Martin Luther King's Legacy and Israel's Future: Stepping Beyond Fear

Every year, apologists for Israel's occupation of
Palestine eagerly await Martin Luther King Day. Then they trot out
these words, spoken by Dr. King shortly before his death: "When people criticize Zionists they mean Jews; you are talking anti-Semitism."

Every year, apologists for Israel's occupation of
Palestine eagerly await Martin Luther King Day. Then they trot out
these words, spoken by Dr. King shortly before his death: "When people criticize Zionists they mean Jews; you are talking anti-Semitism."

King, who repeated the themes that really mattered to him --
justice, freedom, human dignity, nonviolence -- over and over again,
mentioned anti-Semitism only once, in an informal question-and-answer
session. Nobody asked him what he meant, and he never explained. (A
lengthy letter of "his" expounding on the theme has been proven
a hoax.) Yet, year after year, Israel's apologists rush to use those
once-spoken words as the capstone for a line of reasoning which goes
something like this:

Israel uses violence in the "disputed territories" to
protect its own security. If you criticize that violence, you don't
care about Israel's security; so you don't care if Israel ceases to
exist; so you are against Zionism. And Martin Luther King himself said
that that's anti-Semitism. In other words, only anti-Semites oppose
Israel's occupation policies.

Of course it's perverse. It's hard to imagine King ever endorsing
such an illogical justification -- or any justification -- for the
violent abrogation of a whole people's freedom and dignity.

Still, it bothers me that the great man actually did, even once, say
that anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism. How could someone whose
intellectual rigor I admire make such an error in reasoning, one that
could easily be used, even while he was still alive, to rationalize
Israel's occupation of Palestinian lands?

Yes, some people who criticize Zionism are anti-Semitic. But
millions of Jews themselves opposed Zionism, especially in its early
years. Jews have developed some of the most trenchant critiques of
Zionism precisely because they loved their own people and saw Zionism
as a threat to Judaism and Jewish values.

I don't happen to agree with them. I respect Zionism as a movement
of national self-determination. (If we accord that right to the
Palestinians and every other national group, why not to the Jews?) But
I'm one of many Zionists who have objected vigorously as Israel
swallowed up the Occupied Territories, because in the long run military
occupation is bound to increase the threat to Jews and, no less
important, to Jewish values. Although King associated us with
anti-Semitism only indirectly and unwittingly, his words have done us a
disservice, too.

There's no way that I, or any of the Jewish critics of Israel --
Zionist or not -- could be called anti-Semitic. Many non-Jews, driven
by moral and intellectual concerns, have added to the thoughtful
critiques of Zionism with no tinge of anti-Semitism in their words.

How could MLK not know any of this? He certainly wasn't naive or
uninformed about foreign affairs. For years, he had been eloquently
praising the rising tide of colonized people who were demanding
self-determination. And when he finally decided it was "a time to break silence" and voice his opposition to the U.S. war in Vietnam, he showed how well he could master the facts of a foreign conflict.

Though much of that 1967 speech was an eloquent denunciation of
military violence in general, and especially that practiced by his own
government ("the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today"), a
significant part of it was a detailed recounting of Vietnamese history,
an explanation of how the war must have looked to the Vietnamese
people. Few of us protesting the war back then knew nearly as much
about what was happening or could have explained so lucidly just why
the war was wrong in political as well as moral terms.

How a man who could get it so right on Vietnam could get it so wrong on anti-Zionism remains a mystery.

King, Zionism, and the Cycle of Fear

If, however, we leave aside King's offhand comment about
anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, and consider instead his words about
the horrors of American state violence and violence in general, which
reflected his most deeply held values, we can see Israel's state
violence in a new light that illuminates the deep, often unnoticed
links between violence and irrational fear.

When he broke his silence on Vietnam, King denounced the "morbid
fear of communism" that had turned Western nations into "arch
anti-revolutionaries," willing to "adjust to injustice." "Our only hope
today," he preached, "lies in our ability to recapture the
revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world
declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism."

That, as he had learned from Gandhi and taught to millions, would
require a spirit of love strenuously applied to overcome fear. King had
read Gandhi; he had also visited India and spoken with many ardent
Gandhians. So he grasped the spirit of these words the Mahatma wrote:
"Fear and love are contradictory terms." "In order to be fearless we
should love all and adhere to the path of truth."

