Rarely am I considered insufficiently cynical. As someone who does anti-racism work for a living, and thus hears all manner of excuse-making by those who wish desperately to avoid being considered racist, not much surprises me. I expect people to lie about race; to tell me how many black friends they have; to swear they haven’t a racist bone in their bodies. And every January, with the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday just around the corner, I have come to expect someone to misuse the good doctor’s words so as to push an agenda he would not likely have supported. As such, I long ago resigned myself to the annual gaggle of fools who deign to use King’s “content of their character” line from the 1963 March on Washington so as to attack affirmative action, ostensibly because King preferred simple “color-blindness.”
That King actually supported the efforts that we now call affirmative action—and even billions in reparations for slavery and segregation—as I’ve documented in a previous column, matters not to these folks. They’ve never read King’s work, and they’ve only paid attention to one news clip from one speech, so what more can we expect from such precious simpletons as these? And yet, even with my cynic’s credentials established, the one thing I never expected anyone to do would be to just make up a quote from King; a quote that he simply never said, and claim that it came from a letter that he never wrote, and was published in a collection of his essays that never existed. Frankly, this level of deception is something special. The hoax of which I speak is one currently making the rounds on the Internet, which claims to prove King’s steadfast support for Zionism. Indeed, it does more than that.
In the item, entitled “Letter to an Anti-Zionist Friend,” King proclaims that criticism of Zionism is tantamount to anti-Semitism, and likens those who criticize Jewish nationalism as manifested in Israel, to those who would seek to trample the rights of blacks. Heady stuff indeed, and 100% bullshit, as any amateur fact checker could ascertain were they so inclined. But of course, the kinds of folks who push an ideology that required the expulsion of three-quarters-of-a-million Palestinians from their lands, and then lied about it, claiming there had been no such persons to begin with (as with Golda Meir’s infamous quip), can’t be expected to place a very high premium on truth. I learned this the hard way recently, when the Des Moines Jewish Federation succeeded in getting me yanked from the city’s MLK day events: two speeches I had been scheduled to give on behalf of the National Conference of Community and Justice (NCCJ).
Because of my criticisms of Israel—and because I as a Jew am on record opposing Zionism philosophically—the Des Moines shtetl decided I was unfit to speak at an MLK event. After sending the supposed King quote around, and threatening to pull out all monies from the Jewish community for future NCCJ events, I was dropped. The attack of course was based on a distortion of my own beliefs as well. Federation principal Mark Finkelstein claimed I had shown a disregard for the well-being of Jews, despite the fact that my argument has long been that Zionism in practice has made world Jewry less safe than ever. But it was his duplicity on King’s views that was most disturbing. Though Finkelstein only recited one line from King’s supposed “letter” on Zionism, he lifted it from the larger letter, which appears to have originated with Rabbi Marc Schneier, who quotes from it in his 1999 book, “Shared Dreams: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Jewish Community.” Therein, one finds such over-the-top rhetoric as this:
“I say, let the truth ring forth from the high mountain tops, let it echo through the valleys of God’s green earth: When people criticize Zionism, they mean Jews—this is God’s own truth.” The letter also was filled with grammatical errors that any halfway literate reader of King’s work should have known disqualified him from being its author, to wit: “Anti-Zionist is inherently anti Semitic, and ever will be so.”
The treatise, it is claimed, was published on page 76 of the August, 1967 edition of Saturday Review, and supposedly can also be read in the collection of King’s work entitled, This I Believe: Selections from the Writings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. That the claimants never mention the publisher of this collection should have been a clear tip-off that it might not be genuine, and indeed it isn’t. The book doesn’t exist. As for Saturday Review, there were four issues in August of 1967. Two of the four editions contained a page 76. One of the pages 76 contains classified ads and the other contained a review of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s album. No King letter anywhere.
Yet its lack of authenticity hasn’t prevented it from having a long shelf-life. Not only does it pop up in the Schneier book, but sections of it were read by the Anti-Defamation League’s Michael Salberg in testimony before a House Subcommittee in July of 2001, and all manner of pro-Israel groups (from traditional Zionists to right-wing Likudites, to Christians who support ingathering Jews to Israel so as to prompt Jesus’ return), have used the piece on their websites.
In truth, King appears never to have made any public comment about Zionism per se; and the only known statement he ever made on the topic, made privately to a handful of people, is a far cry from what he is purported to have said in the so-called “Letter to an Anti-Zionist friend.” In 1968, according to Seymour Martin Lipset, King was in Boston and attended a dinner in Cambridge along with Lipset himself and a number of black students. After the dinner, a young man apparently made a fairly harsh remark attacking Zionists as people, to which King responded: “Don’t talk like that. When people criticize Zionists, they mean Jews. You’re talking Anti-Semitism.” Assuming this quote to be genuine, it is still far from the ideological endorsement of Zionism as theory or practice that was evidenced in the phony letter.
