Elli Fischer
Writer. Translator. Historian. Rabbi. With ADHD.

Why Israelis have Trouble Realizing that MLK was Religious

Like so many others around the world, I listened to the “I have a dream” speech yesterday, the 50th anniversary of its delivery. I also heard the speech discussed on Israeli radio.The pundits there did not even note that the speech drew upon a host of biblical and spiritual themes. They touched on the Civil Rights Movement and the events leading up to the march, but nothing about the fact that Dr. King was in fact also Rev. Dr. King, that two rabbis spoke at the March and numerous others, from every denomination, participated in the Civil Rights Movement and even went to jail for their activism. No mention of the broad theme of Exodus and Redemption, a touchstone of the movement. No mention that the speech contained direct quotes of Amos 5:24, Isaiah 40:4-5, and Psalms 30:5. In fact, when religion and MLK are mentioned together in Israel, it is generally in a comparison between those who fought for black rights in America and those who are fighting against religious coercion in Israel (and as much as I sympathize with those fighting against coercion and misogyny, comparing it to the suffering of blacks in America is an insult to the latter).

On further reflection, it dawned on me that perhaps Israelis are incapable of viewing men of religion as leaders of change. For so many Israelis, the associations of religious leadership are the opposite of agitation for a better nation and a better world. They can’t fathom how a freedom fighter like Dr. King can also be an ordained minister. In fact, it was religious leaders who kept the flame of hope alive behind the Iron Curtain and who led the process of change in South Africa. Religion can be a powerful subversive force against a repressive regime.

Yet the average Israeli wouldn’t know it. The average Israeli has come to expect the heads of Shin Bet and Shabak – the secret police! – to speak truth to political power and rabbis to preserve the problematic status quo.It’s all backward. Should we laugh or cry?

Ancient Israel had priests and prophets. The priests controlled the Temple and the ritual domain and tended to be elitist, an exclusive and wealthy caste that avoided coming into contact with the unwashed masses. The prophets spoke with moral force against the powerful – the kings, the aristocracy, and the priests –  thundering that all the sacrifices and fasts in the world are worthless without concern for the widow and orphan, the poor and downtrodden. The ancient rabbis, as is apparent from the well-known first mishna in Avot, viewed themselves as the heirs of the prophets, not the priests. Yet at some point the rabbis have become a new priesthood, a hereditary class in cahoots with the other loci of political power. The modern State of Israel is certainly not the first place that the rabbinate has taken on the trappings of priesthood and forgotten the moral voice of the prophets, but we are at the point where the average Israeli cannot be expected to know otherwise, to know that religion can speak with the prophetic voice and not the voice of the priesthood.

About the Author
Elli Fischer is a translator with rabbinical ordination from the Israeli Chief Rabbinate who is working on a PhD in Jewish History from Tel Aviv University. He is the editor of Rabbi Eliezer Melamed's "Peninei Halakha" series in English and co-creator of HaMapah, a project for the quantitative analysis of the history of halakhah. His writings have appeared in numerous print and online media.