Martin Luther King Jr.’s special bond with Israel by John Lewis
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. understood the meaning of discrimination and oppression. He sought ways to achieve liberation and peace, and he thus understood that a special relationship exists between African Americans and American Jews. This message was true in his time and is true today. He knew that both peoples were uprooted involuntarily from their homelands. He knew that both peoples were shaped ghettoes, victims of segregation. He knew that both peoples were subject to laws passed with the particular intent of oppressing them simply because they were Jewish or black. He knew that both peoples have been subjected to oppression and genocide on a level unprecedented in history.
King understood how important it is not to stand by in the face of injustice. He understood the cry, “Let my people go.” Long before the plight of the Jews in the Soviet Union was on the front pages, he raised his voice. “I cannot stand idly by, even though I happen to live in the United States and even though I happen to be an American Negro and not be concerned about what happens to the Jews in Soviet Russia. For what happens to them happens to me and you, and we must be concerned.”
During his lifetime King witnessed the birth of Israel and the continuing struggle to build a nation. He consistently reiterated his stand on the Israeli-Arab conflict, stating “Israel’s right to exist as a state in security is uncontestable.” It was no accident that King emphasized “security” in his statements on the Middle East. On March 25, 1968, less than two weeks before his tragic death, he spoke out with clarity and directness stating, “peace for Israel means security, and we must stand with all our might to protect its right to exist, its territorial integrity. I see Israel as one of the great outposts of democracy in the world, and a marvelous example of what can be done, how desert land can be transformed into an oasis of brotherhood and democracy. Peace for Israel means security and that security must be a reality.”
During the recent U.N. Conference on Racism held in Durban, South Africa, we were all shocked by the attacks on Jews, Israel and Zionism. The United States of America stood up against these vicious attacks. Once again, the words of King ran through my memory, “I solemnly pledge to do my utmost to uphold the fair name of the Jews-because bigotry in any form is an affront to us all.” During an appearance at Harvard University shortly before his death, a student stood up and asked King to address himself to the issue of Zionism. The question was clearly hostile. King responded, “When people criticize Zionists they mean Jews, you are talking anti-Semitism.”
King taught us many lessons. As turbulence continues to grip the Middle East, his words should continue to serve as our guide. I am convinced that were he alive today he would speak clearly calling for an end to the violence between Israelis and Arabs. He would call upon his fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner, Yasser Arafat, to fulfill the dream of peace and do all that is within his power to stop theviolence. He would urge continuing negotiations to reduce tensions and bring about the first steps toward genuine peace.
King had a dream of an “oasis of brotherhood and democracy” in the Middle East. As we celebrate his life and legacy, let us work for the day when Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Muslims, will be able to sit in peace “under his vine and fig tree and none shall make him afraid.”
U.S. Rep. John Lewis, a Democrat, represents the 5th Congressional District of Georgia and worked closely with Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights movement.