How Martin Luther King Jr. avoided visiting Israel
Documents that have come to light 45 years after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. show Israel’s efforts to woo the civil rights leader – a campaign that never came to fruition.
The Israel Consul in Atlanta, Zeev Dover, had an interesting idea 50 years ago. In order to bring the State of Israel closer to the “black community,” he made a suggestion to the Foreign Ministry: To send books on Judaism and Israel to “the libraries of every black college.” Alongside this, Dover recommended inviting African-American lecturers to “black colleges” who “had visited Israel and are familiar with our history.” In this way, he hoped Israel could contribute towards “introducing the sophisticated nature of the national movement for the social-cultural regeneration of the people of Israel to this group.”
These ideas can be found in a memorandum under the heading “Ties with the black community,” sent by the consul to the Israeli Embassy in Washington on November 9, 1962. The memo is part of a selection of documents that deal with Israel’s ties with the black community in the United States, and with its failed attempts to host the black leader Martin Luther King in Israel.
These documents were recently released by the State Archives, on the 45th anniversary of King’s assassination. Studying them is also relevant during the run-up to the visit of another black leader to these shores – U.S. President Barack Obama.
The internal debate within Israel regarding Martin Luther King was revealed in a classified document that the consul in Atlanta sent to the Washington embassy in August 1962. Exactly a year later, King led the huge demonstration in Washington, where he delivered his historic “I have a dream” speech.
The Israel Consul in Atlanta wrote that he “places great importance on forming connections with the black leadership,” but added: “In my opinion the time is not yet ripe for his visit to Israel.” He explained that this was because King represents “the militant wing of the civil rights movement,” and that important organizations “are not in agreement with him and oppose his methods.” He also added that alongside the global fame King had attained, he also had managed to alienate groups of moderate African Americans.
The consul raised the concern that inviting King to Israel would lead to “severe negative responses,” and recommended that “in any case, we should not be the first country that gives King so-called international status.” He also warned that King’s visit to Israel could harm Israel’s ties with Southern states in the U.S., who felt threatened by the dominant radical leader. At the end of the memo he recommended “shelving the idea until the right moment,” and added “our efforts to enter into discussions with different factors in the black community must be done…without being overly conspicuous.”
The next letter he sent on the subject to his superiors at the Foreign Ministry, in November 1962, presented a more complex picture: On the one hand, the black community does not have real impact or importance in the U.S. – and therefore Israel shouldn’t go out of its way to woo it. On the other, he noticed the unrest that had begun, and warned that Israel should not ignore it.
“It is important that we define what our specific objectives are towards this population, and accord them the appropriate treatment,” he wrote. He added the argument that African-Americans only comprise 11 percent of the population of the U.S., and said that: “despite the high birthrate [they] will remain a minority. Moreover, many more years will pass until this racial minority recovers from the economic and educational backwardness that is the result of discrimination.”
When reading the consul’s words, it’s worth bearing in mind the spirit of the times they were written in. Today they may seem racist and arrogant: “Uniting and driving the Negros is the urge to defend themselves against discrimination and all that entails. It is unlikely that in the near future, the Negros will become a group with the political and economic influence consistent with their numbers in the total population. This is also because of their low average levels of education and affluence, and also since domestic pressures are at the top of their concerns, with the rest of the world taking second place to their struggle for recognition.”
However, the consul warned that “we should not ignore this large population,” and recommended “fostering contact with all its branches more than ever before.” He also said that Israel’s main concern should be directed towards “laying the ground for the future.”
Among other things, the consul suggested emphasizing the historical similarities between Jews and blacks as persecuted minorities, but added that “our first goal must be, in my opinion, filling the gap in [their] knowledge and clarifying the eternal connection between the Jewish people and their country.”
He attached to the letter a list of dozens of American colleges that had black students. “In the southern U.S., blacks are concentrated in their own special colleges, which allows us special access to this sector without the fear of ‘discrimination’ on our part that could occur after making a special and separate request to students on mixed campuses” he wrote.
While the Israeli government had not yet formulated its final position regarding King, there were other organizations in Israel that hurried to invite him to visit. The Histadrut labor federation received King’s confirmation – but for some unknown reason he cancelled his visit. This pattern repeated itself several times over the next few years: Authorities in Israel invited him, he responded in the affirmative, but the visits never took place. In 1964, following the announcement that King was to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, Israeli representatives met with him.
Deputy Prime Minister Abba Eban met with King in Washington and invited him to visit Israel. King accepted, but a date was not set. Five months later, in March 1965, the Israeli ambassador in Washington, Avraham Harman, invited King as an official guest of the Israeli government to visit “on any date at his convenience.” This invitation was another that went unfulfilled.
In December that same year, King met with Shimon Yallon, the consul general of Israel in Atlanta. At the start of the meeting King said he had held an “open invitation” to visit Israel for four years, but that his visit had, unfortunately, yet to take place.
Half a year later, King wrote to the Israeli ambassador in Washington. In his letter, he said that he was “very embarrassed” he didn’t respond to his request over the course of several months. He justified this as follows: “Just the other day one of my secretaries discovered a large number of letters that had been placed in a folder of ‘letters to be filed.’…Your letter was, unfortunately, one of those in that particular folder…I can assure you that it was not due to sheer carelessness but to the pressures of an understaffed and overworked office.”
But despite the apology, King ended the letter with a reservation: “At this writing, it is not possible for me to give you a date when I can go there, but I do hope that my schedule will soon ease up so that I can accept an invitation to go to Israel,” he wrote to the ambassador.
The trend started to change in 1967. Prime Minister Levi Eshkol wrote to King that he was happy to hear about his coming visit to Israel, and offered government sponsorship for the trip. In May 1967 King responded, saying that he would accept the invitation and that he would be happy to meet the prime minister personally: “Take this means to express my deep appreciation to you for the invitation you extended me to come to your wonderful country,” he wrote. The outbreak of the Six-Day War gave him an excuse to cancel the visit again. Less than a year later, in April 1968, he was assassinated.
One can understand why Israel made such efforts to bring about a visit from King – as a visit from a Nobel laureate could have improved Israel’s standing in the U.S. and Africa, where he was revered. As to the question of why King did not accept the invitations, there is no clear-cut answer.
“King was sympathetic to Israel and declared support for its right to exist in peace. But given all the delays and evasions, it seems he did not want to identify himself with Israel to this extent during the struggle for equal rights for blacks in the United States,” write Shlomo Mark and Hagai Zoref at the State Archives. “It is possible that the fact that during the 1960s his status began to decline in the African-American community, with the rise of more radical groups that were identified with anti-Israel positions, such as Malcolm X and the Black Panthers, also contributed to this,” they added.