Israel Still Failing Martin Luther King's Dream

Martin Luther King's empathy towards the Jewish state and his partnership with U.S. Jews can only be honored by countering the racism that become politically mainstream in Israel.

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Exactly 50 years ago today Dr. Martin Luther King spoke before 250,000 civil rights marchers gathered in Washington and proclaimed to the world: "I have a dream." South Africans living in the townships in the 1980s; East Europeans seeking emancipation from communism; Israeli Ethiopians struggling for equality for their community - all have been inspired by his 'dream' of equality for both blacks and whites. His message is just as relevant today, and for Israel, at a time when racism has mainstream political proponents in the Knesset, and when this publicly articulated prejudice threatens to compromise the moral struggle against anti-Semitism worldwide.

It should be remembered that King's civil rights coalition was largely a partnership between African-Americans and American Jews. As early as 1958, he expressed his certainty that Jewish and African American leaders could form an alliance to defeat racism. "My people were brought in America in chains. Your people were driven here to escape the chains fashioned for them in Europe. Our unity is born out of our common struggle for centuries, not only to rid us of bondage, but to make oppression of any people by others an impossibility," he told the American Jewish Congress.

Many members of the Jewish community responded to King's rallying call. It is estimated that half of all the white marchers on Washington were Jews; King received funding from Jews; and two thirds of the whites who participated in the freedom marches (to register black voters in the South) were Jews, including a young activist called Joe Lieberman, later on a candidate for U.S. vice president.

Two Jews, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, were among those who lost their lives in the civil rights struggle, together with African American James Chaney; they were murdered by white racists in the swamps of Mississippi in 1964. King himself said: "It has been impossible to record the contribution that the Jewish people have made toward the Negro's struggle for freedom, it has been so great." (This and subsequent quotes taken from Shared Dreams: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Jewish Community by Rabbi Marc Schneier, 2009).

It is also forgotten that there was a two way relationship between Martin Luther King and the Jewish community. While he was consumed by the pursuit for justice and civil rights for his own people, he also lent support to causes which were of prime concern to the Jewish community.

King was an early supporter of the oppressed Soviet Jews, who were not allowed to practice their religion under communist rule and were banned from emigrating to Israel. He participated in several demonstrations and rallies on behalf of Soviet Jewry. He said: "The attempt to 'liquidate' Soviet Jews to a 'spiritual annihilation' must be prevented since injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere For what happens to them happens to me and to you: and we must be concerned."

King's deeply held Christian beliefs were inspired by Judaism. "I draw not from Marxism or any secular philosophy, but from the prophets of Israel, from their passion for justice and cry for righteousness," he said.

In fact, King was a pioneer in terms of seeking a bridge between the Christian and Jewish faiths; he broke with traditional Christian theology that salvation could only be found in Christianity. When for example, Southern Baptist ministers tried to cast doubt on the validity of the Jewish faith, King responded: "I strongly disagree with the statement that more than five and a half million Jews in American are lost without hope. This narrow sectarianism can only lead to an irrational religious bigotry and serve to create a dangerous climate of separation between peoples of different religious persuasions."

King's support for the right of Israel to live in peace and security is well known. On the eve of the 1967 Six Day War he signed an open letter to President Lyndon Johnson, published in the New York Times, calling on America to honour its commitments to Israel. He described Zionism as "nothing less than the dream and ideal of the Jewish people returning to their homeland."

He was one of the first people to link anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism when pointing out that the "anti-Semite must constantly seek new forms and forums for his poison. How he must revel in the new masquerade! He does not hate the Jew, he is just 'anti-Zionist' when people criticize Zionism they mean Jews, and this is God's own truth so know this: anti-Zionist is inherently anti-Semitic, and ever will be so."

King spoke out forcefully against anti-Semitism in the black community. He perceptively said: "You cannot substitute one tyranny for another, and for the black man struggling for justice and turn around to be anti-Semitic is not only a very irrational course, but it is a very immoral course, and whenever we have seen anti-Semitism we have condemned it with all our might."

It is now time for us all to live the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. We must recognize that the struggle for racial justice, which began in 1960s America, must continue here on behalf of Ethiopian Jews and other minority groups. There should be a much more concerted effort to stamp out racial discrimination wherever it is found in Israel.

Racial epithets such as the use of the word 'kushi' by Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau, or calling Sudanese refugees a 'cancer,' as Likud Member of Knesset Miri Regev did last year, must have no place in Israeli society. These comments not only damage Israel's moral fabric, but are being recycled by far-right politicians in Europe as a means to legitimize their own racism and anti-Semitism. The far-right British National Party (whose leader, Nick Griffin, has in the past denied the Holocaust) have quoted approvingly Eli Yishai's derogatory remarks about Africans refugees to legitimize their own stance against African refugees to the U.K. and their aim of an all-white Britain.

Martin Luther King was a great supporter of Israel. If he were alive today, he would have wished to see an Israel free of discrimination and prejudice towards people of color. This would have been his 'dream' for Israel. The best way to honour his great legacy is for us all to strive towards racial justice for all Israel in 2013 to make Israel the kind of society with which King would have been at ease.

Ze'ev Portner is an Israeli attorney and a former political adviser to a Labour member of the U.K. Parliament. Amit Oz is an Israeli journalist and attorney.

Martin Luther King.Credit: AP

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