Honoring Martin Luther King, Jr.—Where Would He Stand Today on the Palestine-Israel Situation?

Posted on Jan 22, 2020

By: John Mason/Arab America Contributing Writer

Martin Luther King (MLK) famously wrote from a Birmingham, Alabama jail where he was imprisoned for protesting segregation, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Had MLK lived longer—he was shot down by an assassin’s bullet in 1968—we wonder how he might have characterized the extreme situation today of Palestinians under Israeli occupation. We also wonder what he might have said about today’s U.S. lopsided policy favoring Israel.

Image: MLK visited Jerusalem on Easter 1959–while he was seen to be pro-Israel, he had some sympathy for Palestinians (photo conservative review)

MLK visited Jerusalem on Easter 1959–while he was seen to be pro-Israel, he had some sympathy for Palestinians (photo conservative review)

What MLK Might say Today about the Plight of the Palestinians, Israeli-occupied Palestine, and an Extreme U.S. pro-Israel Policy?

Let’s first discuss some of the commonly understood perspectives on MLK’s relationship to the Arab-Israeli issue. According to a recent New York Times report, King has been depicted as “an unswerving supporter of Israel.” Suggesting that this perception is wrong, The Times reports he would have a much different opinion “had he lived to see Israel’s 1967 war develop into the further dispossession of Palestinians from their land.”

Image: MLK would be unaware of the full implications of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank in 1967 since he was assassinated in 1968 (photo eng-archive.aawsat)

MLK would be unaware of the full implications of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank in 1967 since he was assassinated in 1968 (photo eng-archive.aawsat)

King was clear on his thinking about Israel, that is, it had the right to exist as a state whose security is incontestable. Furthermore, he averred that the major powers needed to recognize that the Arab world’s state of “imposed poverty and backwardness that must threaten peace and harmony.” MLK certainly had the situation partially right, noting that neither Israel nor the Arab world could “live in peace without an underlying basis of economic and social development.” However, that statement left out any mention of a politically-arranged settlement. At the least, King’s thinking was not totally biased towards Israel; his bias was based mainly on his Judeo-Christian beliefs.

Since MLK was a strong proponent of democracy around the world, he might have looked askance at Israel’s occupation of part of Palestine as early as 1948, when the Israel state was formed. As in the case of his highly negative attitude towards the apartheid state of South Africa, he might have had second thoughts about what some critics have called the Israeli “settler-colonial project” as a result of the 1948 “dispossession, exile, and colonization of Palestine and the 1967 occupation.”

MLK would probably be stunned by the Israel Knesset passage in 2018 of the Nation-State Law, which stipulates that “The State of Israel is the national home of the Jewish people, in which it fulfills its natural, cultural, religious and historical right to self-determination.” That law includes the requirement that “the Arabic language has a special status in the state …and that regulating the use of Arabic in state institutions or by them will be set in law.” Even more controversial is the stipulation that the development of Jewish settlements as “a national value and will act to encourage and promote its establishment and consolidation.” This part of the Nation-State Law would imply the basic end to any hope for an independent state for Palestinians. Furthermore, it would result at the end of a democratic Israel.

Image: Had MLK witnessed the walls built in occupied-Palestine to oppress Palestinians, his pro-Israel opinion might have been more tempered (photo neogaf.com)

Had MLK witnessed the walls built in occupied-Palestine to oppress Palestinians, his pro-Israel opinion might have been more tempered (photo neogaf.com)

It is also difficult to square King’s hatred of oppression of racial minorities with his concept of a democratic Israeli society. The relegation of Palestinians to separate, often walled communities and the requirement of showing a pass to leave or enter their quarters would not sit well with MLK’s idea of democracy. Separate roads for Palestinians and Jews, deprivation of Palestinians of their homes and lands, and the latter’s inaccessibility to equal rights would be anathema to King.

King’s Non-violent Principles and the Palestinian Cause

MLK’s approach to gaining freedom and equality for an oppressed population involved nonviolent action. He saw such action as generating a crisis that would foster tension, such that a group or state refusing to negotiate would be forced to address a specific issue. King opposed violent tension, stressing the use of constructive nonviolent tension to alleviate the stress of an oppressive state society that rigidly controls the lives of a portion of the people.

