Analysis

Was MLK Jr. a Zionist?

Was MLK Jr. a Zionist?
King with Jews

Martin Luther King Jr. with his friend, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.

Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a federal holiday in the United States. Plenty has been written about his philandering, the FBI memos uncovered and written about by King biographer David Garrow last year, and his communist connections. Most everyone has probably heard about these things and the FBI memos are viewed with skepticism, understandably so. Smears, misinformation, and whispering campaigns are all tactics that the FBI is known to use against political dissidents. Maybe we’ll know more when the wiretaps are released in 2027, but until then, you either believe the memos or you don’t.

One thing that has a bit more relevance to the ‘now’, and maybe hasn’t been written about to death like the topics above, are King’s thoughts and attitude towards Zionism. Was he a Zionist or was he not? What would he make of the present-day Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

One thing that I quickly discovered when looking into this is that everyone has their own ideas about this depending on their own position on the issue. The left likes to imagine that King would view Israel of today as a brutal apartheid state. Maybe he would. The truth is, we have no way of knowing; we can only speculate. So what tangible evidence is out there that can shed some light on this question? Let’s take a look.

“When people criticize Zionists, they mean Jews. You are talking anti-Semitism.”

These words, attributed to King, are often used by Jews and supporters of Israel to claim that he was an ardent supporter of the Zionist project and viewed it as being intertwined with the larger civil rights movement. Pinning down the original source of these words proves difficult, however. This source was long thought to be a letter called ‘Letter to a Anti-Zionist Friend’ first appearing in a book called Shared Dreams, by Rabbi Marc Shneier. These words became rather famous and the ‘letter’ was widely circulated. 

In 2002, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis published the results of an investigation that sought to verify the authenticity of the letter. CAMERA initially had questions about the letter’s authenticity because, to them, the first paragraph seemed like a “parody” of King’s famous “I have a dream” speech. Although Martin Luther King III had written a preface for Rabbi Shneier’s book, seemingly an endorsement by the King family, they continued their investigation into the letter. In his book, Shneier indicated that the letter had originally been published in the August 1967 issue of Saturday Review. Interestingly, CAMERA discovered that Michael Salberg of the Anti-Defamation league had cited both the letter and its alleged source on July 31, 2001, in his testimony before the House of Representative’s International Relations Committee’s Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights.

When CAMERA examined the issue of Saturday Review said to contain the letter, they found that there was no mention of it. Not only that, but the letter didn’t appear in any of the August issues of that publication. The page and volume numbers cited in Rabbi Shneier’s book don’t even conform to the to those used by Saturday Review. A check with the archivists at Boston University, where King’s work is archived, also failed to produce the letter. It seems likely if not certain that the letter Rabbi Shneier placed in his book was fake. However, there are other sources that attribute the famous condemnation of anti-Zionism within the unverifiable letter to King.

On January 21, 2002, the San Francisco Chronicle published an op-ed by Congressman John Lewis in which he gives a different account of the origin of the words. He writes the following:

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.”

An article by Harvard professor Seymour Martin Lipset seems to give another account of the same incident described by Congressman Lewis in his op-ed. The article appeared in a 1969 issue of Encounter magazine. Here is Lipset’s description:

He wanted to find what the Negro students at Harvard and other parts of the Boston area were thinking about various issues, and he very subtly cross-examined them for well over an hour and a half. He asked questions, and said very little himself. One of the young men present happened to make some remark against the Zionists. Dr. King snapped at him and said, “Don’t talk like that!  When people criticize Zionists, they mean Jews. You’re talking Antisemitism!”

There are still problems, though. Neither Lewis or Lipset give an exact date for this incident. Also, Lewis says the incident happened at Harvard University while Lipset just says that it happened in Cambridge. Did King really say that anti-Zionism is equivalent to antisemitism? We will likely never know for sure, but it certainly seems possible if you take other comments by King into consideration, as we will see.

Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Perhaps the best way to get a sense of King’s thoughts on Zionism and Israel is to examine his comments on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Martin Kramer takes a close look at this in his book, The War on Error: Israel, Islam, and the Middle East.

Early in the chapter, he provides the following words, written by King:

Israel’s right to exist as a state in security is incontestable.

And:

The whole world must see that Israel must exist and has the right to exist, and is one of the great outposts of democracy in the world.

This seems like definitive proof that King was a supporter of the Zionist Project, right? Well, not so fast. It is much more complicated.

On July 4, 1967, the eve of the Six-Day War, the New York Times published a statement by well-known Christian theologians, including King, called The Moral Responsibility in the Middle East. The statement reads, in part:

The Middle East has been an area of tension due to the threat of continuing terrorist attacks, as well as the recent Arab military mobi-lization along Israel’s borders. Let us recall that Israel is a new nation whose people are still recovering from the horror and decimation of the European holocaust.

And:

We call on our fellow Americans of all persuasions and groupings and on the administration to support the independence, integrity, and freedom of Israel. Men of conscience all over the world bear a moral responsibility to support Israel’s right of passage through the Straits of Tiran.

King received heavy criticism for signing the statement. Some felt he was abandoning pacifism to make a call for American intervention in the conflict, particularly damning considering his role in opposing the Vietnam War. He was also accused of ignoring the claims of the Arabs at a time when younger black radicals supported the Palestinians. In particular, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

FBI wiretaps of Stanley Levison, a Jewish close advisor of King that was being surveilled by the federal government due to his history with Communist Party USA, caught King saying the following on July 6th:

Did you see the ad in the New York Times Sunday? This was the ad they got me to sign with Bennett, etc. I really hadn’t seen the statement. I felt after seeing it, it was a little unbalanced and it is pro-Israel. It put us in the position almost of setting the turning-hawks on the Middle East while being doves in Vietnam and I wouldn’t have given a statement like that at all.

