What would Martin Luther King say? It is our annual exercise. On this weekend devoted to the memory and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., preachers of all faiths are drafting and delivering sermons recruiting King’s past words toward making a present-day case about any number of causes. What would King say about the migrant crisis? What would King say about DEI? About Claudine Gay? What would King say about yesterday’s military action in the Gulf? As the posthumous prophet of America’s moral discourse, King’s rhetoric has taken on the status of sacred scripture, and if the Devil can quote scripture for his purpose, then all the more will any muddling minister try to leverage King’s oratory towards making this or that point. It is a rhetorical tactic as predictable as it is fraught with peril. King knew nothing of carbon emissions, the #MeToo movement, or the Houthis. King’s era was not ours and, for that matter, not every era of King’s life was the same. What King said or did about civil rights, economic justice, and war evolved over his all too brief ministry. What would King say about Israel as we know it today? About the present war between Israel and Hamas? What would he counsel about the role of the United States in this conflict? About contemporary Black-Jewish relations or the relationship between Jews and the progressive community? The short answer, the honest answer is: We have absolutely no idea.
And yet, like a moth to the flame, I cannot help myself. “Fools rush in,” wrote Alexander Pope, “where angels fear to tread.” The calendrical coincidence of our MLK memorial weekend, world events, and the Exodus Torah reading is too good to avoid: a sermonic gravitational pull more powerful than even a Michigan national championship. Israel sits in the docket of the world court and the court of public opinion, a case brought to the ICJ by South Africa. October 7 has given rise to a daunting alliance between Palestinians, progressives, and people of color against Israel and, in some cases, against Jews. The Jewish community has responded to the animus and antisemitism by circling its wagons – a spasm of political and philanthropic activism against DEI and other progressive efforts that historically, some might say ironically, have been championed by the Jewish community. The response reflects not just the trauma of October 7 itself and the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas, but identity politics within and surrounding the Jewish community. The ground is shifting beneath us. We need to start somewhere, we need something to hold on to, and King’s legacy is as good a place as any to begin the conversation.
So, given that we have no idea what King would say, let us begin with what he actually did say. The foremost scholar of King’s writing on Israel and the Jews is Martin Kramer, who wrote, “King supported Israel’s right to exist and said so repeatedly.” King’s belief in Israel’s right to exist was so steadfast that even Israel’s detractors like the late Edward Said grudgingly acknowledged that King was a “tremendous Zionist.” In King’s own words, “Israel’s right to exist as a state in security is incontestable.” Israel’s security was paramount to King. On March 25, 1968, at the Conservative Movement’s annual Rabbinical Assembly Conference, King stated: “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,” said King to the assembled rabbis, “as one of the great outposts of democracy in the world.”
King delivered these words just weeks before his assassination, and significantly, in the wake of the 1967 Six-Day War. That King offered such supportive words before a group of rabbis is unsurprising; that he went on to affirm the need for Arab economic security in that same speech is altogether significant, both in his moment and in ours. “Peace for the Arabs,” King stated, “means the kind of economic security that they so desperately need . . . I think,” he said to the rabbis, “as long as these conditions [hunger, disease, illiteracy] exist, 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 mainstay of economic activity.” Whether it was the SCLC or the Middle East, King understood the relationship between hope, access, and opportunity, and scapegoating, extremism, and violence. What would King have said about Palestinian extremism given his adherence to nonviolent principles of civil disobedience? I would like to think he would be horrified. That said, fifty years after Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and the rise of Jewish extremism, I don’t think he would be surprised.
King once said something to the effect that the measure of a person is not where they stand in moments of comfort, but where they stand at times of controversy. By extension, more significant than what King said about Israel to a group of rabbis, is what he said when it was not expedient to say it. Kramer explores one such exchange in 1967, significant for our own moment, when King visited Black students at Harvard for an exchange of views. One of the young men present made a comment against Zionists. King snapped at the young man and said “Don’t talk like that! When people criticize Zionists, they mean Jews. You’re talking anti-Semitism.” Leaving aside the issue of where King’s sympathies would lie vis-à-vis Israel fifty-plus years after 1967, it strikes me that King would have worked assiduously to distinguish between criticism of Israeli policy and antisemitism. Throughout his life, King was surrounded by Jewish friends and advisors such as Stanley Levison, Harry Wachtel, and more famously, rabbis like Abraham Joshua Heschel, who walked with him in Selma, and Joachim Prinz, who spoke at the March on Washington immediately prior to King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. In a 1964 SCLC newsletter, King wrote of his pledge to do his utmost to uphold the fair name of the Jews. “Not only,” he explained, “because we need their friendship, and surely we do, but mainly because bigotry in any form is an affront to us all.”
It was not all rainbows and ponies, and we will get to the other side in a moment. King cancelled a 1967 trip to Israel for fear that it would signal a tacit endorsement of Israel following the war. But King felt a warmth for the Jewish people that was pragmatic, personal, and principled, and he was careful to separate that warmth from whatever the policies of the Israeli government may have been. What would King say about the blurred line between anti-Zionism and antisemitism today? I would like to think that he would hold that while people of good conscience may differ on Middle East policy, he would ask that the bigotry of antisemitism have no place, no quarter, no haven, no home in the community of color or any community. King famously once reflected “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” I would like to think that as a friend to the Jewish people, King would not be silent in the face of antisemitism from progressive communities of color.
