Supporters of Israel have marshaled two pieces of evidence to demonstrate that the great civil-rights leader shared their commitment to the Jewish state: first, that he was among a number of prominent Christian theologians who signed a strongly worded pro-Israel statement that was published in the New York Times on the eve of the 1967 Arab-Israel war; and, second, that he once rebuked someone in a private conversation, “When people criticize Zionists, they mean Jews. You’re talking anti-Semitism!” Critics of these positions have found sufficient reason to question whether the New York Times statement accurately reflects King’s views, and whether he ever made the second remark at all. Having thoroughly investigated the matter, Martin Kramer concludes that King did in fact equate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism (although it is unclear whether he had in mind anti-Zionism in general or specific anti-Zionists) but also had regrets about signing the public declaration in support of Israel. From here Kramer offers some general thoughts about King’s positions:
King’s careful maneuvering before, during, and after the Six-Day War demonstrated a much deeper understanding of the Arab-Israeli conflict than critics credit him with possessing. . . . Palestinian-Americans who sought to dismiss the [anti-Zionism] quote suggested that the conflict “was probably not a subject he was well-versed on,” and that his public statements in praise of Israel “surely do not sound like the words of someone familiar with both sides of the story.”
Not so. King had been to the Arab world, had a full grasp of the positions of the sides, and was wary of the possible pitfalls of favoring one over the other. He struck a delicate balance, speaking out or staying silent after careful assessments made in consultation with advisers who had their ears to the ground. . . .
For this reason, it is an offense to history, if not to King’s memory, whenever someone today summons King’s ghost to offer unqualified support to Israel or to the Palestinians. King understood moral complexity, he knew that millions waited upon his words, and he sought to resolve conflict, not accentuate it. The pursuit of an elusive balance marked his approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict while he lived. There is no obvious reason to presume he would have acted differently had he lived longer.