"Coretta, Dr. King and Zionism"
Week of February 10, 2006
The death of Coretta Scott King, widow of
the late Martin Luther King reminded me of meeting her. Ms. King came to
Memphis to attend a function of a Civil Rights organization and I was seated
close to her at a banquet which followed the program. As we were introduced,
I recalled my meeting with her husband. “And what did you discuss”, she
asked. “I reviewed, at her insistence my entire thirty minute meeting with
Dr. King and why it happened. Let me share it with you.
I had just returned from the Soviet Union in the summer of 1965 and I had an
important story to tell. Two things I learned. Persecution of Soviet Jewry
was worse than I had expected and contrary to what I was told, the few Jews
who dared to speak begged for loud protests all over the free world. I
reported this to Dr. King and asked that he speak out, and he did,
frequently and with passion.
I told Dr. King the story of a little boy who spent eleven years from the
moment he was born never leaving his parent’s one room apartment thereby
preventing their only child’s unknown existence government from attending a
school where atheism is doctrine. Tears became visible in King’s eyes. He
rose from his seat and raised his meliforous voice, “Where is this child
now?” King, as many will remember was a strong voice in support of Soviet
Jewry and helped bring this boy and his parents to Israel. Mrs. King’s voice
cracked slightly. She had heard the story and always wondered how her
As my conversation with Mrs. King came near to the end, I turned to her
saying, and yes, there was something else. I had mentioned the name of a
prominent leader in the then Civil Rights movement who declared that he was
anti-Zionist and not anti-Semitic and as I was about to repeat Dr. King’s
reaction to this, Coretta King interrupted, “oh no, my husband said
anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism.”
Only recently was a published statement from Dr. King read to me in which
this great man, a major leader of the twentieth century asserted his
rejection of anti-Zionism.
I often wonder why today anti-Zionism goes unabated both here and in Israel
and among some orthodox Jews as well. King clearly understood how vulnerable
Jews would be in a world without a Jewish State and its own defense forces.
Without Israel, King argued, Jews could once again be the subjects of
Mrs. King seemed sympathetic. I do not know her personal views but she was
gracious and concurred with what I told her about her husband.
You could well argue that any reference to Zionism today has no meaning or
at least very little. Secular Israelis will often tell you that Zionism is
passé now that there is a Jewish State. More recently there are voices of
some who declare themselves former Zionists as a result of the Gaza
disengagement. The fact is that the enemies of Israel are anti-Semites but
disguise their hatred of Jews as opposition to Zionism. King asserted that
the end of Zionism will be the end of the Jewish people, and he was right.
We can all hold different opinions and strong disagreements with Israeli
leaders and parties. That in itself is healthy and democratic, but to oppose
the State threatens but to oppose the State threatens its existence and only
give support to those who hate Jews as a people.
I have spent most of my adult years as a Rav in the south. Almost thirty of
those years were in Memphis, Tennessee, the place where Dr. King was
tragically assassinated. I was not there at the time, but two of this
community’s Rabbis marched with King in protest rallies in Memphis and in
Selma, Alabama. In Selma, many of the Jews donned yarmulkes. Some of the
black leaders took not of this and requested they be allowed to wear these
caps as well. When asked why they chose to war Jewish caps, someone
responded, “Our cause is a Jewish cause, for just as the Jews must never
suffer again, we demand that all of the children of G-d feel free, with
justice for all.”
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