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Fierce tugs in the war over Martin Luther King’s legacy on Israel

Activists on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide stake claim to the civil rights leader, as calls of ‘From Gaza to Ferguson’ ramp up nationwide

The late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speaks at a 1964 press conference about the movement he led until his 1968 assassination. (Wikimedia Commons)
The late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speaks at a 1964 press conference about the movement he led until his 1968 assassination. (Wikimedia Commons)

BOSTON — As hundreds of synagogues hold commemorations for Martin Luther King Day this weekend, some Israel supporters are accusing black leaders of allowing “libels” against Israel and Jews to spread among the black community at large.

For decades, activists on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide have staked claim to the legacy of America’s most beloved civil rights leader, who was assassinated in 1968. Depending on who’s answering the question, King was either an ardent Zionist, or someone who not only despised Israel, but was posthumously victimized by “fake” pro-Israel quotes made up in his name.

The tug-of-war for MLK’s legacy received a potent boost during the summer of 2014, when racially charged events in Ferguson, Missouri coincided with Israel’s Operation Protective Edge in Gaza. Drawing on the “intersectionality” motif to equate Palestinians in Gaza with blacks in Ferguson, the “From Gaza to Ferguson” movement has galvanized thousands of Americans — black, Jewish, Muslim, and otherwise — to draw parallels of oppression between the Mideast and Missouri.

According to historian and author Gil Troy, Israel’s legitimacy has come under the most assault within black communities, seeing thousands of black leaders and celebrities sign petitions that urge an end to all US diplomatic and economic relationships with the Jewish state. Prominent black Americans signatories include civil rights icon Angela Davis and Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors.

In an op-ed last week in The Jerusalem Post, Troy wrote that a new “big black lie” has replaced the old “big red lie” once peddled by a Palestinian-Soviet alliance — that Israel is a racist state comparable to Nazi Germany and South Africa. That campaign reached its crescendo in 1975, when the United Nations formally equated Zionism with racism.

The ‘big black lie’

In US academic quarters, more and more voices are calling for the long-term dismantlement of Israel via boycotts and sanctions. Black scholars are well represented in the movement, including the leadership of Students for Justice in Palestine and tenured professors from California to Columbia.

Butler Library at New York City's Columbia University, a hotbed of anti-Israel activities for many years (Wikimedia Commons)
Butler Library at New York City’s Columbia University, a hotbed of anti-Israel activities for many years (Wikimedia Commons)

“Activists in the streets of Ferguson, in New York City, in LA… [have drawn] connections between Israeli radicalized violence in the name of security,” said Robin D.G. Kelley, an American history professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.

“It wasn’t simply Ferguson to Gaza,” said Kelley during an anti-Israel panel at Columbia University last month. “It was also drawing connections to drone strikes abroad, and the killing of black men and women and transgendered people at the hands of police,” said the scholar of African-American history.

In his op-ed on “the big black lie,” Troy implored faith leaders of all backgrounds to “refute the growing libels spreading among many black Americans against Israel and the Jewish people.” He accused some black leaders of “playing the role too many play in universities today, joining the anti-Zionist pile-on against Israel and Jews on campuses.”

According to Troy and some mainstream US Jewish leaders, the “intersectionality” of oppression strategy must be refuted at the grassroots. Troy urged Israel supporters to reach out to black communities “about their potential role in the Middle East conflict,” using MLK Day as a starting point.

Soon after the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, President Lyndon B. Johnson embraces Dr. Martin Luther King (Wikimedia Commons)
Soon after the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, President Lyndon B. Johnson embraces Dr. Martin Luther King (Wikimedia Commons)

“Please work into you Martin Luther King Day speeches, prayers and private conversations three essential messages: Gaza is not Ferguson; Zionism is not racism, nor is Israel an apartheid state,” wrote Troy.

What did Martin Luther King really have to say about Israel?

Many of the oft-quoted statements attributed to King on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict come from a Q&A he participated in with Rabbi Everett Gendler during the 1968 annual convention of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly. He was asked to consider the questions ahead of the event, and it is clear King had carefully considered both sides of the ongoing conflict.

“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.

