Martin Luther King’s Legacy and Israel’s Future

Stepping beyond fear.

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This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

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 US 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.

How a man who could get it so right on Vietnam could get it so wrong on anti-Zionism remains a mystery.

King, Zionism, and the Cycle of Fear

If, however, we leave aside King’s offhand comment about anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, and consider instead his words about the horrors of American state violence and violence in general, which reflected his most deeply held values, we can see Israel’s state violence in a new light that illuminates the deep, often unnoticed links between violence and irrational fear.  

When he broke his silence on Vietnam, King denounced the “morbid fear of communism” that had turned Western nations into “arch anti-revolutionaries,” willing to “adjust to injustice.” “Our only hope today,” he preached, “lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism.”

That, as he had learned from Gandhi and taught to millions, would require a spirit of love strenuously applied to overcome fear. King had read Gandhi; he had also visited India and spoken with many ardent Gandhians. So he grasped the spirit of these words the Mahatma wrote:  “Fear and love are contradictory terms.”  “In order to be fearless we should love all and adhere to the path of truth.”

King agreed with Gandhi that fear was a crucial source of evil. “There is one evil,” he said, “that is worse than violence, and that’s cowardice.” He also understood the Mahatma’s view that fear was the opposite of love, the opposite of nonviolence, and so often itself the source of violence. By the last night of his life, he had embraced this Gandhian philosophy almost ecstatically. After prophesying his own death, he famously concluded: “So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man!”

King had lived surrounded by whites who were moved to violence by irrational fears of people of color. He dedicated his life to overcoming his own fear so that, through love, he could overcome the fears of his oppressors. In 1967, he finally overcame his fear of harming the civil rights movement and bravely denounced America’s war in Vietnam, which was motivated (as he saw it) by an irrational fear of communism.

King’s blind spot (and even the greatest people have them) was in not recognizing that Israel’s violence against Palestinians, too, was—and still is—similarly motivated by irrational fear. One of the great tragedies of Zionism has, in fact, been its striking inability to escape the fear that gave it birth—a fear well justified in late nineteenth century Europe, Zionism’s birthplace, at a time when anti-Semitism was indeed rampant.  Today, however, with the Jewish state possessing massively preponderant military power in the Middle East, it no longer makes sense to base Jewish identity on fear, to imagine anti-Semitism lurking behind every well-meaning critique of Israeli policy.

Those of us who follow the path of the great Jewish philosopher and dissident Zionist Martin Buber, who still believe Zionism can in principle be moral, see fear as not merely unjustified but destructive and self-destructive.  It fosters policies that only lock Israelis as well as Palestinians into an endless cycle of insecurity.

King apparently never recognized (or at least never said publicly) that fear, not anti-Zionism, was the true threat to the Jewish people. It’s hard to blame him. He was far too busy with more immediate concerns to spend much time studying the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Israel’s Fear

If a man as fearlessly committed to truth as MLK could make such a mistake, how much more easily can other Americans, including American presidents, fall prey to the same mistake. The current president has made a huge mistake in dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Now he finds himself hostage to a tragic cycle of fear.

At first, Obama came out swinging against Israeli policy like no president since Dwight D. Eisenhower.  Soon after taking office, he insisted (according to his Secretary of State) on a total, permanent halt to the expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.  

It was a sensible step. Settlement expansion is rapidly shrinking the size of a future Palestine to a point where a viable state will be impossible. Without a viable Palestinian state, the Middle East cauldron will continue to boil, generating anger and tensions that threaten not only the security of the region, but US security interests as well.  That’s why a total settlement freeze is still supported by some factions in the administration.

But Obama and his advisors apparently underestimated the pushback they would get from Israeli leaders who always have their eyes on their own political futures.  No one can say what Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his cabinet members really believe, but it’s easy to see the political points they score by pushing the panic button over the so-called “dangers” of giving in to Obama’s demands.   All they have to do is raise ever-present fears of Jewish weakness and victimization, as Defense Minister Ehud Barak did when he complained that with the Obama administration “focusing solely on settlement building … Israel felt that it was being driven to its knees and delivered to the other side.”

As Henry Siegman, former head of the American Jewish Congress, wrote in the New York Times, Netanyahu’s message that “the whole world is against Israel and that Israelis are at risk of another Holocaust… is unfortunately still a more comforting message for too many Israelis.” Siegman observed that this fear (which he called “pathological”) “is invoked most frequently by Israelis themselves. The term for it in Israel is a ‘galut [diaspora] mentality,’ the tendency of diaspora Jewry to see itself as friendless, isolated, and always at the edge of a looming pogrom.” 

It’s a mentality long rooted in Zionism, and now growing in Israel, where Ha’aretz columnist Bradley Burston notes “a new Israeli approach which borrows from the very worst of our aging instincts. It says: We’re moral, our enemies are out to exterminate us along with our state, that’s all you need to know… Concede nothing… Give no ground. Ever.”

