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January 19, 2015 4:58 pm

Martin Luther King Brought the Hebrew Prophets to Life

avatar by Shmuley Boteach

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Dr. Martin Luther King giving his "I Have a Dream" speech during the March on Washington in Washington, D.C., on 28 August 1963. Photo: Wiki Commons.

Martin Luther King Day is today, and to any American it should mean a rebirth of the principles enumerated on the Fourth of July, which commemorates the formation of our country upon the values of freedom and equality. When we remember Martin Luther King, however, we commemorate the man who helped America conform to those founding principles, which were being routinely violated. But to Jews, this day is also one of unique importance.

As protests swept through Ferguson and New York City these past few months, anti-Israel activists pounced on the opportunity to hijack the tragedies for their own ends. Mixed in with the “Black Lives Matter” billboards were a handful of other signs reading “Palestinian Lives Matter.” What the Israel haters are trying to do is to drive a wedge between the Jewish and black communities.

The relationship between blacks and Jews is one of true depth, one that strikes at the core of both peoples. It was not built on a shared oppression, but on a shared faith, not upon a common history, but upon a common destiny. Not on shared interests, but on shared values. Not upon a mutual alienation from the mainstream, but upon a mutual commitment to social justice.

Faith has always been the central pillar of the black community. The civil rights movement, far from being a simple political response to injustice and oppression, was a religious movement – one conceived in churches, led by ministers, and one that some claimed marched to the sounds of old “Negro spirituals.”

Faith fueled the soldiers of the civil rights movement and sacrifice sustained them. And it was this burning faith that serves as the true secret to their success. The world has seen so many liberation movements succumb to the battling egos of their leaders or simply replace the original oppressor with a newer one: Czar Nicholas with Lenin and Stalin, Batista with Fidel Castro, or a white-ruled Rhodesia for a Mugabe-controlled Zimbabwe.

The leaders of the civil rights movement, being men and women of deep faith and spiritual conviction, exhibited the most incredible humility. They always put the interest of the people before any personal lust for power. Walter Abernathy and Fred Shuttlesworth could easily have resented Martin Luther King, Jr., for his higher profile, and King could have wanted more for himself than to die on the lonely balcony of a second-rate Memphis motel. But their objective was not personal advancement but rather to lead God’s children toward a promised land of equal rights and human dignity. They put the people before their egos and placed reconciliation with the white man ahead of fratricidal civil war.

The same chains of slavery that bound the Jews in ancient Egypt and the blacks in the New World may have imprisoned their bodies. However, it liberated their spirit. Those chains taught Jews and blacks, above all else, to see in God the source of their salvation rather than in any professed human liberator, be he as righteous as Moses or as determined as Lincoln. Both became nations to whom faith was endemic and sustaining.

For most people, religion is a guide to gaining entry into the afterlife, a way of avoiding hell. For blacks and Jews, religion was a guide to finding hope and comfort in this life, so that their earthly existence might transcend the hell it often was. Other religions reinforced the oppression of the faithful by instructing them in the divine right of kings. But Jews and blacks always held fast to the faith that no man was born subject to another. To them, all men were princes.

Other religions taught men to accept their suffering in this world in exchange for the comforts of paradise, which would more than compensate. But the faith of Jews and African-Americans inspired them to challenge existing prejudices, because man is not born to suffer. Man dare not await the paradise of Eden. His highest obligation is to create heaven on earth.

As a Jew, my attachment to King’s speeches has little to do with the injustice of segregation, to which I was thankfully never subject, and everything to do with a modern preacher who brought the ancient Hebrew prophets to life. While studying at yeshiva I related to Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Micah as characters in a book. But after listening to King’s magical orations, many of which I have tried to memorize, I related to them as living figures – as emboldened and animated opponents of injustice. Like Moses, King never reached the promised land. But like Moses, he found redemption in a life of service over adventure, winning righteousness over recognition.

That the Jewish and black communities are distinguished by their attachment to their faith is further evidenced by the unique problems faced by each upon the abandonment of that faith. The Jewish break with ritualistic tradition has at times led to materialism. Assimilation has led to questioning one’s identity, a futile attempt to erase distinctive Jewish characteristics, and a misguided attempt to blend and disappear into the mainstream. For many in the African-American community, a loss of the anchor of faith has led to a breakdown in familial and social bonds.