If the subject of what King would say about Israel or the Jews is not challenging enough, then even greater the limitations of our time and my competence regarding a full exploration of Black-Jewish relations. We know from King’s speeches and today’s Torah reading that the two communities share a common origin story, a story of bondage and liberation that at one point linked not just Blacks and Jews but the Black community and Zionism. As early as 1919, W.E.B. Dubois wrote, “The African Movement means to us what the Zionist Movement must mean to the Jews.” (Dollinger, pp 167–68). Our communities had common struggles against oppression, against the White Knights of the Klan; we both had our Freedom Fighters – centrists and activists. We shared, at least scripturally, a struggle for liberation. But post-War and into the sixties, it was a linkage that proved more tenuous and less sustainable. Yes, Rabbis Heschel, Prinz, Jacob Rothschild, and countless other Jews directed their energies towards civil rights and in some cases, as with Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, gave their lives to the cause. But not all Jews were aligned with civil rights. To mention but one example of many studied by Professor Cheryl Greenberg, who wrote a book on the subject, the southern Jewish rank and file, many of whom belonged to the merchant class, were reluctant to get involved in the sit-in movement. Long before Black Lives Matter, the fault lines were there for all to see as the Jewish community became and was perceived less as natural allies to the Black community and more as white folk. It is a state of affairs expressed most famously in a 1967 New York Times essay by James Baldwin, who wrote, “The most ironical thing about Negro anti-Semitism is that the Negro is really condemning the Jew for having become an American white man . . . he is singled out by Negroes not because he acts differently from other white men, but because he doesn’t.” The Black community became aligned with the Palestinian cause, embracing a Soviet/Arab/Afro-Caribbean narrative of anti-colonial nationalism, all leading up to what we now would call intersectionality.
No longer allies, no longer able to tuck the Palestinian-Israeli conflict under the rug, the hearts of our respective communities hardened, we are in a cycle of fear, finger pointing, and occasional violent eruptions made all the more toxic by the ramified effects of a world drunk on social media. The politics of both communities have turned inward. Intersectionality, DEI, Black Lives Matter, Kanye, Kyrie, cultural appropriation – these are all the symptoms of a deeper condition of alienation and distrust. There are those in the Jewish community who say that they are shocked by the betrayal of the Black community in response to the attacks of October 7. Disappointed and saddened – OK. Horrified by the events of October 7 and the victim blaming of Israel – absolutely. But anyone with any grasp of the shabby condition of Black-Jewish relations prior to October 7 should not be surprised by what has taken place since.
Our moment is a sober one. Sober, sad, and depressing. For Israel, for American Jews, for American Jews and our once allies, for American Jews and our would-be allies. We can hold up the picture of Heschel and King marching in Selma for inspiration, but not without a bitter recognition of how far things have fallen. The choice, as always, is how we respond. Shall we continue with the she said/he said, declare every option exhausted, and circle the wagons even tighter? Or shall we do just the opposite? Reach out, not knowing if and how we will be received, make every effort to rehabilitate the Black-Jewish relationship, hoping that even if we don’t agree on this or that policy, we can at least agree on our shared humanity and the equal and infinite dignity with which we are all created in the image of the divine.
I don’t know what you will do, but to conclude where I began, I daresay I think I know what King would have done. King may not have visited Israel in 1967, but in his final, famous “Mountaintop” speech, he tells about when he did visit Jerusalem in 1959. He describes the time when he and his wife visited Jerusalem and rented a car to drive from Jerusalem down to Jericho. He notes, as many in this room know, what a winding, meandering road it is, dangerous in its curves, its descent, and its travelers’ vulnerability to harm. Probably for that reason, King explains, it was the road from Jerusalem to Jericho that served as the setting for his tradition’s story of the Good Samaritan. In the very place where one is most exposed, where one fears most for one’s own safety, where the road ahead is most unclear, and where one is most disinclined to reach out a hand, it is in that place that one should reach out, where one should inquire into the condition of the other, and where one must build a bridge with the stranger.
The road upon which we travel is a perilous one. I believe it can be traversed if and only if we endeavor to do so with others. Understandable as it may be to seek common cause only with like-minded friends, it is far more courageous to do so with those with whom our alliances are not where they should be nor where they could be. In this dark time, on this windy road, on this weekend given to honoring the memory of the most courageous bridge builder of all – Martin Luther King – we can honor his legacy by reaching beyond ourselves and the parochial boundaries of our community. We may not get there, but that didn’t stop Moses from trying, and it didn’t stop King from trying, and it shouldn’t stop us from trying.
Baldwin, James. “Negroes Are Anti-Semitic Because They're Anti-White.” New York Times, April 9, 1967.
Dollinger, Marc. “Black Power, Jewish Politics: Reinventing the Alliance in the 1960s. Waltham, Massachusetts: Brandeis University Press, 2018.
Eig, Jonathan. King: A Life. New York: Macmillan Publishers, 2023.
Greenberg, Cheryl Lynn. Troubling the Waters: Black-Jewish Relations in the American Century. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2010.
Kramer, Martin. “In the Words of Martin Luther King” in Martin Kramer, The War on Error: Israel, Islam, and the Middle East. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers, 2016.