After all, to respond to a harsh statement about individuals who are Zionists with the warning that such language is usually a cover for anti-Jewish bias is understandable. More than that, the comment was no doubt true for most, especially in 1968. It is a statement of opinion as to what people are thinking when they say a certain thing. It is not a statement as to the inherent validity or perfidy of a worldview or its effects.
Likewise, consider the following analogous dualism: first, that “opposition to welfare programs is forever racism,” and secondly, that “when people criticize welfare recipients, they mean blacks. This is racism.”
Whereas the latter statement may be true—and studies would tend to suggest that it is—the former is a matter of ideological conviction, largely untestable, and thus more tendentious than its counterpart. In any event, as with the King quotes—both fabricated and genuine—the truth of the latter says nothing about the truth or falsity of the former.
So yes, King was quick to admonish one person who expressed hostility to Zionists as people. But he did not claim that opposition to Zionism was inherently anti-Semitic. And for those who criticize Zionism today and who like me are Jewish, to believe that we mean to attack Jews, as Jews, when we speak out against Israel and Zionism is absurd.
As for King’s public position on Israel, it was quite limited and hardly formed a cornerstone of his worldview. In a meeting with Jewish leaders a few weeks before his death, King noted that peace for Israelis and Arabs were both important concerns. According to King, “peace for Israel means security, and we must stand with all our might to protect its right to exist, its territorial integrity.”
But such a statement says nothing about how Israel should be constituted, nor addresses the Palestinians at all, whose lives and challenges were hardly on the world’s radar screen in 1968.
At the time, Israel’s concern was hostility from Egypt; and of course all would agree that any nation has the right not to be attacked by a neighbor. The U.S. had a right not to be attacked by the Soviet Union too—as King would have no doubt agreed, thereby affirming the United States’ right to exist. But would anyone claim that such a sentiment would have implied the right of the U.S. to exist as it did, say in 1957 or 1961, under segregation? Of course not.
So too Israel. Its right to exist in the sense of not being violently destroyed by hostile forces does not mean the right to exist as a Jewish state per se, as opposed to the state of all its citizens. It does not mean the right to laws granting special privileges to Jews from around the world, over indigenous Arabs.
It should also be noted that in the same paragraph where King reiterated his support for Israel’s right to exist, he also proclaimed the importance of massive public assistance to Middle Eastern Arabs, in the form of a Marshall Plan, so as to counter the poverty and desperation that often leads to hostility and violence towards Israeli Jews.
This part of King’s position is typically ignored by the organized Jewish community, of course, even though it was just as important to King as Israel’s territorial integrity.
As for what King would say today about Israel, Zionism, and the Palestinian struggle, one can only speculate.
After all, he died before the full tragedy of the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza would be able to unfold.
He died before the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel; before the invasion of Lebanon and the massacres at Sabra and Shatilla; before the 1980’s intifada; before Israel decided to serve as a proxy for U.S. foreign policy—funneling weapons to fascist governments in South Africa, Argentina and Guatemala, or helping to arm terrorist thugs in Mozambique and the contras in Nicaragua.
He died before the proliferation of illegal settlements throughout the territories; before the rash of suicide/homicide bombings; before the polls showing that nearly half of Israeli Jews support removing Palestinians via “transfer” to neighboring countries.
But one thing is for sure. While King would no doubt roundly condemn Palestinian violence against innocent civilians, he would also condemn the state violence of Israel.
He would condemn launching missile attacks against entire neighborhoods in order to flush out a handful of wanted terrorists.
He would oppose the handing out of machine guns to religious fanatics from Brooklyn who move to the territories and proclaim their God-given right to the land, and the right to run Arabs out of their neighborhoods, or fence them off, or discriminate against them in a multitude of ways.
He would oppose the unequal rationing of water resources between Jews and Arabs that is Israeli policy.
He would oppose the degrading checkpoints through which Palestinian workers must pass to get to their jobs, or back to their homes after a long day of work.
He would oppose the policy which allows IDF officers to shoot children throwing rocks, as young as age twelve.
In other words, he would likely criticize the working out of Zionism on the ground, as it has actually developed in the real world, as opposed to the world of theory and speculation.
These things seem imminently clear from any honest reading of his work or examination of his life. He would be a broker for peace. And it is a tragedy that instead of King himself, we are burdened with charlatans like those at the ADL, or the Des Moines Jewish Federation, or Rabbis like Marc Schneier who think nothing of speaking for the genuine article, in a voice not his own.
Tim Wise is an antiracist activist, writer and lecturer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article was first published on Znet on 20 January 2003.