Remembering the Great African American Leaders Who Were Also Zionists

July 14, 2020 | Saul Singer
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As much of the formal leadership of the Black Lives Matter movement seems eager to embrace the anti-Israel cause as its own, and, just last week, as two scandals erupted on social media involving black celebrities disseminating anti-Semitic canards and slogans, black-Jewish relations don’t seem to be at their best. Yet Saul Singer reminds us that these troubling incidents need not be taken as representative. He draws our attention to the sympathy for Jews and the Jewish state of two great leaders of the civil-rights movement: Rosa Parks and Bayard Rustin—the latter of whom was also a regular contributor to Commentary magazine:

Though Rosa Parks’s heroism on that Montgomery bus has become the stuff of legend, not as well known is her strong support of Israel as a Jewish state and determined opposition to anti-Israel boycotts. In 1975, she joined a list of over 200 black leaders organized as the Black Americans to Support Israel Committee (BASIC) in signing an open declaration of admiration and respect for Israel.

BASIC was born just after the Arab League recognized the PLO as the “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people” and after the United Nations passed its shameful Resolution 3379 equating Zionism with racism. The civil-rights leader Bayard Rustin responded in a column that “Zionism is not racism, but the legitimate expression of the Jewish people’s self-determination. . . . From our 400-year experience with slavery, segregation, and discrimination we know that Zionism is not racism.”

Throughout his life, Rustin remained a champion of Israel who manifested ultimate faith in Israel’s democracy. He expressed great antipathy for Arab governments and for the PLO, which, he said, used Israel as a facile excuse to divert the attention of the Arab masses away from their own treachery and political failures: “Marx once said that religion is the opiate of the masses. In the Middle East, Israel is the opiate of the Arabs.”

Rustin characterized anti-Semitism as “history’s oldest and most shameful witch hunt,” and he was particularly disturbed by black anti-Semitism, which he publicly acknowledged: “We cannot sweep it under the rug; . . . it is here, it is dangerous, it must be rooted out.” Such statements earned him the enmity of many in the “Black Power” movement, which he bitterly criticized for its anti-Semitism and Israel hatred. He faced vicious accusations from the radical left, who called him an “Uncle Tom” who had been “bought out by Jewish money.”

Rustin [later] became a close friend of the Israel prime minister Golda Meir, who once made him her famous chicken soup to help him recover from a bad cold.

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