January 16 was Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a national holiday in the US. The date is King’s birthday. The holiday honors his leadership in expanding civil rights for African Americans and human rights. The deeper motivation was to honor a black American as a national figure. Up to this holiday, all individuals honored with national holidays were white (Christopher Columbus, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln).
This move was part of the long-term struggle to achieve equal dignity for African Americans. The as-yet unachieved goal is to overcome the ongoing racist discrimination against people of color, which is the aftereffect of centuries of slavery and Jim Crow oppression in American life.
In his lifetime, King had mixed achievements. In the South, the authorities harassed his sit-ins and protests against ongoing discrimination and his campaigns to get union rights and better pay for black workers in such fields as sanitation and garbage disposal. In Alabama, police led by bigoted individuals, such as Commissioner of Public Safety T. G. “Bull” O’Connor, turned dogs loose on King and his followers and arrested them. The FBI, led by J. Edgar Hoover, spied on him and identified him as a Communist. In the North, hostile mobs confronted his marches and protests.
Thanks to support from President Lyndon Johnson, he won major advances in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited discrimination in public places, provided for the integration of schools and other public facilities, and made employment discrimination illegal. King continued his protests but became even more reviled when he joined the opponents of the Vietnam War.
The last Gallup poll taken before his death showed that 63% of Americans viewed him unfavorably. He was shot and killed by a bigoted loner, but 31% of Americans polled said that he brought his assassination on himself, while 38% said they were saddened by his murder.
King insisted resolutely on nonviolent protests even though he was personally assaulted and even shot at. However, a more radical group emerged to fight the cause of blacks. Black nationalists like Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael and Huey P. Newton of the Black Panther party turned to advocacy and actual violence.
Black nationalists considered the US to be incorrigibly rotten. Tearing down the system, including violent assaults, was their policy solution. They dismissed King as an “Uncle Tom” i.e. a tool and collaborator with the white establishment in keeping blacks down by his willingness to work with the system to rectify its injustices.
The deeper issue between them was Martin Luther King’s conviction that America was not a hopeless case. As he saw it, the American dream was of democracy and equality for all – only this treatment standard was not applied to blacks and to other deprived groups. Therefore, he sought to arouse the conscience of the country and get the whole society, and especially white people, to live up to its highest values.
If the black nationalists had their way, they would have fought the oppressors with violent means and burned down the whole system to get to a new purified-of-racism society. In fact, a violent offshoot, the Symbionese Liberation Army – which kidnapped Patty Hearst, a rich heiress – eventually went down the path of violent death, as did Huey P. Newton of the Black Panthers.
King resolutely resisted resorting to unjust and violent means for the sake of a good cause. Such behaviors would undermine the moral ground on which he stood. If the Carmichael types had their way, they would have created a revolutionary regime – likely just as oppressive and freedom-suffocating as the Castro regime in Cuba, where Carmichael fled.
The extremist black groups – including the Black Muslims – labeled all whites as evil and oppressors. This racism of the oppressed stoked a backlash that brought Richard Nixon to power and set back the civil rights movement.
KING’S APPEAL to the highest American values continued to bear fruit after his death. Within a decade, his popularity and standing as a hero surged. Under Republican president Ronald Reagan, a law establishing a national holiday in King’s honor passed. There was resistance initially, but by 2000, all 50 states observed Martin Luther King Jr. Day. While de facto discrimination and local racism has not been eliminated, national awareness and attempts to deal with the subtler forms of oppression have gotten stronger from decade to decade.
To my disappointment, there was little coverage of Martin Luther King Jr. Day (or of King) in the Israeli press. Typical Israeli press coverage of American events and sports often reminds me of the old joke that Israel is the 51st American state. The Oscar awards and the Super Bowl get extensive coverage. However, Martin Luther King Jr. Day sank out of sight. That is too bad because his model is badly needed in Israel.
The Israeli Arabs are where African Americans were in the 1960s. They are a somewhat marginalized minority in Israeli society. They are behind the Jews in income, education, and infrastructure/government services but have been steadily improving their condition and status for decades.
Unfortunately, their political leadership has served them poorly. The Arab population needs leaders who say, “We accept the Jewish state, but we ask for full equality (or action to bring to full equality) as per Israel’s founding document, the Declaration of Independence.”
If they took that route, they would close the gap much faster. Forty percent of the Israeli population would gladly close ranks with them. Instead, the Arab political leadership has identified with the Palestinians, often joining them in degrading Israel in international forums and refusing to engage. The Balad party, one of three Arab parties, is anti-Zionist. Its leaders and others flirt with sympathy for terrorism.
They can’t resist putting a finger in the Jewish eye. Shimon Peres was devoted to peace with the Palestinians and was one of the most committed politicians to improve the condition of Israeli Arabs. When he died, however, the Arab MKs decided not to attend his funeral. They consistently refused to join governing coalitions, complementing the right-wing Jewish opposition to their inclusion.
In the last half-decade, because of the political deadlock between the Right and Left, Benjamin Netanyahu explored inviting an Arab party into the governing coalition. In the end Mansour Abbas of the Ra’am party – Islamist and fundamentalist no less – took the plunge. He uttered the magic words that he accepted Israel as a Jewish state but wants his people to be brought up to full equality. He joined the wall-to-wall Lapid-Bennett coalition. The government promised major investments in the Arab community.
Unfortunately, this great opening was mostly blown. A right-wing interior minister, Ayelet Shaked, delayed delivery of the promised money and infrastructure improvements. Netanyahu and other extreme right-wing parties (then in the opposition) attacked the government mercilessly as having incorporated a party sympathetic to terrorists. This was not true. Still the charge – repeated endlessly – raised the political price of incorporating an Arab party in the governing coalition.
In the new Netanyahu coalition, the extreme Right parties vetoed any chance to incorporate Arab parties into the government as they did in the previous year’s election. Had the Lapid coalition succeeded this year, it is doubtful that they would have incorporated the Ra’am party – because the political price was so elevated. The current extreme right-wing coalition may further alienate the Arab population with its policies.
Nevertheless, the breakthrough of bringing the Arab sector into full political integration with Israeli society is too important to abandon just when it appeared ready to happen. It brings with it the promise of true long-term peace inside Israeli society. It also can enable a Jewish state to incorporate non-Jews with full equality and dignity, a new ethical high in Jewish history.
While the Israeli Center and Left parties can lead, they are out of power now, and sadly, the Right is off on an anti-Arab track right now.
To win back the Israeli-majority support for Arab integration, we desperately need more leaders of the Arab parties to walk in Martin Luther King Jr. and Mansour Abbas’s footsteps. They need to go all in, affirm the Jewish state but challenge it to live up to its best values and make the Arab minority feel at home.
Arabs should be treated with the full dignity that Jews would have liked when they lived as a minority among non-Jews. Until this happens, the Israeli Martin Luther King Jr. Day will have to wait. The delayed integration is a deep loss for the Jewish and Arab communities of Israel.
The writer is an American oleh. In the US, he was a leader in the Modern Orthodox rabbinate and in the work of linking American Jewry and Israel. He was the founding president of the Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundation, which led the creation of Birthright Israel.