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Was MLK the Herzl of the Americans?

Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer’s speech at the Ebenezer Baptist Church

Ron Dermer
January 15, 2016
Photo:  Tom LeGro/PBS NewsHour via Flickr
Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Photo: Tom LeGro/PBS NewsHour via Flickr
Photo:  Tom LeGro/PBS NewsHour via Flickr
Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Photo: Tom LeGro/PBS NewsHour via Flickr

Nearly half a century after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, Americans have clearly placed him in the pantheon of America’s most admired leaders. That’s not hard to understand. One of the greatest speakers in modern times, Dr. King put his rhetorical gifts in the service of what is rightfully regarded as one of the most just causes in American history.

For American Jews, who take great pride in having played such a disproportionate role in the civil rights movement, Dr. King is nothing less than an icon. That iconic status will prove all the more enduring because of Dr. King’s support of another great moral cause of the 20th century—the establishment of the Jewish state.

Dr. King understood the moral imperative of Israel and admired Israel’s values. He also had no problem unmasking the enemies of the Jewish people. Responding to a student who was criticizing “Zionists,” Dr. King didn’t mince words: “When people criticize Zionists, they mean Jews. You’re talking anti-Semitism.”

For all these reasons and more, I have long had a profound admiration for Dr. King. I’ve read and reread many of his speeches and writings and still get chills listening to his soaring oratory.

So, when I was invited this past November to speak at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Church, where Dr. King served as pastor, I was deeply honored. I saw this speech as an opportunity not merely to remind people of the historic role played by Jews during the civil rights movement but to explain why Dr. King’s moral vision continues to resonate so powerfully with Jews, both in the fight against terrorism and the search for peace.

Ladies and Gentlemen, in the shadow of the heinous attacks in Paris, we meet in a church that taught the whole world the meaning of the words, “We shall overcome.” So I can think of few places more appropriate to stand in solidarity with the victims of terror and to tell all those fanatics who want us to live in fear: “We shall overcome.” “We shall overcome.” “We shall overcome.”

Reverend Warnock, it is hard for me to convey to you and your congregation how honored I am to be here today. From time to time, ambassadors are given the opportunity to speak at important gatherings and in important places. But your invitation to speak at Ebenezer Church is the greatest honor that has been bestowed upon me since I became Israel’s Ambassador to the United States. I deeply, deeply appreciate it.

Ladies and Gentlemen, today, I want to speak about prophets and kings, about noble ends and just means, about the battle against fanaticism and the hope for peace.

In the Bible, we read of legendary kings. We read of King David, the brave boy who felled Goliath, the valiant warrior who conquered Jerusalem, the beloved leader who united the tribes of Israel.

We read of King Solomon, the learned poet who taught us there’s nothing new under the sun, the wise judge who returned a stolen child to his rightful mother, the magnificent statesman who secured a glorious age of peace for his people.

In the Bible, we also read of great prophets. We read of Isaiah’s promise of a time when swords will be beaten into ploughshares. We read of Amos’ plea that justice roll down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.

But in the Bible, prophets and kings had very different roles. The prophet was a man of words, whose mission was to fire the people’s imagination with a vision of a different future. The king was a man of action, whose mission was to lead the people in realizing that vision.

That is why I am so honored that you have given me the privilege to speak to you today as Israel’s Ambassador. Because in ancient Israel, kings were never prophets and prophets were never kings.

But in Ebenezer Church, there once was a king who was a prophet. He was a modern day prophet who preached a vision in which character determined destiny and in which the sacred ideals of this great nation would finally be extended to all its citizens.

Yet this man of unmatched oratorical powers was also a man of action. He organized boycotts, sit-ins and marches, from the buses of Montgomery to the lunch counters of Birmingham to the mall in Washington. Dr. King understood that in order to bend the arc of history towards justice, he had to combine lofty words with practical actions.

No less important, Dr. King’s actions were true to his words. It’s one thing for a prophet to preach of noble ends. It’s another for a king to pursue those noble ends through just means. But that is exactly what Dr. King did. The man who called for a colorblind society was himself colorblind.

The man who spoke of the equality of all of God’s children treated all children equally. The man who preached nonviolence practiced non-violence. It was this combination of noble ends and just means that I believe caused so many Jews to admire Dr. King and gravitate to the civil rights movement he led.

Jews shared in the triumphs. They locked arms with Dr. King to cross a bridge in Selma and stood with him by the feet of Lincoln. But Jews also shared in the tragedies. In 1964, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, like James Chaney, never returned from a trip down to Mississippi to register African-Americans to vote.

It’s not surprising that Jews felt at home in the civil rights movement. Like African-Americans, the seminal event in the life of the Jewish people was our journey from bondage to freedom. But Jews did not need a reminder every Passover of our Exodus from ancient Egypt in order to empathize with those facing white-hooded men and Jim Crow laws. That’s because Jews had faced bloodthirsty mobs and rampant discrimination for so many centuries, in so many countries.

People know about the horrors of the Holocaust—the 6 million murdered—a third of the Jewish people. Just to understand what it means to lose a third of your people, it would be the equivalent of over 100 million Americans. And if that’s a big number to wrap your minds around, imagine a 9/11 every day, for a century. That’s what the Holocaust did to the Jewish people.

But just as slavery is not the sum total of the oppression and injustice faced by African-Americans, the Holocaust is not the sum total of the oppression and injustice faced by the Jewish people. Not even close. Here are a few things you might not know.

In the 13th century, Jews were expelled from England. In the 14th, we were expelled from France. In the 15th, we were expelled from Spain and Portugal. Thousands of Jews were burned alive during the Crusades and tortured during the Inquisition. And as the age of science and enlightenment took root in Western Europe, hundreds of thousands of Jews were massacred in Eastern Europe.

