Dr. King’s pro-Israel legacy: His prophetic voice still speaks, part 2

In part 1 of this series we considered the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King’s pro-Israel statements at the 68th Annual Convention of the Rabbinical Assembly for Conservative Judaism.  Dr. King was the honored guest at the gathering on March 26, 1968 – ten days before he would be killed.  We learned that Dr. King’s most well-known endorsement of the Jewish State (“peace for Israel means security and that security must be a reality”) came in response to a direct question about Black American support for Israel.

MLK-Street-JerusalemThe question was actually a series of queries that revealed the rabbis’ attempt to understand the mixed signals coming from African-Americans.  Clearly there had been great synergy between the Black American and Jewish communities, but things seemed to be changing quickly, for the spring of 1968 was a turbulent time in America and the world.

The Vietnam War was gaining both momentum and media scrutiny, while claiming a disproportionate number of young Black American lives.  John F. Kennedy had been killed by Lee Harvey Oswald in 1963.  Malcolm X was gunned down by Elijah Mohammed loyalists in 1965.  The Black civil rights movement was being intensely debated within the Black community, as the younger, more aggressive Black leaders were impatient with the older guards’ non-violent approach.  They were no longer willing to await the slow results of Bayard Rustin’s and Dr. King’s Ghandi-influenced techniques; and Malcolm’s “by any means necessary” was a mantra.  These younger Black leaders were commonly referred to as “militants”, and many of them believed that (given the US-Israel alliance) Zionism was simply an extension of Western colonialism and imperialism.  They were vehement in their opposition to Israel, and generally empathized with the Arabs.

For Israel’s enemies, her victory over Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan in the 1967 (Six Day) War only codified her title as “imperialist”.   Like the wars of 1948 and 1956, the Arabs were the aggressors in 1967.  Also, as in the previous wars, Israel defended herself and won.  In response to their defeat, the Arab League met in Sudan, condemned the Israelis as “occupiers”, and issued the infamous “Khartoum No”:

  1. No peace with Israel
  2. No recognition of Israel
  3. No negotiations with Israel

The former Soviet Union walked in lock-step with the Arab League, having supplied “massive amounts of arms to the Arabs.”  (It was the Soviet/Arab alliance that would later spearhead the passage of United Nations Resolution 3379 – “Zionism is Racism”).

In his book “The Making of Black Revolutionaries”, pro-Arab civil rights activist James Forman said after the 1967 War:

“I knew that we had to support the people of the Arab world in their fight to restore justice to the Palestinian people…Our position against Israel, as I saw it, took us one step further along the road to revolution.  For (the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) SNCC to see the struggle against racism, capitalism, and imperialism as being indivisible made it inevitable to take a position against the greatest imperialist power in the Middle East, and in favor of liberation and dignity for the Arab people.” 

Black Panther, Eldridge Cleaver said, “Zionists…are our enemies. We totally support the armed struggle of the Palestinian people against the watchdogs of imperialism.” (Interestingly, after living seven years in Arab lands in which he saw the Arab enslavement of Africans firsthand, Cleaver returned to the US a staunch supporter of Israel).

By March 26, 1968, Israel’s friends were few and dwindling.  The hard left was beginning its takeover of American liberal politics, and anti-Zionism/anti-Semitism was its calling card.  The “Khartoum No’s” of the Arab League were (arguably) the modern seeds planted that would eventually become the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS) campaign against Israel.  Black militants were increasingly anti-Zionist, and becoming more and more dismissive of Dr. King.

Rabbi Gendler:

“[Dr. King], what would you say if you were talking to a Negro intellectual, an editor of a national magazine, and were told, as I have been, that he supported the Arabs against Israel because color is all important in this world? In the editor’s opinion, the Arabs are colored Asians and the Israelis are white Europeans. Would you point out that more than half of the Israelis are Asian Jews with the same pigmentation as Arabs, or would you suggest that an American Negro should not form judgments on the basis of color?  What seems to you an appropriate response?”

