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Martin Luther King's Legacy and Israel's Future

King's teachings can help us see Israel's state violence in a new light that illuminates the deep, often unnoticed links between violence and irrational fear.

Every year, apologists for Israel’s occupation of Palestine eagerly await Martin Luther King Day. Then they trot out these words,  spoken by Dr. King shortly before his death: “When people criticize Zionists they mean Jews; you are talking anti-Semitism."

King, who repeated the themes that really mattered to him -- justice, freedom, human dignity, nonviolence -- over and over again, mentioned anti-Semitism only once, in an informal question-and-answer session. Nobody asked him what he meant, and he never explained. (A lengthy letter of “his” expounding on the theme has been  proven a hoax.)  Yet, year after year, Israel’s apologists rush to use those once-spoken words as the capstone for a line of reasoning which goes something like this:

Israel uses violence in the “disputed territories” to protect its own security. If you criticize that violence, you don’t care about Israel’s security; so you don’t care if Israel ceases to exist; so you are against Zionism. And Martin Luther King himself said that that’s anti-Semitism. In other words, only anti-Semites oppose Israel’s occupation policies.

Of course it’s perverse. It’s hard to imagine King ever endorsing such an illogical justification -- or any justification -- for the violent abrogation of a whole people’s freedom and dignity.  

Still, it bothers me that the great man actually did, even once, say that anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism. How could someone whose intellectual rigor I admire make such an error in reasoning, one that could easily be used, even while he was still alive, to rationalize Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands?

Yes, some people who criticize Zionism are anti-Semitic. But millions of Jews themselves opposed Zionism, especially in its early years. Jews have developed some of the most trenchant critiques of Zionism precisely because they loved their own people and saw Zionism as a threat to Judaism and Jewish values.

I don’t happen to agree with them. I respect Zionism as a movement of national self-determination. (If we accord that right to the Palestinians and every other national group, why not to the Jews?) But I’m one of many Zionists who have objected vigorously as Israel swallowed up the Occupied Territories, because in the long run military occupation is bound to increase the threat to Jews and, no less important, to Jewish values. Although King associated us with anti-Semitism only indirectly and unwittingly, his words have done us a disservice, too.

There’s no way that I, or any of the Jewish critics of Israel -- Zionist or not -- could be called anti-Semitic. Many non-Jews, driven by moral and intellectual concerns, have added to the thoughtful critiques of Zionism with no tinge of anti-Semitism in their words.

How could MLK not know any of this? He certainly wasn’t naïve or uninformed about foreign affairs. For years, he had been eloquently praising the rising tide of colonized people who were demanding self-determination. And when he finally decided it was  “a time to break silence” and voice his opposition to the U.S. war in Vietnam, he showed how well he could master the facts of a foreign conflict.

Though much of that 1967 speech was an eloquent denunciation of military violence in general, and especially that practiced by his own government (“the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today”), a significant part of it was a detailed recounting of Vietnamese history, an explanation of how the war must have looked to the Vietnamese people. Few of us protesting the war back then knew nearly as much about what was happening or could have explained so lucidly just why the war was wrong in political as well as moral terms.

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