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What MLK Actually Thought About Israel and Palestine

Some try to paint Martin Luther King Jr as an unswerving supporter of Israel. They're wrong.

Martin Luther King Jr addresses a meeting in Chicago on May 27, 1966. Jeff Kamen / Michael Ochs Archives / Getty

In a landmark opinion piece in the New York Times, Michelle Alexander recently wrote that it is “time to break the silence” on Palestine, in particular the debates over the position Martin Luther King Jr would have taken had he lived to see Israel’s 1967 war develop into the further dispossession of Palestinians from their land.

As King was assassinated just a year later, many have looked to his pronouncements for some clue. Some have attempted to paint King as an unswerving supporter of Israel. Their most substantial evidence is a letter that King supposedly wrote to an “anti-Zionist friend.”

You declare, my friend; that you do not hate the Jews, you are merely ‘anti-Zionist’. . . . And 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. . . . Anti-Semitism, the hatred of the Jewish people, has been and remains a blot on the soul of mankind. In this we are in full agreement. So know also this: anti-Zionist is inherently anti-Semitic, and ever will be so.

This passage supposedly originated from a “Letter to an Anti-Zionist Friend” in an August 1967 edition of Saturday Review. But researchers have found no letters from Dr King in any of the four August 1967 editions. Some have claimed that the letter was also published in a book by Dr King entitled, This I Believe: Selections from the Writings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. But according to Electronic Intifada, “no such book was listed in the bibliography provided by the King Center in Atlanta, nor in the catalogs of several large public and university libraries.” A recent search of all electronic databases confirms this.

While the authenticity of this document is thus highly doubtful, the authenticity of a sustained and deeply analytical statement by King in 1967 is beyond dispute.

“The Middle East Question,” delivered by Dr King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in Chicago in September 1967, appears in Cornel West’s edited 2015 collection, The Radical King. In this statement King ties together diplomatic, political, and economic perspectives in ways that remain relevant today. Its basis lies in not only King’s commitment to democracy, but also his understanding of material history.

I quote it at length so there can be no mistake about its nature or intent:

SCLC and Dr. King have repeatedly stated that the Middle East problem embodies the related questions of security and development. Israel’s right to exist as a state in security 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. Until a concerted and democratic program of assistance is [effected], tensions cannot be relieved. Neither Israel nor its neighbors can live in peace without an underlying basis of economic and social development.

At the heart of the problem are oil interests. As the American Jewish Congress has stated, “American policies have been motivated in no small measure by the desire to protect the $2.5 billion stake which US oil companies have invested in the area.” Some Arab feudal rulers are no less concerned for oil wealth and neglect the plight of their own peoples. The solution will have to be found in statesmanship by Israel and progressive Arab forces who in concert with the great powers recognize that fair and peaceful solutions are the concern of all humanity and must be found.

Here and elsewhere is King’s oft-cited belief that Israel had a “right to exist” — this belief was inseparable from his belief that Israel was a democracy: “Peace for Israel means security, and we must stand with all our might to protect her right to exist. . . . Israel is one of the great outposts of democracy in the world.”

So what would he have said if he had witnessed its abrogation of its responsibilities to actually be a democracy? Just as King probably would not have acquiesced to the notion that Israel’s security could be based on its stealing Palestinian land (the rationale for the Israeli occupation is, after all, that Israel is in a precarious position in the Middle East), so too would he have deplored the development of an apartheid state in Israel. He often drew the connection between apartheid South Africa and the Jim Crow South.

In one particular instance, the manner in which he expressed this belief bears importantly on today’s discussions on Palestine.

According to the King Institute:

[King] believed South Africa was home to “the world’s worst racism” and drew parallels between struggles against apartheid in South Africa and struggles against “local and state governments committed to ‘white supremacy’” in the southern United States (Papers 5:401). In a statement delivered at the 1962 American Negro Leadership Conference King declared: “Colonialism and segregation are nearly synonymous . . . because their common end is economic exploitation, political domination, and the debasing of human personality” (Press release, 28 November 1962).

The fact that King explicitly linked colonialism and segregation suggests that he would indeed recognize the expansion of the occupation as a settler-colonial project. If he did, he would then have to reevaluate his support for Israel pre-1967, as so many others have in recent years. He might well have come to recognize the absolute continuity between the 1948 dispossession, exile, and colonization of Palestinians and the post-1967 occupation. And how could he have regarded the new Nation-State Law passed by the Knesset as anything but anti-democratic? For it declares, among other things:

The State of Israel is the national home of the Jewish people, in which it fulfills its natural, cultural, religious and historical right to self-determination.

The right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.

The Arabic language has a special status in the state; Regulating the use of Arabic in state institutions or by them will be set in law.

The state views the development of Jewish settlement as a national value and will act to encourage and promote its establishment and consolidation.

A critique of Israel as an international criminal in its illegal seizure of Palestinian territories, a recognition of its colonial, segregationist, and apartheid project, and a radical rethinking of his support for Israel as a non-democratic, indeed, anti-democratic and even fascist state, would be consistent with King’s overall project.

