The anti-Semitic rhetoric of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and his cohorts todays threatens to overshadow all discussions of black-Jewish relations. Yet it was just a generation ago that Martin Luther King Jr., perhaps the most important black leader of our time, was involved in the struggles to free Soviet Jewry, make Israel a secure and independent state, and combat anti- Semitism.
That is why Jews worldwide will enthusiastically participate in this month’s celebration in honor of King.
From virtually the very beginning of the movement to free Soviet Jews in the 1960s, King was a major advocate on their behalf. More than a quarter of a century ago, he publicly sought support for the establishment of the “religious and cultural freedom” of the Soviet Jews. He urged the Soviet government to “end all the discriminatory measures against the Jewish community.”
In 1967, King addressed by telephone hookup dozens of Soviet deprived Jewish communities of basic items required to sustain even a modest existence.
He admonished his fellow Americans not to sit “complacently by the wayside” while their Jewish brothers and sisters in the Soviet Union faced the possible dissolution of their spiritual and cultural life.
King’s commitment to a secure and independent Israel was also clear.
A few months after the 1967 Six-Day War, he wrote to Jewish community leaders that “Israel’s right to exist at a state in Security is incontestable.”
In addressing a convention of rabbis just 10 days before his tragic death in 1968, the Nobel Prize laureate referred to Israel as “one of the great outposts of democracy in the world,” and said that “we must stand with all our might to protect [Israel's] right to exist, its territorial integrity.”
Kings also frequently denounced anti-Semitism. He said that “the segregationists and racists make no fine distinction between the Negro and the Jew.”
In a letter to Jewish leaders, he attacked anti-Semitism “within the Negro community, because it is wrong. I will continue to oppose it, because it is immoral and self-destructive.”
In retrospect, King’s adoption of these causes is not surprising, given his belief that the freedom of blacks was inextricably tied to the universal right of all groups to live in peace, free from discrimination and oppression.
This belief, exemplified by King’s extraordinary leadership, was instrumental in the shaping of the close relationship between blacks and Jews that developed during the Kings years, a closeness that included cooperation in campaigns to end discrimination in housing and improve educational opportunities.
Nowadays, a far more attenuated relationship has come into being, a relationship strained in part by the vicious anti-Semitic comments of Farrakhan, whose message of discipline, economic independence and separatism is deceiving too many African Americans.
At this point, it is important to think back to what King viewed as the basis of the natural relationship between blacks and Jews.
A decade before his death, he said these groups shared on “indescribably important destiny to complete a process of democratization – which is our most powerful weapon for world emulation.”
Surely just as we must actively contain the anti-Semitic poison of Louis Farrakhan, we must also rededicate ourselves to Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of a society where people are judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
It is again time for blacks and Jews to recommit themselves to achieving King’s dream, the enduring dream that should be shared by all Americans. The failure to work together to achieve this goal will only provide encouragement for the success of Farrakhan’s separatism. And that would not be good for Jews, blacks or American society in general.