Standing as a mediator between the two groups at the most racially volatile time in American history, Dr. King served as The Spokesman; as America’s pastor and sage.  His divine assignment often had him explaining African-Americans to Jews and vice versa.  Never mind the fact that neither group is a monolith, and at times exhibits behavior that is inexplicable; Dr. King was looked upon as an ambassador who was always expected to bring peace.

Dr. King:

“On the Middle East crisis, we have had various responses. The response of some of the so-called young militants again does not represent the position of the vast majority of Negroes.  There are some who are color-consumed and they see a kind of mystique in being colored, and anything non-colored is condemned. We do not follow that course in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and certainly most of the organizations in the civil rights movement do not follow that course.”

Dr. King’s reply to the errant call of racial solidarity between the “colored” Arabs and Black Americans?  In a word: Nonsense.  He echoed his landmark “I Have a Dream Speech” now five years old: “Not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”  Virtue is neither Black nor White.  Dr. King would judge the situation in the Middle East on its merits.  He told the rabbis and the world that, though there were some who were “color-consumed”, he was not; and that there was no “mystique” in being colored. These were not the words of a self-hating Black man.  These were the words of a strong, courageous Black man who was not afraid to say what was unpopular among some of his peers.

By the spring of 1968, Israel was on trial in the world court of opinion, (on trumped up charges), and Dr. King was one of her character witnesses.  He did not flinch.  He did not waver.  Regardless of the barrage of anti-Semitic, anti-Zionist declarations that poured out of the vast number of Arab and Communist venues, Dr. King remained a faithful friend to Israel and the Jewish people.  He spoke truth to power.  He stood by the only viable democracy in the Middle East, while maintaining his integrity as a true champion of human rights.

Author Mark Twain said that, “history doesn’t repeat itself but it does rhyme.”  If that is true, the rising chorus of anti-Semitism, along with the attempt of Israel-haters to get Black Americans to sing along, is decades old.  Like Dr. King did in his day, Black Americans (especially the Black Church) must again lead the way to peace and civility.  We must stand with Israel and the Jewish people while Israel-hatred, disguised as honest criticism, rears its ugly head again.  Further, in the interest of true justice, we must call out the gross human rights violations perpetrated on the Palestinian people by their own corrupt leaders.  Hamas, Fatah and the Palestinian Authority must be held accountable for their own dereliction of duty; for the honor killings that are up more than 100% in the West Bank; for the billions of dollars of aid squandered on the ruling elite, while the people suffer.

The fight for Israel on college campuses and beyond is growing uglier, as her allies are being viciously attacked and slandered in the media.  Embattled Israel advocates can take great solace in the fact that Dr. King too was maligned for his friendship with the Jewish people, and his defense of the Jewish State.

Dr. King’s close friend and attorney, Dr. Clarence Jones stated on February 28, 2014:

“Anybody can stand with you in the warm summer sunlight of an August summer. But only a winter soldier stands with you at midnight in the alpine chill of winter.


“From the standpoint of someone who has represented the great legacy of this extraordinary man, Martin Luther King Jr….I say to my African American brothers and sisters, speaking of the standpoint of the derivative relationship I had with Martin Luther King Jr., the time is now for every African American person, every person of stature in the African American community, to come forward and stand with Israel in the alpine chill of winter, to show that we are wintertime soldiers.” 

About the Author
Dumisani Washington is the Founder and CEO of the Institute for Black Solidarity with Israel (IBSI), and the former Diversity Outreach Coordinator for the over 10-million-member Christians United for Israel (CUFI). Dumisani is a pastor, professional musician—graduate of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music—and author whose latest book is the second edition of Zionism & the Black Church: Why Standing with Israel Will be a Defining Issue for Christians of Color in the 21st Century. He and his wife, Valerie, have been married 33 years and have six children and two grandchildren.