No. 3

The Courage to Disagree

Martin Luther King Jr.’s praise of Israel shouldn’t impede the global demand for a free Palestine.

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Diana Ejaita

On the last day of February, Senator Raphael Warnock called for a cease-fire on the floor of the Senate. In addition to representing the people of Georgia, Warnock serves as senior pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, which was once led by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his father before him. In addressing his colleagues, Warnock described himself as “a Black man who stands in Dr. King’s pulpit.” Drawing again on his connection to the theologian and civil rights leader, Warnock said: “I agree with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who said that ‘Israel’s right to exist as a state in security is incontestable.’ ‘The whole world,’ he said, ‘must see that Israel must exist and has the right to exist.’”

By the time Warnock delivered the speech, Israel had killed more than 30,000 Palestinians in its assault on Gaza that followed Oct. 7. Despite that astonishing death toll, Warnock called for continued military support for Israel and made sure to describe that country as a U.S. ally who “lives in a dangerous neighborhood” and “has a right to defend itself.” If he weren’t a politician, he might have offered a more full-throated denunciation of the Israeli government’s actions. Warnock once joined other Black clergy in signing a letter that compared Israel with apartheid South Africa. But he has since stopped expressing such views publicly and welcomed the endorsement and donations of Zionist lobby groups. It is telling that in his efforts to convince his audience that he has moved away from his previously held position on Israel and Palestine, Warnock has sought to align himself with King.

King is one of the world’s most often referenced moral compasses. His sermons on love and justice inspire people of all backgrounds across generations and borders. Advocates fought for the federal government to recognize his birthday as a national holiday, and cities, schools, and institutions of all kinds now use the day to reflect on his life, promote community service, and honor the causes he supported. In the decades since his assassination, activists, preachers, teachers, and politicians have tried to lay claim to a version of King that reflects their own social and political positions.

Now we are witnessing this same struggle around King’s moral legacy in the context of Gaza. Warnock’s February speech was evidence of this, as was legal scholar Michelle Alexander’s 2019 essay “Time to Break the Silence on Palestine.” Alexander wrote the piece as a political analogy to King’s speech against the United States of America’s war in Vietnam. In it she implores, “If we are to honor King’s message and not merely the man, we must condemn Israel’s actions: unrelenting violations of international law, continued occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza, home demolitions and land confiscations.” Her compelling reassessment of King’s musings on foreign policy birthed new and fierce debates on what King would have said about Israel and Palestine if he had not been assassinated, revealing the magnitude of influence the late Baptist preacher still carries decades after his death. The debates also clarify why King, or any singular figure in historical or contemporary life, should not have the final word on any issue.

King’s views on Israel are clear, pending the release of any FBI documents or recordings that reveal otherwise. In a 1968 interview, King said, “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.” Zionist pundits point to these words as evidence that King supported the state’s ambitions. Palestinian scholar Edward Said has written and spoken about his great admiration for King, but could not forgive him for being “a tremendous Zionist” nor fathom how the civil rights leader failed to empathize with Palestinian refugees. Martin Kramer, a Tel Aviv–based historian, writes that King affirmed support for Israel up until his death and cautions, “There is one word [King] never uttered: ‘Palestinian.’ We will have to get through the present crisis without his specific guidance.”

Despite King’s own words on the topic, some Black scholars have joined Alexander in suggesting that had King lived longer, he would have become more critical of the state of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. Robin D. G. Kelley purports that King considered being more vocally critical of Israel but chose not to, due to false accusations of widespread antisemitism in the Black community and  a decline in funding for his increasingly radical stances. Marc Lamont Hill argues that King — like Marcus Garvey, W. E. B. Du Bois, and other Black leaders — generally viewed nationalism and state building as a form of freedom and protection for marginalized peoples who had suffered tremendous violence. As such, whether King was a Zionist depends on how broadly one defines Zionism. For Hill, no evidence exists of King’s support for the political Zionism that results in the killing, torture, and land theft of Palestinians.

King’s daughter Bernice King, who leads the King Center in Atlanta, has written that if her father were alive today, she is “certain he would call for Israel’s bombing of Palestinians to cease” and for all of the hostages to be released. She and the aforementioned Black scholars all turn to his fierce stances against militarism, racism, and capitalism to understand King as a more complex and radical figure. Could King condemn America’s war against Vietnam in 1967 and still support Israel’s commitment to stealing land and maintaining militaristic borders, checkpoints, and two different legal systems based on ethnic identities? These scholars and activists have responded with a resounding no. They believe King would have made a more strident effort toward a just analysis, even if his ultimate position would have been unpopular.

King may have been earnest in celebrating a “promised land” for Jews escaping persecution in Europe and the United States, yet he was wrong when he painted a picture of Israel as a potential “oasis” transformed out of a desert land. Can there be any true oasis for Jews that is catastrophic to Palestinians and the planet? Since Israel began taking land from Palestinians, the consequences have been deadly for thousands of people and the environment alike. According to the Institute of Middle East Understanding, Israel has destroyed millions of trees since its founding and replaced them with “non-native European species” in order “to hide the ruins of hundreds of Palestinian communities.” This contributed to widespread agriculture and wildlife disruption, food insecurity, flooding, fires, and droughts in the region.

