COMMENTARY: King’s pointed the way in black-Jewish relations

c. 1997 Religion News Service

UNDATED _ Is it really possible that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. would have been 68 years old this month? Killed by an assassin in 1968, the mists of legend have already enveloped him and his extraordinary work as America's most outstanding civil rights leader.

He is rapidly becoming a remote, almost mythical national icon. A new generation who"knew him not"is told to either deeply revere him as a martyr or cynically reject him as a dangerous radical.

Indeed, King was a polarizing figure even after his murder. The bitter and lengthy struggle to make his birthday a national holiday starkly revealed the deep racial divisions that yet remain in American society.

Lost in all this furor are King's actual accomplishments and remarkable moral fervor, as well as his human flaws. Ultimately, it is his authentic heritage of prophetic justice and magnificent rhetorical power that we should reclaim and commemorate.

King's profound understanding of the relationship between blacks and Jews in America is frequently overlooked in the recounting of his life and work. Today, these relations are often strained, but King clearly recognized the devastating price that both communities pay when they are pitted against each other:"The racists of America fly blindly at both of us, caring not at all which of us fall,"he once said."Our common fight is against these deadly enemies of democracy." A year before he was murdered in Memphis, Tenn., King declared,"... It is not only that anti-Semitism is immoral, though that alone is enough. It is used to divide Negro and Jew, who have effectively collaborated in the struggle for justice."He denounced the"sinister appeal"used by demagogues to turn blacks against Jews.

If King were alive in 1997, he would be a vigorous opponent of people like Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who spews forth a steady, obscene stream of anti-Semitism. King warned his community that anti-Semitism is self-destructive:"I have myself directly attacked it within the Negro community, because it is wrong,"he said.

In 1991, his widow, Coretta Scott King, said:"To tolerate anti-Semitism is to cooperate with the evils of prejudice and bigotry that Martin Luther King Jr. fought against." And one of King's colleagues in the civil rights struggle, Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, asserted that"Dr. King knew more than anyone else about the need and value of a strong alliance between blacks and Jews. ... Dr. King had the courage to stand up for his own convictions. He would not hesitate to come to the aid of his friends, and he regarded members of the Jewish community as among the black community's strongest allies." While most of King's enormous energy was directed toward achieving justice for America's blacks, he also was a supporter of the State of Israel as well as the struggle that was just beginning in the 1960s to free Soviet Jews from the oppressive yoke of communism.

He urged his followers to offer support for Soviet Jews and demanded that the Soviet government end all discriminatory measures against the Jewish community.

King described Israel as"one of the great outposts of democracy in the world,"and he called upon the world to recognize not only the long sufferings of his own people, but also the systematic victimization of the Jews that culminated in the Holocaust.

King's prescription for a peaceful Middle East transcended his powerful calls for justice. He keenly sensed that the underlying problems of economic and social development in the region must be directly addressed."Israel's right to exist as a state in security is incontestable,"he said."At the same time, the great powers have the obligation to recognize that the Arab world is in a state of imposed poverty and backwardness that must threaten peace and harmony." King would have been appalled by the current surge of religious extremism in the Middle East and in other parts of the world that seeks to gain narrow and repressive political goals. For him, religion must always be a prophetic judge, outside the system, a constant spiritual critic of the political realm, and a unifying force against all forms of injustice and bigotry.

In 1985 the Israeli Knesset, the nation's parliament, convened a special session as a tribute to King. In a written message of appreciation to the Knesset, his widow lamented that her husband, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, had been killed before he and the world had been able"to reap the Promised Land of peace." It was a value, she said, that Israel would most appreciate.