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:
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 6-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 however, 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 himself visiting Israel. He told his confidants:
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:
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 1960’s:
- February 27, 1963: Ben-Zion Ilan (Histadrut Representative in the United States) to Martin Luther King Jr. [PDF]
- March 20, 1965: Avraham Harman (Israeli Ambassador to the US) to Martin Luther King Jr. [PDF]
- June 2, 1965: Irving Engel (Honorary President, American Jewish Committee) to Martin Luther King, Jr. [PDF]
- July 12, 1965: Martin Luther King, Jr. to Irving Engel. [PDF]
- July 27, 1965: Avraham Harman to Moshe Bitan (Director of the U.S. Division, Jerusalem). [PDF]
- July 28, 1965: Irving Engel to Avraham Harman. [PDF]
- August 2, 1965: Irving Engel to Martin Luther King, Jr. [PDF]
- May 17, 1966: Martin Luther King Jr. to Abraham Harman. [PDF]
- February 7, 1967: Levi Eshkol invitation to King to visit Israel.
- May 9, 1967: Martin Luther King Jr. to Levi Eshkol. [PDF]
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.
Why Martin Luther King never visited Israel, (January 13, 2013).
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.