“Israel’s right to exist as a state is incontestable.” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote these words in a letter to the then-president of the Jewish Labor Committee in 1967, after the Six-Day War.
Each year on MLK Day, this one small sentence is shouted from the rooftops of almost every Zionist organization in America. It has become a way for some Jewish groups to deflect the actual legacy of Martin Luther King and focus the day on Zionism, rather than on justice for Black people. It also exploits Dr. King’s words, as though they provide legitimacy to all Israeli government actions. News flash: Israel’s “right to exist” is not synonymous with a right to occupy and subjugate another people. Dr. King’s words mean what they say: he supports Israel’s existence. They do not mean that we should blindly support every action by the Israeli government.
When Dr. King wrote these words, the Six-Day War had just ended; he could not have known that the military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza would last well over fifty years, with no end in sight. And, while I have no interest in following the example of those who claim to know what Dr. King would have thought about any of today’s social issues – including about an occupation whose full impact was not apparent until after his death – it’s hard to imagine that anyone with a commitment to equality and justice would support the current state of affairs in Israel-Palestine.
To me, the organizations that quote Dr. King on Israel without making a real effort to combat bigotry – either in the United States or in Israel – are exemplifying the “white moderate” who Dr. King lambasted in his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”
Who is the white moderate? According to Dr. King, the white moderate is “more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice,” chooses the passive “absence of tension” instead of seeking the “presence of justice,” and “believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom.” The white moderate’s refrain is: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action.”
What better descriptor is there for those who purport to support a two-state solution, but refuse to work to end the occupation? Paying lip service to a two-state solution but not working to actually achieve one is choosing the “absence of tension,” rather than seeking the “presence of justice.”
If we are to truly honor Dr. King, we must be willing to struggle, to put ourselves in uncomfortable positions in the interest of justice. We must strive for true equality, for Palestinians in Israel, as well as for Black people here in the States. We cannot wait for a more convenient time or hope that the situation will resolve itself. Most of all, we cannot accept the status quo.
So please, do not find your kinship with Dr. King only through his support for Israel’s existence. Rather, find it in your commitment to justice and your willingness to do the work necessary to achieve it. Recommit yourself to being an activist and a supporter of true peace. Do not allow yourself to fall into the role of the white moderate.
Claire Davidson Miller