We’ve seen in the case of the Israeli-Palestine situation that Israel has never voluntarily offered to release the chains of oppression on the Palestinians, which is why the Palestinians have had to demand their freedom, sometimes non-violently, at other times violently. In this situation, however, the Israelis have always used overwhelming force to put down any threats from the people they oppress. As King well knew, privileged people rarely give up their privileges voluntarily. And while his focus was on so-called racial differences, surely he would take into account differences of ethnicity and religion, as exist between Jews and Arabs. Regardless of race, religion, or ethnicity, the Israeli occupation comes down to a moral issue.

Why MLK Never Condemned Israel

Even with several opportunities to condemn Israel, prior to his death in 1968, he never did. Martin Kramer, professor at Shalem College in Jerusalem, cites a New York Times article from January 2019 by Michelle Alexander for a discussion of how King would have stood on the subject of Israel and Palestine. Alexander believes that if MLK applied the same principles as he did to U.S. involvement in Vietnam, he would have expressed “his unequivocal opposition to violence, colonialism, racism, and militarism [and] would have made him an incisive critic of Israel’s current policies.”

Some Arab Americans, at least for a while, believed that the Israeli government’s tacit approval of MLK meant something until it didn’t. What follows is one individual’s dismay with the Israeli government’s deception:

Thirty-two years ago this month, I was arrested sitting-in and blocking the entrance of the Israeli Embassy in Washington, DC. The Embassy was hosting an event that evening in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Looking back at what we did that day, I’m confident that it was the right way to remember Dr. King’s legacy.

 

There were a number of concerns that prompted our protest. In the first place, we were in the beginnings of the first Palestinian Intifada – the mass protest movement which witnessed tens of thousands of young Palestinians, armed with nothing more than stones, confronting Israeli military occupation forces. In response to this youth protest and the nationwide Palestinian boycott of Israeli products that accompanied it, then-Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin cracked down using, what he termed, an “Iron Fist.” He imposed crippling curfews, demolished homes, expelled dozens of Palestinians, and ordered his troops to “break the arms” of the protesters “to teach them a lesson.” (James Zogby, Arab American Institute)

A more frank view of Israeli-Palestinian relations is offered by a Pakistani-American professor at U. Davis, California, Ahmad Faruqui. According to him, King “would have asked the US to live by its fundamental values—that all men are created equal—in its foreign as well as its domestic policies. He would have called upon his fellow Americans to value a Palestinian life just as much as they value an Israeli life and to recognize the fundamental injustice of a situation where a thousand Palestinians, mostly children, and teenagers, can be killed in front of the world’s television cameras, and yet the blame for violence can be laid on the door of the Palestinians.”

Image: Would King have seen Israel as a model democracy had he lived longer? (photo printerest.com)

Would King have seen Israel as a model democracy had he lived longer? (photo printerest.com)

Faruqui maintains that MLK would have insisted that the U.S. impose political sanctions on the state of Israel, which denies many people (its occupied populations) basic human rights. King “would have pointed out the futility of using the US veto in the UN Security Council to prevent the policies of this state from being censured when it already stands condemned in the eyes of world opinion.” Faruqui maintains that MLK would have offered to head to the Middle East to mediate a peace deal. Finally, he maintains that King would have wanted to invoke a real peace with one another, and envision the day:

“When both Jews and Palestinian children will be able to hold hands and sing the old spiritual, Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last! Free from our mutual hatred, free from our prejudices, and free from our fears.”

Of course, we all have different expectations of our great moral leaders, including Martin Luther King. We might want to believe he would have exerted his moral leadership in dealing with the Palestine-Israel issue. He did not do that during his lifetime, perhaps because he didn’t have quite the right or sufficient information to make his own interventions. Since he’s gone and we’re not, it’s up to us to join forces with those who support the fairest, most moral and ethical solutions to freeing the occupied Palestinians.

References:

“What MLK Might Say Today about Israel, Palestine and the US,” Eileen Fleming, Salem-News.com, 1/11/2013

Tikah, Advancing Jewish Thought, Mosaic, Martin Kramer, citation of Michelle Alexander, New York Times discussion (1/2018) of how King would have stood on the subject of Israel and Palestine, 3/13/2019

Jacobin, “What MLK Actually thought about Israel and Palestine,” David Palumbo-Liu, 2/10/2019

Subdivision, “Martin Luther King Jr. and the Palestinian dream,” Ahmad Faruqui, 1/20/2020