By Michelle Alexander
Jan. 19, 2019
On April 4, 1967, exactly one year before
his assassination, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stepped up to the
lectern at the Riverside Church in Manhattan. The United States had been in
active combat in Vietnam for two years and tens of thousands of people had been
killed, including some 10,000 American troops. The political establishment —
from left to right — backed the war, and more than 400,000 American service
members were in Vietnam, their lives on the line.
Many of King’s strongest allies urged him
to remain silent about the war or at least to soft-pedal any criticism. They
knew that if he told the whole truth about the unjust and disastrous war he
would be falsely labelled a Communist, suffer retaliation and severe backlash,
alienate supporters and threaten the fragile progress of the civil rights
King rejected all the well-meaning advice
and said, “I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight because my
conscience leaves me no other choice.” Quoting a statement by the Clergy and
Laymen Concerned About Vietnam, he said, “A time comes when silence is
betrayal” and added, “that time has come for us in relation to Vietnam.”
It was a lonely, moral stance. And it cost
him. But it set an example of what is required of us if we are to honour our
deepest values in times of crisis, even when silence would better serve our
personal interests or the communities and causes we hold most dear. It’s what I
think about when I go over the excuses and rationalizations that have kept me
largely silent on one of the great moral challenges of our time: the crisis in
I have not been alone. Until very recently,
the entire Congress has remained mostly silent on the human rights nightmare
that has unfolded in the occupied territories. Our elected representatives, who
operate in a political environment where Israel's political lobby holds
well-documented power, have consistently minimized and deflected criticism of
the State of Israel, even as it has grown more emboldened in its occupation of
Palestinian territory and adopted some practices reminiscent of apartheid in
South Africa and Jim Crow segregation in the United States.
Many civil rights activists and
organizations have remained silent as well, not because they lack concern or
sympathy for the Palestinian people, but because they fear loss of funding from
foundations, and false charges of anti-Semitism. They worry, as I once did,
that their important social justice work will be compromised or discredited by
Similarly, many students are fearful of
expressing support for Palestinian rights because of the McCarthyite tactics of
secret organizations like Canary Mission, which blacklists those who publicly
dare to support boycotts against Israel, jeopardizing their employment
prospects and future careers.
Reading King’s speech at Riverside more
than 50 years later, I am left with little doubt that his teachings and message
require us to speak out passionately against the human rights crisis in
Israel-Palestine, despite the risks and despite the complexity of the issues.
King argued, when speaking of Vietnam, that even “when the issues at hand seem
as perplexing as they often do in the case of this dreadful conflict,” we must
not be mesmerized by uncertainty. “We must speak with all the humility that is
appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak.”
And so, if we are to honor King’s message
and not merely the man, we must condemn Israel’s actions: unrelenting
violations of international law, continued occupation of the West Bank, East
Jerusalem, and Gaza, home demolitions and land confiscations. We must cry out
at the treatment of Palestinians at checkpoints, the routine searches of their
homes and restrictions on their movements, and the severely limited access to
decent housing, schools, food, hospitals and water that many of them face.
We must not tolerate Israel’s refusal even
to discuss the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes, as
prescribed by United Nations resolutions, and we ought to question the U.S.
government funds that have supported multiple hostilities and thousands of
civilian casualties in Gaza, as well as the $38 billion the U.S. government has
pledged in military support to Israel.
And finally, we must, with as much courage
and conviction as we can muster, speak out against the system of legal
discrimination that exists inside Israel, a system complete with, according to
Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, more than 50 laws
that discriminate against Palestinians — such as the new nation-state law that
says explicitly that only Jewish Israelis have the right of self-determination
in Israel, ignoring the rights of the Arab minority that makes up 21 percent of
Of course, there will be those who say that
we can’t know for sure what King would do or think regarding Israel-Palestine
today. That is true. The evidence regarding King’s views on Israel is
complicated and contradictory.
Although the Student Nonviolent
Coordinating Committee denounced Israel’s actions against Palestinians, King
found himself conflicted. Like many black leaders of the time, he recognized
European Jewry as a persecuted, oppressed and homeless people striving to build
a nation of their own, and he wanted to show solidarity with the Jewish
community, which had been a critically important ally in the civil rights
Ultimately, King canceled a pilgrimage to
Israel in 1967 after Israel captured the West Bank. During a phone call about
the visit with his advisers, he said, “I just think that if I go, the Arab
world, and of course Africa and Asia for that matter, would interpret this as
endorsing everything that Israel has done, and I do have questions of doubt.”
He continued to support Israel’s right to
exist but also said on national television that it would be necessary for
Israel to return parts of its conquered territory to achieve true peace and
security and to avoid exacerbating the conflict. There was no way King could
publicly reconcile his commitment to nonviolence and justice for all people,
everywhere, with what had transpired after the 1967 war.
Today, we can only speculate about where
King would stand. Yet I find myself in agreement with the historian Robin D.G.
Kelley, who concluded that, if King had the opportunity to study the current
situation in the same way he had studied Vietnam, “his unequivocal opposition
to violence, colonialism, racism and militarism would have made him an incisive
critic of Israel’s current policies.”
Indeed, King’s views may have evolved
alongside many other spiritually grounded thinkers, like Rabbi Brian Walt, who
has spoken publicly about the reasons that he abandoned his faith in what he
viewed as political Zionism. To him, he recently explained to me, liberal
Zionism meant that he believed in the creation of a Jewish state that would be
a desperately needed safe haven and cultural center for Jewish people around
the world, "a state that would reflect as well as honor the highest ideals
of the Jewish tradition.” He said he grew up in South Africa in a family that
shared those views and identified as a liberal Zionist, until his experiences
in the occupied territories forever changed him.
