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January 21, 2019 10:00 am

On MLK Day, the Future of African-American and Jewish Relations Hangs in the Balance

avatar by Abraham Cooper and Harold Brackman


A mural commemorating Dr Martin Luther King Jr., in Chattanooga, TN. Photo: Reuters/Billy Weeks.

On this Martin Luther King Day, the future of African-American and Jewish relations hangs in the balance.

The explosive controversy around National Women’s March leaders like Tamika Mallory refusing to apologize for their love of Louis Farrakhan — or to affirm Israel’s right to exist — is disturbing enough. But The New York Times’ decision to feature Michelle Alexander’s op-ed, “Time to Break the Silence on Palestine,” signals the opening of a new line of attack against our community.

Michelle Alexander has superstar credentials. She taught the Civil Rights Clinic at Stanford Law School and clerked for Justice Harry Blackmun at the Supreme Court. Today, she teaches “social justice” at Union Theological Seminary. Her 2010 bestseller, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, argues persuasively that the post-1960s “war on drugs” cemented African-American males’ status deep in the new underclass, a condition of racial inferiority reminiscent of the post-Reconstruction Jim Crow era. But she implies that much of our current racial crisis is the result of white racists — and immoral white liberal politicians in league with them. During 2016, she urged African-Americans and white progressives not to vote for Hillary Clinton.

James Foreman, Jr., son of a civil rights icon and himself a Yale Law professor, just won a Pulitzer Prize for Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America. His central thesis in may ways reinforces Alexander’s argument — as he has acknowledged. Yet Foreman has criticized Alexander for downplaying the role of exploding black violent crime during the 1960s and 1970s in creating a political crisis over drugs, for flirting with the idea of an alleged white-racist political conspiracy when many African Americans also supported a harsh crackdown on crime, and for inflaming black-white polarization at a time when cross-race and cross-class alliances are needed for prison reform.

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In her New York Times broadside, Alexander paints a picture of Israel’s “occupation” of Palestinian territories as the greatest human rights crime of our time. There is no mention of Arab armies repeatedly invading Israel, of Palestinian terrorism, of the corrupt Palestinian Authority’s refusal to negotiate a peaceful two-state solution, or of the genocidal Hamas. Worst of all is her shameless revision of Martin Luther King’s history to re-imagine him as a late-blooming critic of Israel.

King was a man of peace and a humanitarian, sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinians. But he knew — from first to last — the difference between right and wrong in the Middle East.

The young Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1956 commented: “There is something in the very nature of the universe which is on the side of Israel in its struggle with every Egypt.” King apotheosized the positive side of African-American Christian identification with Zion. In 1959, King made his only trip to the Middle East. Barred by Jordan from visiting the Old City, he was indelibly affected by Jerusalem.

In Miami Beach — to the national convention of the American Jewish Congress on May 14, 1958 — King said: “My people were brought to America in chains. Your people were driven here to escape the chains fashioned for them in Europe. Our unity is born of our common struggle for centuries, not only to rid ourselves of bondage, but to make oppression of any people by others an impossibility. … There are Hitlers loose in America today, both in high and low places.”

Interviewed by the editor of Conservative Judaism on March 25, 1968, soon after he attended a birthday celebration for Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel before 1,000 rabbis in upstate New York and just 10 days before his assassination, King declared: “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 can almost be transformed into an oasis of brotherhood and democracy. Peace for Israel means security and that security must be a reality.”

So why is Alexander’s piece so significant? Because it represents the new progressive-left “intersectional” policy of trying to demonize Israel and remove Jews from movements like the Women’s March with a powerful boost from The New York Times. This campaign recalls the 1940s, when the Times only ambivalently endorsed the 1947 UN Partition Plan for a Jewish state, and then stayed silent about Israel’s actual declaration of independence. The political narrative is different now, but the anti-Israel trend lines are analogous.

We are witnessing the opening shot in a new 21st century war to de-legitimize Israel, home to the world’s largest Jewish population and the values of our people — including our love of Zion. We now face a two-front attack — one from white supremacist antisemites responsible for Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue massacre, the other from our erstwhile multi-racial progressive friends, who seem to want a Judenrein vision of equality and mutual respect. We must fight both movements vigorously.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper is Associate Dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Historian Harold Brackman is a long-time consultant for the Center.

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