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Black-Jewish Relations: Martin Luther King & Israel

Dr. Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. was an American clergyman, activist, and prominent leader in the American Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. He was also an outspoken advocate on behalf of Israel’s security and against anti-Semitism, especially among the African-American community. Dr. King famously once told an audience of Jewish listeners at the popular Long Island vacation spot Fire Island, there is virtually no anti-Semitism within the Negro community.


Dr. King on Israel in 1967

Speaking at the annual convention of the Rabbinical Assembly in 1968, Dr. King said:

The response of some of the so-called young militants does not represent the position of the vast majority of Negroes. There are some who are color-consumed, and they see a kind of mystique in blackness or in being colored, and anything non-colored is condemned. We do not follow that course ... 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. Peace for Israel means security, and that security must be a reality.

He is also attributed with having said, “When people criticize Zionists, they mean Jews. You’re talking anti-Semitism,” in response to a student who had attacked Zionism during a dinner event with Dr. King in 1968.

While it remains unclear when the efforts at bringing Dr. King to Israel began, the first evidence of the correspondence is an August 1962 letter from then-Israeli consul in Atlanta, Zeev Dover, to the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C.

In 1966, King planned a pilgrimage to Israel and sent his assistant, Andrew Young, to Israel. and Jordan to do advance planning with officials in both countries. After learning of his plans, Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol sent him a letter on February 7, 1967, formally inviting him to visit. King responded on May 9, saying, “I take these means to express my deep appreciation to you for the invitation you extended to me to come to your wonderful country.” On May 15, King publicly announced his intention to go to Israel.

This would not be King’s first trip to the Holy Land. He had visited the Jordanian side of Jerusalem in 1959. Organizers of the 1967 trip hoped to attract at least 5,000 people to make the pilgrimage to Israel with Dr. King to raise money for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. King planned to preach on the Mount of Olives in what was then Jordanian East Jerusalem (November 14) and then again near Capernaum in Israel (November 16).

Plans were upended by the Six-Day War, which put King in the difficult position of responding to questions about the war and its outcome. Influential friends of Dr. King were determined to push forward with the trip, and exploratory visits to Israel were made by Dr. King’s aides and advisors to assess the situation. When they returned, they brought positive news and told Dr. King that people in Israel were buzzing about his visit.

King held a conference call with his advisors on July 24, 1967, in which he expressed concern about the ramifications of his visiting Israel. He told his confidants:

I’d run into the situation where I’m damned if I say this and I’m damned if I say that no matter what I’d say, and I’ve already faced enough criticism, including pro-Arab. I just think that if I go, the Arab world, and of course Africa and Asia for that matter, would interpret this as endorsing everything that Israel has done, and I do have questions of doubt... Most of it [the pilgrimage] would be Jerusalem, and they [the Israelis] have annexed Jerusalem, and anyway, you say it they don’t plan to give it up... I frankly have to admit that my instincts - and when I follow my instincts, so to speak, I’m usually right - I just think that this would be a great mistake. I don’t think I could come out unscathed.

Following this phone call, he was still debating whether to go, in part out of respect for the people who had put time, energy, and money into planning the trip for him. Soon after, however, he became certain that making the trip would be a bad choice and, in September 1967, wrote to the president of El Al Airlines, Mordechai Ben-Ami, to say he was canceling the visit:

It is with the deepest regret that I cancel my proposed pilgrimage to the Holy Land for this year, but the constant turmoil in the Middle East makes it extremely difficult to conduct a religious pilgrimage free of both political overtones and the fear of danger to the participants.
Actually, I am aware that the danger is almost non-existent, but to the ordinary citizen who seldom goes abroad, the daily headlines of border clashes and propaganda statements produces a fear of danger which is insurmountable on the American scene.

Listed below are a series of letters that document some of the correspondence between Dr. King and members of the Jewish and Israeli leadership who were instrumental in the quest to bring him to Israel during the 1960s:

As the prospect of war in the Middle East became more evident, King and 11 other prominent Christian clergymen issued a statement on May 28, 1967, urging all Americans to “support the independence, integrity and freedom of Israel in the current crisis,” insisting that “men of conscience must not remain silent at this time,” and warning that the Egyptian blockade of the Straits of Tiran “may lead to a major conflagration.”

Sources: Israel State Archives.
I. L. Kenen, Israel's Defense Line, (Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1981), p. 266;
Seymour Martin Lipset, “The Socialism of Fools—The Left, the Jews and Israel,” Encounter, (December 1969), p. 24.
Martin Kramer, Why Martin Luther King never visited Israel, (January 13, 2013).
“Dr. King, Other Prominent U.S. Christian Clergymen Urge Support for Israel,” JTA, (May 29, 1967).
Dr. King Claims There is No Anti-semitism Within the Negro Community, JTA, (September 5, 1967).
A Conversation with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., The Rabbinical Assembly, (March 25, 1968).

Photo: Nobel Foundation, Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.