Martin Luther King Jr and Israel

Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in the United States of America, which is always on the third Monday of the year, to mark his birthday on 15th January. He was an amazing man who passionately fought for freedom and justice for those who were oppressed due to their race, and he believed that “an alliance between Jews and Blacks was fundamental to Civil Rights progress” 1.

However, his appreciation and support for Israel and the Jewish people did not prejudice him in any way against the Palestinian people, for whom he also sought justice and prosperity. Like the Prince of Peace, Dr King showed great love for both the Jewish people and the Arab people, and was not afraid to say so. He said,

Cowardice asks the question – is it safe?
Expediency asks the question – is it politic?
Vanity asks the question – is it popular?
But conscience asks the question – is it right?
And there comes a time when one must take a position
that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular;
but one must take it because it is right.

These words he spoke were true at the time and are just as important for us to ask ourselves today. There are many wonderful, wise and inspiring things that he said in his lifetime, which are so helpful to reflect upon. He saw the ideal described in the Scriptures and aimed for it – a man who loved peace, and grasped the power of love to bring change.

“Dr King was a staunch supporter of the state of Israel and the Jewish people, but that does not mean that he was anti-Palestinian. In fact, he embodied both ideologies, proving that one does not have to be anti-Palestinian to be pro-Israel, or anti-Israel to be pro-Palestinian.”
(Institute for Black Solidarity with Israel)

Just as our Messiah loves Jews and Arabs just the same, Dr King showed enthusiastic support for Israel while upholding the needs and dignity of the Arabs at the same time. On March 26th 1968 he was the honored guest at the 68th annual Convention for the Rabbinical Assembly of Conservative Judaism with good friend Rabbi Joshua Heschel, just ten days before he died April 4th 1968. It was nine months after the Six Day War of 1967 when he said these words:

“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 don’t 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 on another level. Peace for the Arabs means the kind of economic security that they so desperately need.”

Dr King never dismissed Israel as a colonial or imperialist power, but he was also intentional about validating and highlighting the struggles of the Palestinian people. He saw peace for Israel as safety and security, and peace for the Arabs as economic development. He longed to see peace and prosperity for all.

Who is my neighbor?

In the very last speech that he gave, Martin Luther King Jr shared his thoughts about the parable of the Good Samaritan in which he recalls his visit to Israel.
As we honor his memory today, let’s hear his exhortation and take it to heart:

“Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness. One day a man came to Jesus, and he wanted to raise some questions about some vital matters of life. At points he wanted to trick Jesus, and show him that he knew a little more than Jesus knew and throw him off base….” [Who is my neighbor?]

Now that question could have easily ended up in a philosophical and theological debate. But Jesus immediately pulled that question from mid-air, and placed it on a dangerous curve between Jerusalem and Jericho. And he talked about a certain man, who fell among thieves. You remember that a Levite and a priest passed by on the other side. They didn’t stop to help him. And finally a man of another race came by. He got down from his beast, decided not to be compassionate by proxy. But he got down with him, administered first aid, and helped the man in need. Jesus ended up saying, this was the good man, this was the great man, because he had the capacity to project the “I” into the “thou,” and to be concerned about his brother.”

Here, Dr King refers to Jewish philosopher Martin Buber’s famous work, “I and Thou” which is about the meaning of how we treat other people, relationships, and our relationship with God. King then draws on his memories of his trip to Israel in his exposition of the story:

“Now you know, we use our imagination a great deal to try to determine why the priest and the Levite didn’t stop… It’s possible that those men were afraid. You see, the Jericho road is a dangerous road.

I remember when Mrs. King and I were first in Jerusalem. We rented a car and drove from Jerusalem down to Jericho. And as soon as we got on that road, I said to my wife, “I can see why Jesus used this as the setting for his parable.” It’s a winding, meandering road. It’s really conducive for ambushing. You start out in Jerusalem, which is about 1200 miles — or rather 1200 feet above sea level. And by the time you get down to Jericho, fifteen or twenty minutes later, you’re about 2200 feet below sea level. That’s a dangerous road.

In the days of Jesus it came to be known as the “Bloody Pass.” And you know, it’s possible that the priest and the Levite looked over that man on the ground and wondered if the robbers were still around. Or it’s possible that they felt that the man on the ground was merely faking. And he was acting like he had been robbed and hurt, in order to seize them over there, lure them there for quick and easy seizure.”

And so the first question that the priest asked — the first question that the Levite asked was, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?”

But then the Good Samaritan came by. And he reversed the question: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”

Dr Martin Luther King’s fearlessness and selflessness is an example to us all. Here’s how he concluded the last speech he would give on this earth:

“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life — longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.

And so I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!

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[1] Marc Schneier, Martin Luther King, III, ‘Shared Dreams: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Jewish Community’ (2009, p169)

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