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Op-ed: Remembering Dr. King’s Ties to Israel

January 8, 1998
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In the fog of divisiveness that has often engulfed black-Jewish relations since the heyday of the Civil Rights movement, we must often peer long and hard to discern examples of harmony that can be used as lessons to teach our children about unity.

The decision, however, to join the 1998 Salute to Israel Parade in May with the annual march to commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. along New York City’s Fifth Avenue, is one example that shines through the mist.

The amicable resolution of a potential conflict connotes stellar cooperation between these two communities. But also, the combining of celebrations can – – and should — serve as a focal point for classroom discussion on ties between the Jewish state and one of America’s great leaders when we celebrate Martin Luther King Day at this 50th anniversary year of the State of Israel.

The ties between King and Israel are real and documented. I believe exploring them within the context of a school environment would go a long way toward sensitizing children — our next generation of community activists — to the idea of black-Jewish connectedness.

I further believe that thoughtful and well-planned lessons, followed up by participation in the May 17 Israel/King joint parade event, can help bring students to an understanding that values intrinsic to each community are shared by both.

Therefore, in an effort to promote that understanding, here are some facts about Dr. King and his relationship with the land and people of Israel. It is my hope to one day see this information incorporated into a school curriculum that meaningfully bridges the modern divide between two peoples who are, in actuality, historically linked and spiritually united.

1. King was a believer in Old Testament prophets, and felt a special kinship with Israel. He most likely found special meaning in these words of Amos (9:13- 15), since he incorporated the verses’ theme into a sermon he delivered at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine on May 17, 1956:

“`I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel, and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine, and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit. I will plant them upon their land, and they shall never again be plucked up out of the land which I have given them,’ says the Lord your God.”

On that day, King preached: “There is something in the very nature of the universe which is on the side of Israel in its struggle with every Egypt.”

2. In 1964, after King was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace, Ben-Zion Ilan, the American representative of the Histadrut, sent him an invitation to visit Israel:

“May I, on this felicitous occasion, repeat our hope that you will soon be able to implement your visit to Israel as the guest of Histadrut.”

Unfortunately, King was unable to make the trip in 1964, but three years later, during a trip to Africa, King entered what is today’s West Bank, under the auspices of his Jordanian hosts. Those same hosts prevented him from going into Israel itself.

3. In 1966, prior to the Africa trip, his associate, Andrew Young, was in Israel to develop protocols for a 5,000-man pilgrimage encompassing both Israel and Jordan. According to Young:

“I flew to Tel Aviv where I was to negotiate arrangements for a 5,000-person pilgrimage to the Holy Land conceived by Martin and Dr. Sandy Ray, a prominent Baptist minister in New York City. Israel alone lacked sufficient hotel space to accommodate a tour of this scale, and I had to drive to Jordan to make arrangements there as well. I negotiated with both sides for the opening of the Mandelbaum Gate in Jerusalem and to allow our party to pass between Israel and Jordan through Jerusalem. I found officials in the Israeli and Jordanian tourism offices to be highly receptive to our plans. Both Israel and Jordan agreed to cooperate to build an amphitheater on the Sea of Galilee, where Martin would preach from the water..”

The pilgrimage was not to be, however. Outbreak of the Six- Day War in June 1967 scuttled all plans for what would have no doubt been a historic tour.

4. With trouble brewing in the days before the 1967 war, King was among those who signed their names to a June 4 New York Times ad asking President Lyndon Johnson to honor U.S. commitments to Israel. In part, the ad read:

“We call on our fellow Americans of all persuasions and groupings and on the administration to support the independence, integrity and freedom of Israel.”

5. After the war, as black power movements sought to isolate Israel as an aggressor and racist state, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, of which King was president, released the following statement:

“Israel’s right to exist as a state in security is incontestable.”

6. At the 68th annual convention of the Rabbinical Assembly on March 25, 1968, just days before he was assassinated, King declared:

“I think it is necessary to say that what is basic and what is needed in the Middle East is peace. Peace for Israel is one thing. Peace for the Arab side of that world is another thing. 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 never 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.”

7. The day after King’s death, Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol sent a telegram to President Johnson. In it he wrote:

“I want you to know, Mr. President, how deeply all of us in Israel sympathize with the American nation in the grievous loss that it has suffered by the tragic death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

“The cause of human rights and justice throughout the world is sadly shaken by the passing of so fearless a champion. May I ask you, Mr. President, to convey on my behalf and in the name of the Government of Israel an expression of our most heartfelt condolences and our message of comfort to the bereaved family…

“We are all with you on this day of national mourning.”

8. In 1986, Israel’s President, Chaim Herzog, designated Jan. 20 as Martin Luther King Day in the Jewish State, the only country other than the U.S. to honor Dr. King.

In Jerusalem, a street was named in honor of King. Then- Mayor Teddy Kollek said it would be a constant reminder of the need to reiterate the commandment from Leviticus to “proclaim liberty throughout the land.”

9. In a message to the Knesset acknowledging the actions taken by the Jewish state to commemorate her husband, Coretta Scott King wrote:

“On April 8, 1968, just before he was killed, Martin delivered his last public address, `I’ve been to the Mountaintop.’ In it he spoke of the visit he and I made to Israel. Moreover, he spoke to us about his vision of the Promised Land, a land of justice and equality, brotherhood and peace.

“Martin was taken from us before we were able to reap this `Promised Land,’ but let us resolve today to build a world in which his vision of peace, unity, and brotherhood will yet be fulfilled.

“Martin dedicated his life to the goals of peace and unity among all peoples, and perhaps nowhere in the world is there a greater appreciation of the desirability and necessity of peace than in Israel.”

(Rabbi Marc Schneier is president of The Foundation of Ethnic Understanding and chairman of the World Jewish Congress’ Commission Intergroup Relations.)

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