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Black-Jewish Relations: Martin Luther King & Israel

Dr. Reverand Martin Luther King, Jr. was an American clergyman, activist and prominent leader in the American Civil Rights Movement in the 1960's. 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 our might to protect her right to exist, its territorial integrity and the right to use whatever sea lanes it needs. Israel is 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,"

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.

During 1966 Dr. King's assistant, Andrew Young, visited Israel and Jordan in order to plan a trip to Israel for Dr. King with Israeli government officials. After a few months, in early 1967 the plan to visit the Holy Land was announced by Dr. King at a press conference and reported soon after by national newspapers including The New York Times.  The goal of the trip was not political in nature, and the organizers hoped to attract at least 5,000 people to make the pilgrimage to Israel with Dr. King in order to raise money for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The trip was slated for November, but in mid 1967 The 6 Day War broke out and shook the trip planner's confidence. 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 in order to assess the situation.  When they returned they brought positive news and told Dr. King that people in Israel were buzzing about his visit.  Despite the news of positive response to the prospect of his visit, Dr. King held a conference call with his advisors on July 24 1967 in which he expressed great doubt and concern about the ramifications of himself visiting Israel. Dr. King told his confidants on the phone:

"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 any way 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 decided to still consider going and did not immediately cancel the trip 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 Dr. King penned a letter to the president of El Al Airlines (who were to be handling the flight package) Mordechai Ben-Ami, in which he expressed his apologies but stated that he must cancel the trip.  King wrote to Ben-Ami:

"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 over tones 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 released in 2013 by Israel's State Archives 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:

Sources: Israel State Archives (2013);
I. L. Kenen, Israel's Defense Line, Prometheus Books, Buffalo, NY: 1981, 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 Claims There is No Anti-semitism Within the Negro Community, JTA, (September 5, 1967).