Martin Luther King Jr., Israel and Obama

There is no disputing the historic significance of President Barack Obama’s state visit to Israel.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 370 (photo credit: Reuters/ screen shot)
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 370
(photo credit: Reuters/ screen shot)
There is no disputing the historic significance of President Barack Obama’s state visit to Israel; his first since he was elected our nation’s chief executive just over four years ago.
During his first term, the president did a great deal to make clear to all – including Israel’s adversaries – that he has the back of the Jewish state. In the face of unfair charges during last year’s US elections that Obama was somehow anti-Israel, no less an authority than then-defense minister Ehud Barak stated last summer: “This administration, under President Obama, is doing in regard to our security more than anything I can remember in the past.”
Most significantly, Obama has repeatedly stated unequivocally that his administration will not allow Iran – a genocidal state which denies the Holocaust and vows to destroy modern- day Israel – to acquire nuclear weapons and is willing to use any means – including military ones – to prevent that from occurring.
President Obama is modest about comparing himself to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but leaves little doubt that he sees himself as carrying forward into the 21st century King’s legacy and soaring dream of universal equality and justice. Obama, who frequently cited King’s evocation of “the fierce urgency of now” as a reason for launching his first campaign for the presidency in 2007, was inaugurated for a second term in office on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, 2013. He took the oath of office on King’s bible and during his second inaugural address, paid tribute to King’s declaration that “our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.”
In that context, the president would do well during his trip to Israel to embrace King’s unconditional support of the State of Israel and to associate himself with that oft-forgotten legacy.
To have America’s first African-American president remind the world of the love and solidarity our country’s civil rights icon felt toward the Jewish state will be deeply reassuring to Israelis, and will also forcefully remind many pro-Obama progressives whose support for Jewish state has become increasingly shaky, of the moral case for Israel.
King made clear throughout his career that he saw the rebirth of the Jewish state after 2,000 years as an inspiring, spiritually uplifting event that gave hope to oppressed people everywhere – including African Americans – that they too could overcome and achieve freedom.
During Israel’s 1956 war with Egypt, he wrote: “There is something in the very nature of the universe which is on the side of Israel in its struggle with every Egypt.”
In March of 1959, after making a visit to India to connect more deeply with the legacy of his own spiritual mentor Mahatma Gandhi, King returned to the US by a circuitous route that took him through Jordan and Egypt, King visited Jerusalem and Jericho, then still in under Jordanian sovereignty. Though Jordan refused to let him into the Jewish quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, King often spoke of the adventure and excitement of being in the Holy City and the Holy Land.
During the ensuing years King longed to visit Israel, and during the latter part of 1966 concocted a plan he hoped would give him the chance to accomplish that, and more importantly help to spark a peace movement between Israel and its neighbors. In November of that year, Andrew Young travelled to Israel and Jordan on King’s behalf to negotiate a pilgrimage by King and 5,000 followers. Both governments agreed to cooperate in the construction of an amphitheater on the Sea of Galilee where King would speak from the water. As Young later reflected, “Martin Luther King could have changed the history of the region by demonstrating how much everyone had to gain by working together.”
Tragically, it was not to be. Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping and sent his army into Sinai in May 1967, starting a downward spiral that led rapidly to the Six Day War in early June. Just before the start of the war, in the face of radicals in the civil rights movement who loudly identified with the Arab side, King made clear where he stood; signing an open letter to president Lyndon Johnson in The New York Times together with philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr and Bishop Stephen Gill Spotswood of Washington calling on the US to honor its commitments to Israel.
In March, 1968, only a few weeks before he was assassinated, King gave one of his most ardent speeches in support of Israel at the convention of the Rabbinical Assembly of America. He stated, “I see Israel, and never mind saying it, as one of the great outposts of democracy in the world, and a marvelous example of what can be done, how desert land almost can be transformed into an oasis of brotherhood and democracy.
Peace for Israel means security, and that security must be a reality.”
As a strong supporter of President Obama and of the State of Israel, I urge the president to seize the opportunity of his long awaited trip to Israel to invoke and celebrate King’s passionate support for the Jewish state.
The author is a rabbi, the president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding and the author of Shared Dreams: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Jewish Community.