When people talk about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, his comments often become appropriated. While I do believe that Dr. King has said indisputably pro-Israel remarks (“I see Israel as one of the great outposts of democracy in the world” and “When people criticize Zionists, they mean Jews. You’re talking antisemitism!”), I think the true contributions Dr. King has made in regard to the conflict has eluded many.
Simply taking Dr. King’s remarks and placing them on this or that side does little for true mobilization toward a solution. Sure, I believe Dr. King was genuinely pro-Israel and had a much more thorough understanding of both sides of the conflict than most people. And sure, I do believe that a person of his character and prestige making these statements was crucial in forcing the American public and the world at large to recognize Israel for what it was (and is): the only country in the Middle East with a political system serving as the foundation for human rights to thrive.
Yet, while Dr. King’s support of Israel and the Jews makes my chest swell with grateful pride, I can’t accept the appropriation of his comments by any side. This is mostly because it’s a complete waste of the immense contributions Dr. King has made to the advancement of humanity. If we are to simply accept Dr. King’s comments on Israel prima facie and look no further into any of his other work, then we are denying ourselves insight into positive action that could potentially lead to a feasible solution. If the work of Dr. King could contribute toward the equality of Black people in America, then those same lessons can be applied toward the conflict in the Middle East. But, they cannot be applied blindly.
What’s going on in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is far different than what was going on in America during the civil rights movement, whether people wish to acknowledge that or not. Nonetheless, Dr. King’s lessons, which can be gleaned from not only his words but his courageous actions, are timeless and know no borders.
Dr. King refused, for example, to wait for a time that was right to stand up for what was right, because that time wouldn’t just show up at his doorstep. He refused to be satisfied or to feel comfortable while injustice played out, and he pushed for a world in which people would be judged by the content of their character. He urged progress through righteous means, warning against the hate and bitterness that can bite at people so oppressed for so long. Perhaps most notably, he refused to believe that there was an insufficient amount of justice and opportunity for all, a belief that could have easily been crushed under the weight of hate.
And all the while, Dr. King took his beliefs to the streets, marching and speaking with the actions of a man dedicated to a cause much larger than himself. In doing so, he catapulted change that altered the lives of every person in America while sacrificing his own.
What we can take away from all of Dr. King’s words and actions is much, much more than what we can take away from his few remarks on Israel. We can take inspiration and guidance. We can study the ways in which he made his righteous beliefs actionable and follow in his lead by dedicating ourselves to a cause much larger than ourselves. We can speak the truth, we can make ourselves heard, and we can stand up for what’s right.
Was Dr. King a supporter of Israel? I emphatically believe so. The importance of that truly does not elude me. But to deify Dr. King and appropriate his comments without exploring the profoundness of his wisdom, insight, and overall contributions is a careless mistake. We owe it to Dr. King, to ourselves, and to the sensitivity of the conflict in the Middle East to investigate the depths of his work.