conflict is in fact doing exactly what they condemn.
Resources about things MLK said regarding Israel, what his friends recall, and how his legacy should be remembered:
- Watch this video by the Institute for Black Solidarity with Israel for a nice overview of the conversation at the Rabbinical Assembly in 1968 and some of the most salient points.
- Read the account “Conversation with Martin Luther King” published in Conservative Judaism 22:3 on March 23, 1968, which is quoted in part in the video above.
- “Israel’s right to exist as a state in security is incontestable.” —MLK
- “I can say with absolute certainty that Martin abhorred anti-Semitism in all its forms, including anti-Zionism,” — Clarence B. Jones, personal attorney and close adviser to MLK
- “Martin… warned repeatedly that anti-Semitism would soon be disguised as anti-Zionism.” — Clarence B. Jones
- “[MLK] understood that a special relationship exists between African Americans and American Jews. This message was true in his time and is true today. He knew that both peoples were uprooted involuntarily from their homelands. He knew that both peoples were shaped by the tragic experience of slavery. He knew that both peoples were forced to live in ghettoes, victims of segregation. He knew that both peoples were subject to laws passed with the particular intent of oppressing them simply because they were Jewish or black. He knew that both peoples have been subjected to oppression and genocide on a level unprecedented in history.” — Rep. John Lewis, former civil rights leader who worked with Martin Luther King Jr.