Today, as we experience a subtle rise of anti-Semitism and racism, Jews and African-Americans need each other more than ever. To that end, Martin Luther King, and the day that commemorates the great man, should serve as a constant reminder.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbis,” whom Newsweek and The Washington Post call “the most famous Rabbi in America,” is the Founder of This World: The Values Network, the world’s leading organization defending Israel in world media. He is the author of “Judaism for Everyone” and 30 other books, including his most recent, “Kosher Lust.” Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.

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  • victoria brandeis

    excuse me…..with all that is going on how did MLK get his space here.

    I doubt that he is the man you all think or believe you know…..even the writer has some major issues and his link to jewishness..

    his namesake was a sick and hating individuals…….and from what i see now with the world and the south north east and west…….little black children and tall stringy black children are being led to the slaughter like jews….but, not like jews.

    these issues are not one….not even two… but ‘one’ …..get the under and lower dogs to bounce off one and the other….now its three and more
    black, brown, rag heads, terrorists, muslims.africans, and so many more

  • rbockman

    I must be the only one who noticed that black violence in America’s cities increased with King’s popularity.

  • JEWISH LIVES MATTER. Rabbi Dr. Bernhard Rosenberg

    • Jon R.

      Unlike other lives.

  • Rav Shmuley – you are a great teacher!
    You have shared wisdom, when much is needed to rebuild the historic Black-Jewish coalition.
    Thank you!

  • Julian Clovelley

    If one places too much emphasis on Martin Luther King’s speeches one underestimates the true courage of the man and the core reason for his success. It lay in his incredibly brave direct activism.

    King taught his people to confront the terrors of living in the Southern States. He taught them to have the courage to sit where they wanted to sit, to eat in the restaurants they wanted to eat, join the clubs and churches they wanted to join and pursue their rights as citizens, including registering to vote

    He taught his fellows to have the courage to take the beatings and the abuse but to remain firm in their determination to lead normal lives and to express their personal dignity as Americans.

    King died, not for making speeches, but for making actual changes. It wasn’t the speeches and marches that were resented by the racist community – it was the simple determination that King demonstrated to live in an environment of common rights and indeed common law. King upheld the basic principles – so often forgotten – of the tradition of common law – the demand that the application of justice be rational, always considered, and without prejudice.

    King’s last speech – in the spirit of Moses – was a very great speech, perhaps the greatest of all. But it was dwarfed by the courage of his preceding direct action. He was present in Memphis to express solidarity with poorly treated Afro-American Sanitation Workers. On March 28th a protest march led by King ended in violence, and the death of an Afro American teenager. King had left the city vowing to return in early April

    He fulfilled that promise, and on April 4th he was shot dead in Memphis. His convicted murderer died in 1998.

    The Conservative Right would happily honour King for his speeches, but they would simultaneously obscure his increasing concern with the problems of economic inequality in America – problems that get worse daily as the abyss between rich and poor widens and deepens

    King in the twentieth century fulfilled the role of trade unionists in the nineteenth century – demanding democratic representation, economic equalisation, and proper organised social services. King’s was the demand that Government, however elected, recognise and act upon its duty of care – its duty of welfare.

    The strongest accusation made by the racist Right Wing ultra Conservatives was correct. Dr Martin Luther King was not just a “civil rights leader” or a powerful orator. King was a revolutionary, in the great tradition of American Revolutionists.

    Never forget that. We shall overcome. It’s about power and equality, racism and class. It always was.

    • charlie johnson

      Communist probably jumped with joy when MLK got shot and may have had a hand in it. Communist need dead bodies to serve their cause of revolution.The remaining members of the King family defended the man in prison who was tried and convicted of the murder. What happened with the murder of MLK? It could have became a large US revolution to serve the cause of the communist.The commies failed to take in account of the fact that black USA Christians were not supporters of godless communist.So their little scheme petered out. But now we have a new generation of atheist to contend with.Fueled by drugs and perverted Marxist ideas. We have the golfing parrot who was around eight or nine when King was murdered. He told the USA that he was a Christian.He has been more closely associated with communist radicals than Christians. We shall wait and see how this situation turns out.The educated socialist are foaming at the mouth and know that they have less than two years to work their plans. I often pray for the safety of the golfing parrot because he can be used as a tool of the commie/socialist whom he puts so much faith in. I pray thatthis fool remains well guarded. I would not complain of the cost of providing him with Navy SEAL or Army Special Forces body guards.

