Guest: The Zionism of Martin Luther King, Jr.


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Putting words into the mouth of someone decades after his death is a safe method of avoiding opposition. Who is going to protest? UI Professor Patrick Hitchon may have chosen the wrong voice from the past when he attempted to recruit Martin Luther King Jr. for the Palestinian cause (“Guest opinion: Martin Luther King’s dream on Palestine,” Feb. 4). In his case, his record still speaks eloquently and unmistakably. What emerges is a historic embrace of Zionism by King, one that was shared by many other early black leaders.

King, like so many other trailblazing black leaders, was a true-believing Zionist with roots in the long mutual history of Zionism in black as well as white. The story begins more than a century ago with Edward Wilmot Blyden. Proud of his African ancestry, he also prized his close cultural ties with Jews. In 1898, Blyden embraced “that wonderful movement called Zionism” as a model for the Pan African movement that today recognizes him as its godfather. By 1912, when Blyden died, leadership of the Pan-African movement to liberate the so-called “Dark Continent” from colonialism had shifted to an African American, W.E.B. DuBois. Despite his fierce disagreements with Jamaica-born Marcus Garvey, DuBois agreed with the self-styled “Black Moses” about Zionism as a paradigm for black progress.

After the declaration of “Black Power” in 1965, King’s friendship toward Jews and Israel was challenged by radical black nationalists such as Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) of the Black Panther Party, who looked as a role model to the martyred Malcolm X. Conveniently forgotten, however, is what Malcolm X said in 1964: “Pan Africanism will do for the people of African descent all over the world the same that Zionism has done for Jews all over the world.”

“Black Zionism” in the three decades since didn’t disappear, but it went underground to periodically re-emerge. Repenting his own history of anti-Israel outbursts, a maturing Jesse Jackson reaffirmed King’s acceptance of Zionism as “the liberation movement” of the Jewish people before the World Jewish Congress. Randall Robinson, the founding president of TransAfrica, has also repeatedly stated that African Americans and Africans can learn much from the history of the Zionist movement.

Every one of Hitchon’s contentions has a counterargument. Those arguments are not as important as the simple realization that there are two sides to every issue. His glib dismissal of the Israeli narrative is the greatest repudiation of the legacy of King.

Looking back at the decades of inequality, we should recognize how lucky we are that America’s inner voice hearkened to King’s message and method. Largely because of his preaching of nonviolence, an America that could have exploded was instead generally kept at a slow simmer, and change came without a greater degree of violence. He taught us that we had to look into the eyes of the other and see humanity.

In Israel today, where Arabs sit on the Supreme Court, serve in the diplomatic corps, and are overrepresented in some universities, Jewish high-school students study the Palestinian narrative.

They learn, to the best of their ability, what the other has experienced and yearns for. When peace breaks out one day, Palestinians will be showered with acceptance in the same manner that Israel reached out to Haiti.

Too many Palestinians, on the other hand, are taught in Hamas broadcasts and Hamas mosques that Jews and Christians are subhuman, that the highest goal in life is to die as a shahid destroying Jewish lives. For Hitchon not to recognize this simple difference means that he has internalized nothing of the message of King.

Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein is the director of Interfaith Affairs of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and the Sydney M. Irmas Chair in Jewish Law and Ethics at Loyola Law School.

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