King agreed with Gandhi that fear was a crucial source of evil. "There is one evil," he said,
"that is worse than violence, and that's cowardice." He also understood
the Mahatma's view that fear was the opposite of love, the opposite of
nonviolence, and so often itself the source of violence. By the last
night of his life, he had embraced this Gandhian philosophy almost
ecstatically. After prophesying his own death, he famously concluded: "So I'm happy, tonight.I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man!"

King had lived surrounded by whites who were moved to violence by
irrational fears of people of color. He dedicated his life to
overcoming his own fear so that, through love, he could overcome the
fears of his oppressors. In 1967, he finally overcame his fear of
harming the civil rights movement and bravely denounced America's war
in Vietnam, which was motivated (as he saw it) by an irrational fear of

King's blind spot (and even the greatest people have them) was in
not recognizing that Israel's violence against Palestinians, too, was
-- and still is -- similarly motivated by irrational fear. One of the
great tragedies of Zionism has, in fact, been its striking inability to
escape the fear that gave it birth
-- a fear well justified in late nineteenth century Europe, Zionism's
birthplace, at a time when anti-Semitism was indeed rampant. Today,
however, with the Jewish state possessing massively preponderant
military power in the Middle East, it no longer makes sense to base
Jewish identity on fear, to imagine anti-Semitism lurking behind every
well-meaning critique of Israeli policy.

Those of us who follow the path of the great Jewish philosopher and
dissident Zionist Martin Buber, who still believe Zionism can in
principle be moral, see fear as not merely unjustified but destructive
and self-destructive. It fosters policies that only lock Israelis as
well as Palestinians into an endless cycle of insecurity.

King apparently never recognized (or at least never said publicly)
that fear, not anti-Zionism, was the true threat to the Jewish people.
It's hard to blame him. He was far too busy with more immediate
concerns to spend much time studying the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Israel's Fear

If a man as fearlessly committed to truth as MLK could make such a
mistake, how much more easily can other Americans, including American
presidents, fall prey to the same mistake. The current president has
made a huge mistake in dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Now he finds himself hostage to a tragic cycle of fear.

At first, Obama came out swinging against Israeli policy like no
president since Dwight D. Eisenhower. Soon after taking office, he
insisted (according to his Secretary of State) on a total, permanent halt to the expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.

It was a sensible step. Settlement expansion is rapidly shrinking
the size of a future Palestine to a point where a viable state will be
impossible. Without a viable Palestinian state, the Middle East
cauldron will continue to boil, generating anger and tensions that
threaten not only the security of the region, but U.S. security
interests as well. That's why a total settlement freeze is still
supported by some factions in the administration.

But Obama and his advisors apparently underestimated the pushback
they would get from Israeli leaders who always have their eyes on their
own political futures. No one can say what Israeli Prime Minister
Benjamin Netanyahu and his cabinet members really believe, but it's
easy to see the political points they score by pushing the panic button
over the so-called "dangers" of giving in to Obama's demands. All
they have to do is raise ever-present fears of Jewish weakness and
victimization, as Defense Minister Ehud Barak did when he complained
that with the Obama administration "focusing solely on settlement
building ... Israel felt that it was being driven to its knees and
delivered to the other side."

As Henry Siegman, former head of the American Jewish Congress, wrote in the New York Times,
Netanyahu's message that "the whole world is against Israel and that
Israelis are at risk of another Holocaust... is unfortunately still a
more comforting message for too many Israelis." Siegman observed
that this fear (which he called "pathological") "is invoked most
frequently by Israelis themselves. The term for it in Israel is a 'galut
[diaspora] mentality,' the tendency of diaspora Jewry to see itself as
friendless, isolated, and always at the edge of a looming pogrom."

It's a mentality long rooted in Zionism, and now growing in Israel, where Ha'aretz columnist Bradley Burston notes
"a new Israeli approach which borrows from the very worst of our aging
instincts. It says: We're moral, our enemies are out to exterminate us
along with our state, that's all you need to know... Concede nothing...
Give no ground. Ever."

Another Israeli pundit brought the issue directly back to King's
insight about the link between violence and fear. Doron Rosenblum described
Netanyahu and Barak as representing "two outstanding traits of
Israeliness: aggressiveness and paranoia... They reflect two sides of the
same coin -- the fear of being considered weak and, the only thing
that's worse, being considered naive."

