This Martin Luther King Day saw the now de-rigueur exercise of using the civil-rights leader’s legacy to condemn the Jewish state despite the inconvenient fact that King admired Israel and despite the absence of evidence that he expressed sympathy for the “Palestinian cause.” In a previous article for Mosaic, Martin Kramer refuted those who argue that King’s opinions about Israel were “contradictory, naïve, or ignorant.” Kramer now takes on another, equally unsubstantiated, version of this argument: that King would have expressed his hostility for Israel but was afraid that doing so would cost him “financial support.”
[The] notion of a quid pro quo takes no account of the spiritual dimension of King’s ties to Zionist Jews. The two who were closest to him were refugee rabbis from Hitler’s Europe, who regarded the creation of Israel as redemption. And just as the Holocaust drove their passion for civil rights, it steeled their devotion to Israel.
The first was Joachim Prinz (1902-1988), a social activist, pulpit rabbi, and Zionist organizer, who personally knew nearly all of Israel’s leaders. Prinz allied himself with King in 1958 and at the 1963 March on Washington spoke in the slot before King’s historic address. . . . The second was Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972), philosopher and theologian at the Jewish Theological Seminary and an heir to one of the great ḥasidic dynasties. King described Heschel as “a truly great prophet.”
For King, these men were not “supporters,” they were fellow visionaries, with whom he shared prophetic values. They spoke, too, as personal victims of racism, and gave voice to the millions who had perished in the Holocaust. The idea that their eloquent commitment to Israel didn’t affect King underestimates both him and them.
What would King think of Israel today? It’s an idle question. But he thought well of Israel then, and its flaws in his day weren’t far fewer, nor were its virtues much more numerous, than they are in ours. Whether he deserves to be called “a tremendous Zionist,” as Edward Said [derogatorily] claimed, is a matter of perspective and definition. But the attempt to make him into an advocate for Palestine is an offense to history.