Assess Israel like you do MLK
The Complexity of Legacy
A legacy is holistic. This used to be something we all recognized. Humans are imperfect. Dig enough on someone and you will find dirt. For many of us, you won’t have to dig for long. When we build a statue to honor Thomas Jefferson we aren’t claiming he was perfect or even mostly perfect. We aren’t excusing bad behavior. What we are honoring and admiring is his contributions to the implementation of a new idea never been tried before. If your point of view is we should only honor humans who had a morally clean history you will be left honoring Jesus alone. It’s particularly difficult to find saints amongst powerful and influential men. With great power comes great responsibility because with great power comes greater temptation.
What’s fascinating about the current cultural-political climate is those who have called for the removal of Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Texas Rangers or even Native American leaders such as Hiawatha do so under the premise that any direct or indirect linkage to sin disqualifies one from statue-hood. But there is one person who seems to avoid this condemnation. In fact, a statue of him was unveiled earlier this year in Boston.
When a person of certain nƒzionotoriety dies people fight over their legacy.
“JFK would be a Republican if he were alive today.”
“Jesus would have been a socialist.”
“Abraham Lincoln would be ashamed of today’s republican party.”
“Harriet Tubman would have been in the NRA.”
Most of the time we can only guess as to how historical giants would operate in today’s world. It seems increasingly rare we can all agree on who our historical heroes are let alone what their modern-day opinions would be. Despite a controversial past, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has ultimately stayed a hero to Republicans, Democrats, blacks, whites, and Americans in general. There have been some critiques and admonitions of Dr. King’s imperfect past but even articles about his “problematic behavior” tend to have a caveat stating despite it all he was still a great man.
Dr. King was imperfect at best and a rapist at worst. He has been credibly accused of plagiarizing his doctoral dissertation and almost certainly cheated on his wife. Upsetting some, he called homosexual feelings a “problem.” According to FBI surveillance records, he was present for a rape and did nothing. We will know more about the rape accusations in 2027 when the FBI’s full audiotapes, photographs and film footage of King will be unsealed per a 1977 court order.
Unlike Christopher Columbus or George Washington, people of all stripes and political persuasions can compartmentalize the legacy of MLK. Despite whatever he may have done in the past most of us still recognize the net positive his life was for American society and culture. Most of us understand that a statue built in his honor isn’t about reverence for his sins but for his successes.
Recognition of Dr King's overall positive influence is so universal that the left and right fight over him. “He was a pro-life conservative.” “He was a radical social justice warrior.” Everyone wants MLK on their team despite his flaws. Everyone seems to flex Dr. King’s legacy to better fit their lens. One part of Dr. King’s legacy few talk about is his connection to Israel.
IBSI has covered Dr. King’s pro-Israel legacy extensively. Dumisani Washington’s book Zionism and the Black Church spends a lot of time unpacking the MLK to Israel connection. I won’t use too many words covering what is already in IBSI resources other than to share this Dr. King quote:
Peace for Israel means security, and we must stand with all of our might to protect its right to exist, its territorial integrity. 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.
Dr. King was a supporter of Israel and the Jewish people. Like IBSI, Dr. King made efforts to bridge the gap between blacks and the Jewish diaspora. Notably, Dr. King made his famous march on Selma with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel by his side. The same rabbi was present when Dr. King gave the quote cited above. Yet Dr. King was not anti-Palestinian either. Of the Arabs (Palestinian was not a descriptor used at this time) Dr. King had this to say:
On the other hand, we must see what peace for the Arabs means in a real sense of security on another level. Peace for the Arabs means a kind of economic security that they so desperately need. These nations, as you know, are part of that third world of hunger, of disease, of illiteracy. I think that as long as these conditions exist there will be tensions there will be the endless quest to find scapegoats.
Despite knowing and acknowledging the imperfections of the region Dr. King was still a Zionist. Just like many of us are able to compartmentalize Dr. King’s legacy, MLK was able to recognize the immense good Israel’s existence as a Jewish state is despite her flaws. Like any nation, Israel has made many mistakes. From racist events like the Israeli police beating an Ethiopian soldier to massive foreign policy blunders such as supporting both sides of the Nigeria-Biafra war. No Zionist claims Israel to be a perfect nation. Unfortunately, Dr. King is increasingly alone in his ability to distinguish Israel's moral strengths from moral shortcomings.
Though many if not most of us have deep admiration for Dr. King’s achievements while still acknowledging his imperfections, a growing percentage of Americans are unable to apply the same evaluation method to Israel — despite Dr. King’s ability to do so.
Dr. King’s legacy is so powerful that even Israel celebrates Dr. King’s civil rights achievements despite his flaws and despite his being an American. The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Forest in Israel was dedicated to MLK in 1978. I had the privilege of visiting it with the IBSI ambassadors last June. Each year, in conjunction with Israel’s Consulate General in New York and the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, JNF-USA presents the Martin Luther King Jr. Award to individuals and organizations who promote the dream of peaceful coexistence between people of diverse religious, cultural and ethnic backgrounds. There is a Martin Luther King street in Jerusalem that is not in the “bad part” of town. Black Christians recently marched down the street to honor Dr. King and continue his mission of forging connections between Black America, Israel, and Jews.
No Jew or Zionist argues Israel is without sin. Those who love Israel and believe in her right to exist are simply asking that we weigh the good against the bad. That we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. That we acknowledge no nation is perfect and hold them all to the same standards. That we assess Israel like we assess Dr. King.
Take account of Israel’s charitable efforts, Operation Moses, African aid, contributions to science and technology and countless other achievements. Do this and one finds that not only is Israel’s position in the world a net positive but it may have one of the highest net positive scores of any nation. Call out when Israel makes mistakes but remember there is only one perfect place and it is not found here on earth.
Connie Morgan is a Christian, wife, mother, and UX Researcher located in the Pacific Northwest. She is also a 2022-2023 IBSI Ambassador. Connie has a background in economics and public relations and has worked in higher ed and marketing. She served five years in the United States military as an Army intelligence officer. Her main research and writing interests are the family, education, and personal liberty generally. She tweets here.