King saw state-backed segregation precisely as fascist:

I don’t have any faith in the whites in power responding in the right way . . . they’ll treat us like they did our Japanese brothers and sisters in World War II. They’ll throw us into concentration camps. The Wallaces and the Birchites will take over. The sick people and the fascists will be strengthened. They’ll cordon off the ghetto and issue passes for us to get in and out.

Just as here King displays his willingness to draw the historical analogy between the oppression faced by different racial minorities, we would uphold his principles by imagining that he would extend the analogy to the Palestinians as well as to interned Japanese-Americans. For Palestinians are relegated into ghettoes and required to have “passes” for passage out or in; there are separate roadways for Jews and Palestinians; Palestinians are deprived of their homes and lands, deprived of equal rights. It is impossible to believe that this would square in any way with the oppression that King fought against all his life.

Last month, we witnessed how the battle over predicting what King would have thought of present-day Israel has taken shape today. Facing pressure from pro-Israel groups, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute retracted Angela Davis’s award for her human rights activism. In her statement on the matter, Davis said she saw the rescinding of the award as a repudiation of one of King’s primary principles — the indivisibility of justice: “The rescinding of this invitation and the cancellation of the event where I was scheduled to speak was thus not primarily an attack against me but rather against the very spirit of the indivisibility of justice.”

Just as King saw the continuity of justice for Japanese-Americans and American blacks, Davis declared:

I support Palestinian political prisoners just as I support current political prisoners in the Basque Country, in Catalunya, in India, and in other parts of the world. I have indeed expressed opposition to policies and practices of the state of Israel, as I express similar opposition to U.S. support for the Israeli occupation of Palestine and to other discriminatory U.S. policies.

If this sounds familiar, it is because on April 27, 1967, King traveled to Minnesota and delivered his last speech in the state at an antiwar rally at the University of Minnesota’s St Paul campus: “I’m not only going to be concerned about justice for Negroes in the United States because I know that justice is indivisible, and injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. I’m concerned about justice for everybody the world over.”

If we are really to hold true to King’s legacy, then we must acknowledge that the fight against antisemitism is also a fight against fascism. King’s hatred of both is clear. Importantly, the historical cases that he uses to illustrate fascism would warrant the conclusion that Zionism today in the state of Israel is not only fascistic but also antisemitic, in that it assumes a monolithic “Jewish” identity and denies all Jews that do not conform to that profile any place in the State of Israel.

Thus anti-Zionist Jews find themselves at odds with the state, as we see when forty Holocaust survivors protested Israel’s persecution of Palestinians and lent their support to the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement. One op-ed in the Washington Post asserts that “America’s Jews are Watching Israel in Horror.”

Today the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr would have seen how numerous religious groups, such as the US Mennonite organization, the Presbyterian Church USA, United Church of Christ, the pension fund of the United Methodist Church, several Quaker branches (American Friends Service Committee), and other religious groups have partially or completely divested from Israeli businesses in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

And he would have been heartened to see how one of his hallmark nonviolent tactics — the boycott — has been at the core of the most effective international efforts for Palestinian rights, and proud and encouraged by the way BDS has incorporated boycott tactics from not only the South African anti-apartheid movement and the US Civil Rights Movement, but Palestine’s own history of boycotts and also the anticolonial Irish boycotts of the nineteenth century.

Surely, Martin Luther King Jr would have been on the side of Angela Davis, Marc Lamont Hill, Cornel West, the Movement for Black Lives, and many other black activists, as well as pro-Palestinian activists of all races. In pursuing Palestinian rights, these activists and intellectuals are carrying on the work that was so brutally ended with King’s death.

A recent statement of support for the Palestinians and all people living under oppressions from the Movement for Black Lives resoundingly echoes Martin Luther King Jr’s spirit:

The Movement for Black Lives stands with the Palestinian people and especially those in Gaza, that have been engaging in resistance at the Gaza border. As we watched the brutal attacks on these brave activists which continued during and after the opening of the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem, we were painfully reminded of what happens when Black people, here in the U.S., decide to resist. We know that the United States government sends the same weapons to Tel Aviv as it sends to Ferguson, and hundreds of other cities across the country. We know that police officers in the United States learn the tactics of war from Israeli police forces, who come annually to train U.S. officers in methods of oppression, surveillance and murder. We understand that we are connected to the Palestinian people by our shared demand for recognition and justice and our long histories of displacement, discrimination and violence.

We categorically condemn the mass murder of Palestinians whose only crime was taking acts of moral resistance to life under occupation. We join them in calling for an end to the illegal blockade on Gaza which has allowed for the sealing off of its borders, trapping 2 million residents in an open air prison.

We also demand an end to the over 3 billion US taxpayer dollars that are sent to Israel to purchase military arms from U.S. corporations that are used on Palestinians.

We stand on the side of those fighting for the freedom of Black people, Palestinians and oppressed people all around the world.