A year ago, two Israeli researchers released a study
with numbers to back up these impressions. They found that Israeli Jews
are generally moved more by fear than anything else in viewing their
conflict with the Palestinians. That leads them to "a selective and
distorted processing of information aimed at preserving

Obama Held Hostage to Fear?

Here in the U.S., Jews working to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli
conflict via a just peace also see fear as a great obstacle. Jeremy
Ben-Ami, executive director of the pro-Israel, pro-peace lobby J Street
(who has his own roots deep in Israeli life) feels fear is the biggest
factor holding back the Jewish state when it comes to making a genuine
peace. Yes, Israelis need security guarantees they can believe in,
says Ben-Ami, meaningful guarantees that if they give up land they will
get peace.

The only way to get such assurances, though, would be through
good-faith negotiations. And only strong and active American leadership
in the diplomatic process can make those negotiations happen. That's
why J Street and a number of other Jewish-American groups supported
Obama's call for an immediate and total freeze on settlement
construction as a first step toward peace talks.

But they face stiff opposition from American Jews still stuck in what J Street Policy Director Hadar Susskind calls
"the Israel closet." Torn between thought and feeling, they remain
locked into the fear they grew up with, he says. "Their heads support a
strong American role in helping Israel make peace with its neighbors,
but their kishkes [guts] are uncomfortable with the idea of anyone 'telling Israel what to do.'"

Worried that Jews will look weak and pushed around, some of the
biggest U.S. Jewish organizations denounced Obama's demands on Israel.
They found allies among Christian Zionists (whose influence on U.S.
Middle East policy is often underrated) and, very likely, factions in
the U.S. government (mostly military and intelligence) who want to
placate the Israelis for their own pragmatic purposes as they try to
contain the terrors of "terrorism."

Yielding to their collective pressure, Obama backed off his stern
demand, letting the Israelis off with only a promised temporary halt to
just some expansion. Since he offered no cogent explanation for this
retreat, he's left us free to speculate on the political scare he got
from that inside-the-beltway coalition.

It is at least likely that the president and his advisers feared the
coalition's clout as they endured a long, hot summer of attacks on
their health-care reform, the one fight the administration feels it has
to win. Whatever the reasons may be, Obama consigned the prospect of
real peace negotiations in the Middle East to defeat, at least

If the administration sticks to its current cautious line, it will
go on holding itself -- and Middle East peace -- hostage to the
irrational fears of others. Israelis and Americans need a lasting peace
to enhance their security. Palestinians desperately need a lasting
peace simply to escape their daily suffering. Yet all are trapped in
the synergy of mutually reinforcing fears.

Breaking Free

The situation is, however, not hopeless. Not yet, anyway. If the
administration's political fears can be eased, it may still find its
backbone on the Israel-Palestine issue. And one pivotal group could
swing the balance: the U.S. Jewish community.

Just as King found the courage he needed back in 1967 when it was
"time to break silence" on a terrible war, more and more Jews are
breaking the silence that has ruled the American Jewish community when
it comes to Israel's share of responsibility for the continuing
conflict. J Street is only the most prominent
among the many recent American Jewish voices for peace. They are all
joining a movement that's growing far faster than anyone could have
imagined only a few years ago.

J Street's Susskind sums up that movement -- and sounds a lot like
King -- when he calls on Jews to "step out of the Jewish closet and
say: 'We love Israel, but that doesn't mean we'll remain silent when we
disagree.' It's time for all of us who grew up loving Israel and
praying for peace to stop letting the mythical notion that American
Jews speak with a single voice keep us from supporting Israel's
security and future by calling for peace."

On this Martin Luther King Day, then, American Jews face a choice.
They can dwell on one casual, misinformed, easily misinterpreted remark
that King made and use it to justify continued Israeli intransigence
and violence. Or they can remember the words in which he summed up a
lifetime of nonviolence, on the last night of his life -- "I'm not
fearing any man!" -- and call on their own government to demand at
least a start toward ending the conflict: a genuine halt to all
settlement expansion.

If enough American Jews, and enough of their non-Jewish allies, find
that courage, Obama and future presidents will have the political cover
they need to demand of Israel the steps it must take to begin a real
journey toward security and peace.

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