Recovering Dr. King’s lost legacy on Israel

It’s almost accepted knowledge today that Dr. Martin Luther King was, or would have been, deeply hostile to the State of Israel. Social activists have been using his name, his image, and snippets from his powerful speeches to bookend their own unfair condemnation of the Jewish state for years. Not having done the research myself, I like most people believed their rhetoric and chalked up King’s anti-Israelism as possibly his only visible flaw.

The truth, I am happy to report, is quite the opposite: Dr. King was an unshakable Zionist with deep affection for Israel and the Jewish people.

I became aware of this fact only recently in the course of a conversation with Dumisani Washington, a remarkably versatile Black pastor/musician/social entrepreneur who has made recovering Dr. King’s pro-Israel legacy his primary mission in life. Working through his newly-established Institute for Black Solidarity with Israel (IBSI), Washington hopes to salvage a lost chapter of Black history and forge new ties between the African-American community and the State of Israel.

Rather than try to explain Washington and his fascinating work, I asked him to answer a few questions for Times of Israel readers in his own words.

1. Dumisani, you’re an African-American who has made supporting the Jewish people and the State of Israel a major part of your life. How did you get there?

My Israel journey happened in three stages: spiritual, cultural, and political.

I was raised in a Christian family that was very active in our local Baptist church, playing the piano at a young age and growing up surrounded by gospel music. As a Christian, I was intrigued by the Tanakh and all things related to Israel and her historical journey. I saw it all, as it were, in my mind’s eye.

In my twenties I was exposed to Hebrew-influenced worship services, and eventually began fusing the Ashkenazic/Klezmer sound with my own jazz and gospel roots. Years later this fusion gave birth to an album and group called The Hebrew Project. At the same time I began researching the Diaspora, Ethiopian Jewry, and a host of other Israelite communities around the world.

Finally, I was introduced to political Zionism by a close friend who (like me) had a love for Israel from a young age. It was a natural progression, and the third leg of the stool.

2. How would you describe the general attitude of the Black community toward Israel today?

In the average Black home, Israel is not a major topic of discussion. Among Black academics and intellectuals, Israel is usually seen — as it is by most academics — as a colonial Western power that invaded the region and displaced its inhabitants. But that attitude is not representative of the broader Black community. A smaller portion within the church are very pro-Israel, basing their stance on the biblical mandate to bless God’s people.

3. Can you speak a little about Dr. King’s “lost legacy” on Israel?

I’m currently writing a book on the connection between the Black community and Israel, and I’ve devoted an entire chapter to this important topic.

Simply stated, Dr. King was a Zionist. We have numerous writings in his own words that leave little doubt of this fact. One of the only reasons his pro-Israel record is even questioned today (among the same academic group I mentioned before) is because so much has been done to distort the truth. Some members of the Jewish community worked arm-in-arm with Dr. King, A. Phillip Randolph, Bayard Rustin and other civil rights leaders during the Black struggle for justice. Dr. King’s close friendship with Rabbi Joshua Heschel is well-known to those familiar with his life.

But Dr. King did not advocate for Israel simply because he had Jewish friends. He did so because it was right. He called Israel an “oasis of brotherhood and democracy” and said that Israel must be defended “with all of our might.” He spoke of Israel like he spoke of America – as a place worth fighting for. Some of Dr. King’s most forceful Israel advocacy came just 10 days before his assassination, as he was the special guest of the 68th Annual Rabbinical Assembly, in the spring of 1968.

4. You want to revive this lost legacy with IBSI. How do you plan to do that?

IBSI was inspired by a group started by Randolph and Rustin, Dr. King’s close friends, in 1975. It was called BASIC (“Black Americans to Support Israel Committee”) and its purpose, among other things, was to fight the “Zionism is Racism” resolution moving through the United Nations. Some 200 major leaders in the African-American community signed an ad that appeared in the November 23, 1975 edition of the New York Times, which proclaimed, “Zionism is not racism, but the legitimate expression of the Jewish people’s self determination. . . . From our 400 year experience with slavery, segregation, and discrimination we know that Zionism is not racism.”

BASIC is no longer active today, but the need for an organized African-American pro-Israel effort has never been greater. We feel that only we can set the record straight, and take back the language of justice and human rights that was stolen by Israel’s enemies.

IBSI is our way of both restoring Dr. King’s true legacy and strengthening the bonds between Israel and the African nations and their people.

5. How can readers who are interested in IBSI keep track of your work or try to contact you?

IBSI maintains a web page, a Facebook page, and a Twitter account where we post updates on our ongoing activities. I also recently started a blog column here at the Times of Israel.

Anyone wishing to contact us can email info[at]ibsi-now[dot]org. We would be glad to respond to questions and comments on any aspect of our work.

About the Author
Robert Nicholson is a recent Tikvah Fellow and former Marine who researches law, religion, and the relationship between Christians and Jews. He holds a JD and MA in history from Syracuse University and a BA in Hebrew Studies from SUNY Binghamton, and has published articles in, among other places, Mosaic Magazine, The Jerusalem Post, and The Libya Herald. He lives with his wife Lyndsey and daughter Brooke in New York City.