Leaders in a Vietnam war protest stand in silent prayer in Arlington National Cemetery, Feb. 6, 1968. Front row, from left: Rev. Andrew Young, executive vice president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; Bishop James P. Shannon, Roman Catholic auxiliary bishop of Minneapolis and St. Paul; Rabbi Abraham Heschel, professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, New York; the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and Arlington Amphitheater are in background. (AP Photo/Harvey Georges)
Leaders in a Vietnam war protest stand in silent prayer in Arlington National Cemetery, Feb. 6, 1968. Front row, from left: Rev. Andrew Young; Bishop James P. Shannon; Rabbi Abraham Heschel; the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath. (AP Photo/Harvey Georges)

“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,” said King.

“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.

“On the other hand, we must see what peace for the Arabs means in a real sense of security on another level. Peace for the Arabs means the kind of economic security that they so desperately need. These nations, as you know, are part of that third world of hunger, of disease, of illiteracy. I think that as long as these conditions exist there will be tensions, there will be the endless quest to find scapegoats. So there is a need for a Marshall Plan for the Middle East, where we lift those who are at the bottom of the economic ladder and bring them into the mainstream of economic security,” said King.

Reclaiming the Israel narrative

Recent Pew studies, in contrast with Troy’s dire vision, claim that black Americans favor Israel over the Palestinians by a ratio of 2-to-1. Though this support is less strong than overall US support for Israel, there is not a shortage of black personalities — including clergy, governors, and Hollywood celebrities — willing to support Israel in public.

“Anti-Zionists who attempt to amend King’s views on Israel are betraying his true legacy,” said pro-Israel trailblazer Dumisani Washington, founder of the Institute for Black Solidarity with Israel.

By speaking regularly about Dr. King’s support for Zionism and Israel, Washington — a pastor and frequent speaker on the pro-Israel lecture circuit — fights against the trend of faith communities associating Martin Luther King with anti-Israel stances.

Pastor and pro-Israel activist Dumisani Washington speaks at a Washington, DC gathering of Christians United for Israel in 2013 (courtesy: CUFI)
Pastor and pro-Israel activist Dumisani Washington speaks at a Washington, DC gathering of Christians United for Israel in 2013 (courtesy: CUFI)

“These individuals also expose themselves as being truly unconcerned for human rights,” wrote Washington, who has blogged for The Times of Israel. “How else do you explain a relentless attack on the only democracy in the Middle East, while the thievery of Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas gets a free pass? What might Dr. King have to say about that ‘Marshall Plan’ being siphoned by dishonorable Arab leaders, while their people are left to suffer?”

‘What might Dr. King have to say about that “Marshall Plan” being siphoned by dishonorable Arab leaders, while their people are left to suffer?

In terms of pro-Israel black media personalities, commentator Kevin Jackson is among the more fiery supporters of Israel and other “conservative” causes.

Known for accusing the Democratic party of “raping blacks and America,” Jackson has also claimed President Barack Obama is part of a Muslim conspiracy to take over the world. On his “Black Sphere” website, Jackson does not mince words about Jews, blacks and others who he considers traitors to their people.

“Secular liberal Jews hate their own people,” wrote Jackson this month. “The closest thing to it is the hatred of black liberals for other blacks. And it’s these self-loathing types that Democrats love so much. It is the Democrats’ ability to get people to hate one another that is the hallmark of their party.”

Indisputably offensive to some onlookers, Jackson is one of the brashest black voices pushing back against the “From Gaza to Ferguson” worldview, as well as the claim that Martin Luther King would be appalled by Israel’s development since his assassination almost half a century ago.

Conservative political commentator Kevin Jackson, center, a regular guest on Fox News (courtesy)
Conservative political commentator Kevin Jackson, center, a regular guest on Fox News (courtesy)

“In Ferguson, police were made to watch as thugs burned down the city over a lie,” according to an editorial published on Jackson’s website three months ago, as Palestinians began a new campaign of attacks against Israelis.

“In Israel, the expectation by the Jew-hating Leftists is for Israel to ignore the terrorism of Palestinians,” wrote the site’s Ivin Lee. Echoing King’s statements to the Rabbinical Assemly, he wrote, “In [both Israel and Ferguson], the perpetrators are made to be the victims, and the real victims are ostracized for protecting themselves.”

As shown through the annual national holiday marking King’s legacy, most Americans agree on the leader’s centrality to the civil rights movement. His stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, however, will likely be debated for years to come — with both sides continuing to use him as a figurehead.

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