On July 8th, King was heard saying the following:

The statement I signed in the N.Y. Times as you know was agreed with by a lot of people in the Jewish community. But there was those in the negro community [who] have been disappointed. SNCC for one has been very critical. The problem was that the N.Y. Times played it up as a total endorsement of Israel. What they printed up wasn’t the complete text, even the introduction wasn’t the text. I can’t back up on the statement now, my problem is whether I should make another statement, or maybe I could just avoid making a statement. I don’t want to make a statement that backs up on me; that wouldn’t be good. Well, what do you think?

Clearly, King held serious regrets concerning the statement that he signed. His advisors urged him to avoid the subject aside from calling for an end to the fighting and referring to the role of the U.N. King did so, but then began to receive backlash from the Jewish community in the United States and supporters of Israel.

On June 18th, King appeared on ABC’s Issues and Answers and said the following when asked about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict:

Well, I think these guarantees should all be worked out by the United Nations. I would hope that all of the nations, and particularly the Soviet Union and the United States, and I would say France and Great Britain, these four powers can really determine how that situation is going. I think the Israelis will have to have access to the Gulf of Aqaba. I mean the very survival of Israel may well depend on access to not only the Suez Canal, but the Gulf and the Strait of Tiran. These things are very important. But I think for the ultimate peace and security of the situation it will probably be necessary for Israel to give up this conquered territory because to hold on to it will only exacerbate the tensions and deepen the bitterness of the Arabs.

The final sentence is telling. King was caught in the middle on the Israeli-Palestine issue, trying to navigate it as best as he could. His signing the July 4th statement and the reaction it created plus the backlash he received when he began to back away from the topic greatly limited the scope of what he could say moving forward. The only real path forward was avoidance in the hopes that hostilities would cease and the whole thing would blow over.

King’s ill-fated plan to visit Israel also illustrates this.

The plan was for King and Sandy Ray, a baptist pastor from Brooklyn, to lead a “Holy Land pilgrimage” in late 1966. King’s assistant, Andrew Young, traveled overseas to meet with government authorities in both Israel and Jordon. Both governments were enthusiastic about the trip and the Israeli and Jordanian prime ministers sent invitations to King as did the Israeli and Jordanian mayors of divided Jerusalem.

On May 16th, 1967, King held a press conference to announce the plan to the public and on the 17th, the New York Times reported on it. The goal was to raise revenue for King’s organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC). It was important to King that the trip had no political undertones and that he strike the right balance between Israel and Jordan when in Jerusalem.

However, the Six-Day War threw those plans into question. Ray was still enthusiastic about the pilgrimage and wished to continue forward with the plan, but King had serious doubts. He was already facing criticism for being pro-Israel by those in the movement that sympathized with the Arabs and he learned that the Arabs themselves felt that King had put his support behind Israel from a Lebanese journalist.

In a conference call with his advisors on July 24th, 1967, King stated his concern over the criticism he had received after announcing the trip, saying:

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.

He also realized that Jerusalem would be a difficult location to visit without appearing take a pro-Israel position. His advisors suggested that he also visit one of the Arab countries, possibly Egypt, but King ultimately decided not to make the trip. In September of 1967, he wrote the president of the Israeli airline that would handle part of the voyage, stating:

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.

King never did visit Israel in his remaining years.

In 1967, shortly after the start of the Six-Day War, King answered the concerns of Adolph Held, then president of the Jewish Labor Committee, who contacted King after King had given opening remarks at a conference in which resolutions in support of the Arab powers were considered. King answered Held by writing:

I would have made it crystal clear that I could not have supported any resolution calling for black separatism or calling for a condemnation of Israel and an unqualified endorsement of the policy of the Arab powers. Israel’s right to exist as a state is incontestable. At the same time the great powers have the obligation to recognize that the Arab world is in a state of imposed poverty and backwardness that must threaten peace and harmony.

And:

The solution will have to be found in statesmanship by Israel and progressive Arab forces who in concert with the great powers recognize fair and peaceful solutions are the concern of all humanity and must be found.

While King seemed to be walking somewhat of a tightrope in the words above, in 1968 he gave a speech to the Rabbinical Assembly in which he seemed to take a more pro-Israel tack, saying the following:

[P]eace 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.

In Conclusion

While I think it is clear that King viewed Jews as allies in the struggle, his opinion on Israel and Zionism is hard to pin down. As we’ve seen, a large part of this could be deliberate on King’s part. He was forced to strike a balance to keep his coalition together and stay on good terms with radical young blacks that supported the Arab position while trying to maintain his friendly relationship with the Jewish community in the United States. I think he had doubts and concerns when it came to some of the actions of Israel, based on what we’ve seen.

The question still remains as to what King’s stance would be today. Personally, I think the left is probably correct and King’s views on Israel and Zionism would be in line with those of Black Lives Matter today.

However, I think the question itself is misleading. Things were different during King’s time. There wasn’t a constant deluge of images of dead children and the horrors Israel unleashes on the Palestinian people regularly. It was easier for King to see Jews as natural allies in his endeavors. Ultimately, we will likely never know for sure, but that won’t stop Zionists from claiming King as one of their own.