Another Israeli pundit brought the issue directly back to King’s insight about the link between violence and fear. Doron Rosenblum described Netanyahu and Barak as representing “two outstanding traits of Israeliness: aggressiveness and paranoia… They reflect two sides of the same coin—the fear of being considered weak and, the only thing that’s worse, being considered naive.”   

A year ago, two Israeli researchers released a study with numbers to back up these impressions. They found that Israeli Jews are generally moved more by fear than anything else in viewing their conflict with the Palestinians. That leads them to “a selective and distorted processing of information aimed at preserving conflict-beliefs.”

Obama Held Hostage to Fear?

Here in the US, Jews working to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict via a just peace also see fear as a great obstacle. Jeremy Ben-Ami, executive director of the pro-Israel, pro-peace lobby J Street (who has his own roots deep in Israeli life) feels fear is the biggest factor holding back the Jewish state when it comes to making a genuine peace.  Yes, Israelis need security guarantees they can believe in, says Ben-Ami, meaningful guarantees that if they give up land they will get peace. 

The only way to get such assurances, though, would be through good-faith negotiations. And only strong and active American leadership in the diplomatic process can make those negotiations happen. That’s why J Street and a number of other Jewish-American groups supported Obama’s call for an immediate and total freeze on settlement construction as a first step toward peace talks. 

But they face stiff opposition from American Jews still stuck in what J Street Policy Director Hadar Susskind calls “the Israel closet.” Torn between thought and feeling, they remain locked into the fear they grew up with, he says. “Their heads support a strong American role in helping Israel make peace with its neighbors, but their kishkes [guts] are uncomfortable with the idea of anyone ‘telling Israel what to do.'”

Worried that Jews will look weak and pushed around, some of the biggest US Jewish organizations denounced Obama’s demands on Israel. They found allies among Christian Zionists (whose influence on US Middle East policy is often underrated) and, very likely, factions in the US government (mostly military and intelligence) who want to placate the Israelis for their own pragmatic purposes as they try to contain the terrors of “terrorism.”

Yielding to their collective pressure, Obama backed off his stern demand, letting the Israelis off with only a promised temporary halt to just some expansion. Since he offered no cogent explanation for this retreat, he’s left us free to speculate on the political scare he got from that inside-the-beltway coalition.

It is at least likely that the president and his advisers feared the coalition’s clout as they endured a long, hot summer of attacks on their health-care reform, the one fight the administration feels it has to win.  Whatever the reasons may be, Obama consigned the prospect of real peace negotiations in the Middle East to defeat, at least temporarily.

If the administration sticks to its current cautious line, it will go on holding itself—and Middle East peace—hostage to the irrational fears of others. Israelis and Americans need a lasting peace to enhance their security. Palestinians desperately need a lasting peace simply to escape their daily suffering. Yet all are trapped in the synergy of mutually reinforcing fears. 

Breaking Free

The situation is, however, not hopeless.  Not yet, anyway.  If the administration’s political fears can be eased, it may still find its backbone on the Israel-Palestine issue.  And one pivotal group could swing the balance: the US Jewish community.

Just as King found the courage he needed back in 1967 when it was “time to break silence” on a terrible war, more and more Jews are breaking the silence that has ruled the American Jewish community when it comes to Israel’s share of responsibility for the continuing conflict. J Street is only the most prominent among the many recent American Jewish voices for peace.  They are all joining a movement that’s growing far faster than anyone could have imagined only a few years ago.

J Street’s Susskind sums up that movement—and sounds a lot like King—when he calls on Jews to “step out of the Jewish closet and say: ‘We love Israel, but that doesn’t mean we’ll remain silent when we disagree.’ It’s time for all of us who grew up loving Israel and praying for peace to stop letting the mythical notion that American Jews speak with a single voice keep us from supporting Israel’s security and future by calling for peace.”

On this Martin Luther King Day, then, American Jews face a choice. They can dwell on one casual, misinformed, easily misinterpreted remark that King made and use it to justify continued Israeli intransigence and violence. Or they can remember the words in which he summed up a lifetime of nonviolence, on the last night of his life—”I’m not fearing any man!”—and call on their own government to demand at least a start toward ending the conflict: a genuine halt to all settlement expansion.

If enough American Jews, and enough of their non-Jewish allies, find that courage, Obama and future presidents will have the political cover they need to demand of Israel the steps it must take to begin a real journey toward security and peace.


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Straight to the point: Donations have been concerningly slow for our hugely important First $500,000 fundraising campaign. We urgently need your help, and a lot of help, over the next few weeks so we can pay for the one-of-a-kind journalism you get from us.

Learn more in “Less Dreading, More Doing,” where we lay out this wild moment and how we can keep charging hard for you. And please help if you can: $5, $50, or $500—every gift from every person truly matters right now.

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