Displayed on the jump of this article (inside back page) is a signed January 18, 1963 program that reads, “Temple Sharey Shalom presents An Evening with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Nobel Laureate) speaking on Revolution in Religion.”
King undoubtedly accepted an invitation to speak at the Friday night services of this Reform congregation in Springfield, New Jersey, because of his close personal friendship with its rabbi, Israel (“Sy”) Dresner, a prominent figure in the civil rights movement who was an original Freedom Rider; one of King’s most trusted interfaith advisers; and a man who, because of his marches and protests in support of an interracial America, had earned the title of “the most arrested rabbi in America.”
While King’s dedication to civil rights is universally recognized, not nearly as well-known is his concern for the plight of Jews in general and his dedication to Israel as the Jewish state in particular. He believed that that the history of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust transformed support for Israel into an important moral cause.
For example, in his famed Letter from Birmingham Jail (April 16, 1963), in which he defends the strategy of nonviolent resistance to racism and argues that people have a moral duty to violate unjust laws, King wrote:
We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was “legal”…. It was “illegal” to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers.
In a 1958 speech to the American Jewish Congress, King promoted what was to become a frequent theme:
My people were brought in America in chains. Your people were driven here to escape the chains fashioned for them in Europe. Our unity is born out of our common struggle for centuries, not only to rid us of bondage, but to make oppression of any people by others an impossibility.
King was particularly concerned about the growing defamatory characterization of Zionism as racism, and he opposed the anti-Zionism in the “Black Power” movement. In a celebrated response to a student who attacked Zionism during a dinner event in 1968, he angrily snapped, “Don’t talk like that! When people criticize Zionists, they mean Jews. You’re talking anti-Semitism!”
In a letter to Adolph Held, president of the Jewish Labor Committee, King wrote that “Israel’s right to exist as a state is incontestable.” In a sermon delivered at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York on May 17, 1956, a short time before the 1956 Suez crisis with Egypt, he said “there is something in the very nature of the universe which is on the side of Israel in its struggle with Egypt.” Though radicals in the civil rights movement vociferously identified with the Arabs in the run-up to the 1967 Six-Day War, King signed an open letter to President Johnson published in The New York Times urging American support for Israel.
Speaking at the annual convention of the (Conservative) Rabbinical Assembly just ten days before his tragic murder, he said:
Peace for Israel means security, and we must stand with all our might to protect her right to exist, its territorial integrity and the right to use whatever sea lanes it needs. Israel is one of the great outposts of democracy in the world, and a marvelous example of what can be done, how desert land can be transformed into an oasis of brotherhood and democracy. Peace for Israel means security, and that security must be a reality.