During more than 20 visits to the West Bank
and Gaza, he saw horrific human rights abuses, including Palestinian homes
being bulldozed while people cried — children's toys strewn over one demolished
site — and saw Palestinian lands being confiscated to make way for new illegal
settlements subsidized by the Israeli government. He was forced to reckon with
the reality that these demolitions, settlements and acts of violent
dispossession were not rogue moves, but fully supported and enabled by the
Israeli military. For him, the turning point was witnessing legalized
discrimination against Palestinians — including streets for Jews only — which,
he said, was worse in some ways than what he had witnessed as a boy in South
Not so long ago, it was fairly rare to hear
this perspective. That is no longer the case.
Jewish Voice for Peace, for example, aims
to educate the American public about “the forced displacement of approximately
750,000 Palestinians that began with Israel’s establishment and that continues
to this day.” Growing numbers of people of all faiths and backgrounds have
spoken out with more boldness and courage. American organizations such as If
Not Now support young American Jews as they struggle to break the deadly
silence that still exists among too many people regarding the occupation, and
hundreds of secular and faith-based groups have joined the U.S. Campaign for
In view of these developments, it seems the
days when critiques of Zionism and the actions of the State of Israel can be
written off as anti-Semitism are coming to an end. There seems to be increased
understanding that criticism of the policies and practices of the Israeli
government is not, in itself, anti-Semitic.
This is not to say that anti-Semitism is
not real. Neo-Nazism is resurging in Germany within a growing anti-immigrant
movement. Anti-Semitic incidents in the United States rose 57 percent in 2017,
and many of us are still mourning what is believed to be the deadliest attack
on Jewish people in American history. We must be mindful in this climate that,
while criticism of Israel is not inherently anti-Semitic, it can slide there.
Fortunately, people like the Rev. Dr.
William J. Barber II are leading by example, pledging allegiance to the fight
against anti-Semitism while also demonstrating unwavering solidarity with the
Palestinian people struggling to survive under Israeli occupation.
He declared in a riveting speech last year
that we cannot talk about justice without addressing the displacement of native
peoples, the systemic racism of colonialism and the injustice of government
repression. In the same breath he said: “I want to say, as clearly as I know
how, that the humanity and the dignity of any person or people cannot in any
way diminish the humanity and dignity of another person or another people. To
hold fast to the image of God in every person is to insist that the Palestinian
child is as precious as the Jewish child.”
Guided by this kind of moral clarity, faith
groups are taking action. In 2016, the pension board of the United Methodist
Church excluded from its multibillion-dollar pension fund Israeli banks whose
loans for settlement construction violate international law. Similarly, the
United Church of Christ the year before passed a resolution calling for divestments
and boycotts of companies that profit from Israel’s occupation of Palestinian
Even in Congress, change is on the horizon.
For the first time, two sitting members, Representatives Ilhan Omar, Democrat
of Minnesota, and Rashida Tlaib, Democrat of Michigan, publicly support the
Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. In 2017, Representative Betty
McCollum, Democrat of Minnesota, introduced a resolution to ensure that no U.S.
military aid went to support Israel’s juvenile military detention system.
Israel regularly prosecutes Palestinian children detainees in the occupied
territories in military court.
None of this is to say that the tide has
turned entirely or that retaliation has ceased against those who express strong
support for Palestinian rights. To the contrary, just as King received fierce,
overwhelming criticism for his speech condemning the Vietnam War — 168 major
newspapers, including The Times, denounced the address the following day —
those who speak publicly in support of the liberation of the Palestinian people
still risk condemnation and backlash.
Bahia Amawi, an American speech pathologist
of Palestinian descent, was recently terminated for refusing to sign a contract
that contains an anti-boycott pledge stating that she does not, and will not,
participate in boycotting the State of Israel. In November, Marc Lamont Hill
was fired from CNN for giving a speech in support of Palestinian rights that
was grossly misinterpreted as expressing support for violence. Canary Mission
continues to pose a serious threat to student activists.
And just over a week ago, the Birmingham
Civil Rights Institute in Alabama, apparently under pressure mainly from
segments of the Jewish community and others, rescinded an honour it bestowed
upon the civil rights icon Angela Davis, who has been a vocal critic of
Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and supports B.D.S.
But that attack backfired. Within 48 hours,
academics and activists had mobilized in response. The mayor of Birmingham,
Randall Woodfin, as well as the Birmingham School Board and the City Council,
expressed outrage at the institute’s decision. The council unanimously passed a
resolution in Davis’ honour, and an alternative event is being organized to
celebrate her decades-long commitment to liberation for all.
I cannot say for certain that King would
applaud Birmingham for its zealous defence of Angela Davis’s solidarity with
Palestinian people. But I do. In this New Year, I aim to speak with greater
courage and conviction about injustices beyond our borders, particularly those
that are funded by our government, and stand in solidarity with struggles for
democracy and freedom. My conscience leaves me no other choice.
The Said al-Mis'hal cultural centre in Gaza
was hit by an Israeli airstrike in August.
Michelle Alexander became a New York Times columnist in 2018. She is a
civil rights lawyer and advocate, legal scholar and author of “The New Jim
Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.”