  • charlie johnson

    It was not the best of times in the USA.A lot of things that happened will not be told because the gate keeper clerk is self serving in the interest of his own kind.I believe the MLK was a real Christian and even he like all had faults.I believe his remaining close relatives are Christian and good people too.They don’t get much press for that reason. But as an example how public knowledge is under the control of few .Look at the youth of today.A large number are affected by drugs.It has ruined the lives of many.I know, I have been around the nation. I see a lot of degradation that gets little attention by news clerks.But worst of all is the civil rights leaders ignore the problem of drugs.That includes booze. If I was addicted to dangerous drugs could I blame a race of people for my problems? This evil has no skin color and it affects all races.These people are slaves but maybe they are not aware of it.We have very powerful people making these drugs fashionable to the youth.You know.I only once heard Mister Ferrikhan make an issue of the matter.But I think he blamed whitey even then.So,The south is long gone. The people are as free as they choose to be. The new evil is drugs and extreme desire for pleasure. But where are today’s civil rights leaders pointing their finger? At whitey.It is time to face up to the truth.

    • charlie johnson

      An after thought.Maybe the Rabbi could tell the tale of Micheal Jackson? He was a great musician.I will repeat something Micheal told that few would believe. He used to be a fan of an old white man from Alabama and listen to his records.Hank Williams was the mans name.One thing about people.Each one is amazing. But maybe the Rabbi can tell about what happened to the nice young Micheal Jackson.He had a lot of money.Some think money is the source of happiness.I guess Elvis did too before he got his share.

      • charlie johnson

        I might add something else here. I have worked with black Americans often, I have served in war with black Americans.Some I don’t like.Some don’t like me.But many of those kind and I get along well together.Especially Southern blacks.The kind that do the real jobs instead of an office job,Few are interior decorators or clerks.Some have really good skills at doing technical things.Some take their jobs seriously and work hard.A few are useless jerks,Just like my own kind. But the golfing parrot wants these guys to be office clerks.Former combat paratroopers.They aren’t suited to office jobs.But tell that fool who grew up in a clerks world.He has no clue about typical USA blacks.None I have known were golfers.The honest workings ones did a big part of building the USA. They are my kind of blacks. But these kind are ignored. The little white geeky liberals think that the USA should be a world of clerks.The news media are of the same cut of the cloth.Now the younger ones are rebelling against the older ones. The liberals use the young fools and bait them with dope. I think MLK’s dream has become a nightmare. A lot of blacks might agree.But the TV folks keep this under wraps. By the way.We are getting around 13 trillion into debt.Working folks used to keep the debt down. China is not a nation of clerks. BUT WE ARE.

    • Julian Clovelley

      With a degree of wry amusement and tongue in cheek , I would point out Charlie that within the Jihadist movement you will find ample violence and not a drop of booze. So it is drawing a long bow to put the blame for violence on the content of the bottle, rather than the content of the person. People do not get shot because people are angry, but because angry people carry guns, and use them as tools of their anger.

      As for drugs I note that from the marijuana and opium producing areas of the Arab world, right through to the Golden Triangle, there was far greater peace when the traditional drug economy was not interfered with. Indeed Persians have told me that they remember much of the old time use of drugs in those areas as having been the province of the old, rather than of youth

      The drug problem can never be solved so long as it is treated as a matter for prohibition and criminality. It is a dangerous and prevalent medical problem. The “war on drugs” has created the black market economy that finances much of the present violence. In addition, right since the time of Vietnam, it has also provided a source of corruption within Western intelligence and security forces.

      The satirist P J O’Rourke put it rather well: “Anyway, no drug, not even alcohol, causes the fundamental ills of society. If we’re looking for the source of our troubles, we shouldn’t test people for drugs, we should test them for stupidity, ignorance, greed and love of power.”

      I reflect on that every time I see attempts to encourage Jewish people to vote for the Conservative Right.- the area of politics from which Fascism and Nazism always spring as populist movements