Over the course of centuries, millions of people lived and thrived and suffered on that stretch of land before Zionists created Israel. According to Said, “Palestine is and has always been a land of many histories; it is a radical simplification to think of it as principally or exclusively Jewish or Arab. While the Jewish presence is longstanding, it is by no means the main one”; he added, “Palestine is multicultural, multiethnic, multireligious.” Despite this rich history of cooperation among people who laid claim to the land, King surprisingly referred to a critical role for Western imperial powers in seeking a resolution in the Middle East. When he found himself struggling to balance his relationships with Arab leaders and Zionist Jews, a group of his advisers suggested that he offer the United Nations as a mediator for the Middle East question. He explained in subsequent interviews that the U.S. government, along with the United Nations, Soviet Union, France, and Great Britain could work out security for Israel and “development” for Arabs.

But this group lacked the moral authority to be effective. Great Britain was the former occupier of Palestine. The United States was a white settler colony responsible for the murder of millions of Indigenous people and the enslavement of Africans and their descendants. (King had also acknowledged in a 1967 letter to the American Jewish Committee, “At the heart of the problem are oil interests” for the United States.) France had occupied Algeria for more than a century and, along with Great Britain, resisted several independence movements across Africa. The United Nations recommended the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine, though in doing so it lacked the support of almost all of its African, Asian, and Arab member nations.

King knew he had recommended that colonial, racist regimes broker a deal between Israel and several Arab countries about the fate of Palestinians; he simultaneously condemned these countries for supporting the white apartheid South African government. In a 1965 speech at Hunter College, King said, “When it is realized that Great Britain, France, and other democratic powers also prop up the economy of South Africa … it is proper to wonder how South Africa can so confidently defy the civilized world. The conclusion is inescapable that it is less sure of its own power, but more sure that the great nations will not sacrifice trade and profit to oppose them effectively.” By his own estimation, the white establishment in South Africa punished Black people in South Africa for using nonviolent activism more harshly than the white establishment in Mississippi punished Black people in America for the same efforts toward freedom. He also understood why resistance groups turned to violence as a mechanism to seek liberation, and he supported the international Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement to end apartheid.

That he could condemn these Western imperial powers for propping up apartheid in South Africa while suggesting the same powers offer a solution for Israelis and Palestinians demonstrates the conundrum in which King found himself. In that same 1965 speech, King stated, “For the American Negro there is a special relationship with Africa. It is the land of his origin. … In this period when the American Negro is giving moral leadership and inspiration to his own nation, he must find the resources to aid his suffering brothers in his ancestral homeland.” Perhaps the struggle of the dispossessed Black people in Africa resonated more deeply with King than the plight of Arabs in a region similarly carved up by imperial powers. Or perhaps, as Hill has argued, King celebrated Israel as a model for a new nation where Jews could be free from oppression. Either way, it’s worth noting that Israel was itself a prominent backer of the white South African government. Israel’s military also trained South Africa’s white Riot Police unit in the violent tactics it used to try to stamp out anti-apartheid efforts. King was silent on this topic and failed to extend the tenets of his call for a free South African society to a free Palestine.

Near the end of her essay, Alexander writes that while she does not know if King would have applauded those defending Palestinian liberation, she herself feels a sense of solidarity with and belonging in that group. This orientation is relevant now and always. Beyond what King would have said or done, what do we say and do? How are we affected when we read Palestinian writer and scholar Refaat Alareer’s final poem, “If I Must Die,” which anticipates his death at the hands of Israel? (The IDF bombed Alareer and relatives in a family home on Dec. 7, 2023.) How are we moved when we view the images captured by Motaz Azaiza, the 25-year-old Palestinian photojournalist who has fearlessly documented the suffering in Gaza? Who are we compelled to organize when we encounter the words of Bisan Owda,  June Jordan, Rashid Khalidi, Leila Khaled, or Said? What sorrows are uncovered in our own hearts when we hear of the elderly Palestinian woman who carries her  keys to the home she lived in before Israeli settlers illegally evicted her 50 years ago?

Perhaps the question is not whether King would stand on the side of Israelis or Palestinians today, but rather how can we answer these questions in a way that inspires us to act? In our current context, King might criticize the state of Israel after it has killed more than 30,000 Palestinians, bombed hospitals and universities, shot animals, and sniped civilians seeking water and food. More important, if he did not, then he would be wrong, and we would have to challenge him. Students and young adults at Warnock’s church showed this type of bravery several days after his February speech on the Senate floor. As Warnock began his Sunday morning sermon, protesters stood and removed their outer clothing to reveal black T-shirts that read, “Stop Arming Israel.” They turned their backs to the preacher they loved and had supported in his bid for Congress. Then they filed out of the church sanctuary, one by one. With their action, these young people displayed organizing tactics, strategy, a commitment to humanity, and the moral courage to publicly disagree with those who use their power to further violence in the world. They drew from the best of what King offers us today.

Derecka Purnell is a human rights lawyer, writer, and author of Becoming Abolitionists: Police, Protests, and the Pursuit of Freedom. She works to end police and prison violence by providing legal assistance, research, and training in community-based organizations through an abolitionist framework. She is currently a columnist at The Guardian and a Scholar-in-Residence at Columbia Law School.

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