If there is one thing that captures popular understanding of the Jewish community’s relationship to the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., it’s an image from Selma, 1965. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel links arms with a line of activists that include Rev. King, a shoulder’s breadth away, on their historic march to Montgomery. Heschel’s comments afterward have taken on a similarly iconic status: “I felt my feet were praying.”
But if the role Jews played in King’s civil rights movement is well known — of all whites who participated, between half and two-thirds were Jewish — the full complexity of it remains less understood. As the nation prepares to celebrate Martin Luther King Day this Monday, some scholars suggest that it’s time for a deeper engagement with the issue.
“Everyone in the Jewish community wants to present its credentials,” said Elliot Ratzman, a professor of religion at Temple University who teaches a course on Judaism and race. “Heschel and King have become the symbol of Jewish activism. But many people were uncomfortable with Heschel’s stance at the time. He got a lot of flak from those within the Jewish community.”
Still, Ratzman and other scholars emphasize that, on the whole, Jews overwhelmingly sympathized with King and the aims of the civil rights movement, even if the majority did not participate. Practical issues — fear for their own security, for instance, and an ambivalence toward a tactic, civil disobedience, that required people to break laws they felt were unjust — they say, made many unwilling to actually join his movement.
“First off, no Jews were opposed to King or what he stood for,” Cheryl Lynn Greenberg, author of “Troubling the Waters: Black-Jewish Relations in the America Century” (2006) and a professor at Trinity College, wrote in an e-mail. “I mean, there may have been racist Jewish leaders or Jewish intellectuals who opposed civil rights, but none that I know who would say so publicly. But there was a tremendous range of responses to King and the movement, within the general framework of support.”
Moreover, while many Jews today tout King’s positions on Jewish issues — from his vehement denunciations of anti-Semitism within the black nationalist movement, as well as in the Soviet Union, and his support for Israel — few place them in the proper context.
One of the most vexing issues is Israel. King had expressed support for the Jewish state throughout his life, believing that that the history of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust made it a moral cause worth defending. “In those days, what was clear was that the state of Israel was a matter of justice for Jews,” said Susannah Heschel, daughter of Abraham Joshua and a prominent scholar of Jewish studies who teaches at Dartmouth. “For Dr. King, [supporting Israel] was very much about justice.”
But things had changed by 1967, on the eve of the Arab-Israeli Six-Day War. Days before Israel began its pre-emptive strike, as Arab countries encircled the state and Egyptian President Nasser’s rhetoric grew increasingly violent, King lent his name to an open letter published in The New York Times urging U.S. support for Israel.
But King privately rued the decision. As Taylor Branch writes in “At Canaan’s Edge” (2007), his authoritative history of King’s final years, King “smarted from criticism that he had abandoned non-violence.” A day after the war ended, King worried that Israel might itself become the aggressor. As King told his advisers: “Israel faces the danger of being smug and unyielding.”
At the time, King’s influence was declining. More militant black nationalists had become dominant within the Civil Rights Movement, and many openly expressed anti-Semitic views. Anti-Semitism combined with black nationalists’ endorsement of the Arab world led many Jews to lose sympathy for civil rights, too.
For King, a one-sided endorsement in the Six-Day War would look hypocritical, particularly in light of his recent denunciation of the Vietnam War
“I think he was for the Zionist project as he understood it,” said Clayborne Carson, a leading King historian at Stanford and editor of “The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr.” “But we’re talking about a different Israel than we have today. Back then it was seen as the underdog.”
Today, however, Israel’s more ardent Jewish supporters are more likely to quote a pro-Israel statement King made months after the Six-Day War ended. In a private letter written to Morris Abram, president of the American Jewish Committee and a longtime King supporter, King wrote that “Israel’s right to exist as a state in security is incontestable.”
It is less often noted that King also stressed the need to develop the Arab world in order to prevent future conflicts. Or that he urged for greater understanding for what he believed was the root cause of the Arab world’s anger. As he wrote to Abram in that same letter: “The great powers have the obligation to recognize the Arab world is in a state of imposed poverty and backwardness that must threaten peace and harmony.”
Commentators say that the Jewish community’s earlier relationship to King remains poorly understood as well. Heschel, a leading theologian who taught at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, was one of King’s closest and most active supporters. But many other rabbis and secular Jewish leaders had been actively engaged in King’s protests well before the two even met, in 1963. What’s more, several Jewish leaders, particularly in the South, openly disagreed with King’s tactics.
Of those who worked closely with King, Stanley Levison was the most prominent. He had been a lead organizer and fundraiser for the original Montgomery bus boycotts, which began with Rosa Parks’ arrest in 1955 and kicked off King’s involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. Levison remained one of King’s closest advisers until King’s assassination in 1968. But because of his ties to the Communist Party he also became a severe liability as King’s fame grew.
Levison was also the critical link between King and the AJC, which was perhaps the most prominent and longtime Jewish group supporting the civil rights movement. In 1957, the organization came out in support of King after four black churches had been bombed in Montgomery. Rabbi Joachim Prinz, a refugee from Nazi Germany and an AJC president, was one of the 10 chairmen who organized King’s March on Washington in 1963. Just before King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech, Prinz gave his own.
Of America’s three major religious sects, the Reform movement and many of its individual rabbis were the most active. Two Reform rabbis of New Jersey congregations, Israel Dresner and Martin Freedman, helped organize an interfaith group to participate in the Freedom Rides of 1961. And the Cleveland Reform Rabbi Arthur Levyveld, also a onetime president of the AJC, suffered a concussion after segregationists in Mississippi beat him with tire irons while on a 1964 Freedom Ride.
It was the presence of that kind of violence, however, that made many Reform rabbis and their constituents in the South come out against King’s tactics. While Atlanta’s Reform Rabbi Jacob Rothschild is most well known for his support for King — he organized the biracial dinner to honor King after he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1964 — several other Jewish leaders bluntly confronted him.
When King’s leaders asked local religious groups for support of their Birmingham boycotts in 1963, the city’s JCC official Harold Katz told protest leaders that “the racial problem does not call for a resolution on the part of the Jewish community but one by the general community.” In absence of widespread support for the protests, he concluded, local Jewish groups would not support them.
In fact, the city’s Reform synagogue rabbi, Milton Grafman, publicly came out against the boycotts, signing an open letter with seven other local clergymen denouncing the Birmingham protests. King read the letter while in prison, then wrote his simmering, and now legendary “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in response.
King took direct aim at the religious leaders. He thought that “the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies.” But instead, “some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows.”
King invoked the Holocaust, as well. “We can never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was ‘legal.’… It was ‘illegal’ to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. But I am sure that if I had lived in Germany during that time I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers even though it was illegal.”
Despite the tensions in the relationship, some like Ratzman agree that the story of Jewish support for King must never be forgotten. When Ratzman begins his course on race and Judaism each year, he can’t resist projecting the image of King and Heschel behind him. “Besides being a clichéd image, it’s a powerful one,” he said.
Ratzman ends his lecture with a short video clip of King giving his final speech in Memphis, on April 3, 1968, the day before he was assassinated. He shows it not only because King planned to go to a Passover seder at Heschel’s home the following week, but also for its eerie prophecy and infusion of Hebrew Bible imagery.
“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life,” King says, pausing amid sporadic shouts from the crowd. “Longevity has its place,” he continues. “But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you,” he pauses, amid more shouts. “But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the Promised Land. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”