Murder and expulsion were also not the only crimes that claimed Jewish victims. History has taught the Jews all too well what it means to be a second-class citizen, to be shut out of certain professions, to be banned from certain neighborhoods.

You know where the word ghetto comes from? It’s an Italian word that means canon factory. In 16th century Venice, Jews were confined to an area near that city’s canon factory. So that area became known as the ghetto. Soon, the word was used to describe areas across Europe where Jews were forced to live.

Even in America, the age-old disease of anti-Semitism was not fully eradicated. I was born in Miami Beach. It’s a great city, where both my father and brother served as Mayors. But it was once a place steeped in ant-Semitism. Jews could not live north of 5th street and hotels in Miami Beach used to advertise to vacationers that there were “no dogs, no Jews and no blacks allowed.”

Because of our long history of persecution, the Jewish people could empathize with the plight of African-Americans as few others could. But what made Jews flock to Dr. King was more than empathy. It was Dr. King’s remarkable vision and his inspiring actions. It was the noble ends he championed and the just means by which he pursued them.

Dr. King’s vision of universal equality resonated with my people because we had brought that vision into the world over 3,000 years ago.

The most powerful statement ever made about social justice comes from the Book of Genesis, chapter 1, verse 27. “God created mankind in his own image.” To truly believe that all are created in the image of god is to appreciate the inherent dignity of every human being. To see the spark of the divine in all is to believe in the fundamental equality of all—black and white, man and woman, Jew and Gentile.

If Dr. King’s vision appealed to Jews, so too did his actions. His dignified path of non-violence and his appeal to conscience inspired a Jewish people whose faith had long insisted that might does not make right.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the admiration the Jewish people felt toward Dr. King was reciprocated in the admiration Dr. King expressed for the Jewish state. Dr. King said that “we must stand with all our might to protect Israel’s right to exist.”

Perhaps Dr. King saw in Israel a kindred spirit—a land of noble ends and just means. After all, Dr. King’s goal was to ensure that African-Americans, like all Americans, could exercise their individual right of self-determination in the country they called home. And Israel’s goal has always been to ensure that the Jewish people, like all people, can exercise our collective right of self-determination in the land we have always called home. And like Dr. King, Israel has pursued its noble goal through just means.

By being what Dr. King called “one of the great outposts of democracy in the world, a marvelous example of what can be done, how desert land can be transformed into an oasis of brotherhood and democracy.” By welcoming millions of immigrants fleeing the killing fields of Europe, the intolerance of the Middle East and North Africa, and the tyranny of the former Soviet Union—and by airlifting tens of thousands of Ethiopian Jews to Israel. By constantly seeking peace and by making compromises to achieve peace. And by upholding the highest values even while defending ourselves against the most brutal enemies who seek our destruction.

Now, Israel is not perfect. No nation is. The wars we have been forced to fight have tragically and unintentionally claimed the lives of innocent victims. All wars do. But Israel has proudly upheld the highest values in the most dangerous region on earth and facing threats faced by no other country. That is something I believe Dr. King would have been proud of as well.

Ladies and Gentlemen, if Israel is a country that embodies the idea of pursuing noble goals through just means, the forces of militant Islam, like those that just struck at the heart of Paris, represent the utter rejection of this idea. Their ends are not noble and their means are not just. The forces of militant Islam go by many different names. ISIS and Boko Haram, the Quds force and al-Qaida, Hezbollah and Hamas. But these disparate groups are all fired by the same fanaticism. They seek not to uplift humanity but to subjugate it. They seek not to join the community of nations but to rule a world where there is only one nation.

In their vision, women are chattel, gays are hanged, minorities are massacred and there is no place for Christians, Jews or Muslims who do not share their unforgiving creed. The grisly actions of the militant Islamists are also true to their twisted vision. They target theaters in Paris, schoolgirls in Nigeria, subways in London, skyscrapers in New York, buses in Jerusalem and Jewish Community Centers in Buenos Aires.

To defeat this savagery, the forces of modernity must stand together to confront them. But powerful armies and superior intelligence capabilities alone will not win this war. We must also win the battle of ideas. And winning that battle requires moral clarity. It means distinguishing good from evil. It means not deeming the terrorists and their victims equally entitled to sympathy. It means never excusing acts of savagery. It means learning from the life and message of Dr. King.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the first lesson we must learn from Dr. King is that nothing justifies terrorism, nothing justifies the deliberate targeting of the innocent. When it comes to terror against my country, the world often forgets that lesson. When our buses are blown up, our cities are rocketed, and our citizens are stabbed, we hear leaders and diplomats around the world condemn the violence and then in the same breath make excuses for it.

You have to understand, they tell us, the reason why these attacks are happening is because of the occupation or because there’s no peace process or because the Palestinians don’t have a state. Most people believe this despite the fact that for nearly half a century before there was any so-called occupation, hundreds of Jews were murdered by Palestinian terrorists and despite the fact that both when the peace process was racing ahead and when it was at a standstill, hundreds of Jews were murdered by Palestinian terrorists. They believe this because they forget a second lesson we must learn from Dr. King—that those who deliberately target the innocent are not driven by some legitimate grievance that can be addressed.

You see, many people continue to believe that the root cause of terrorism is poverty or the deprivation of rights. But think about that for a second. Was Osama bin Laden poor? I don’t remember him or any of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 standing on line at soup kitchens. They were relatively wealthy and well-educated.

Bangladesh and Haiti are two of the poorest countries in the world. How many Bangladeshi and Haitian terrorists have you heard of?

And what about the idea that what drives terrorism is the deprivation of rights? Think about that too. Was Gandhi deprived of his rights? You bet he was. He and his followers wanted to end Britain’s occupation of India. But did Gandhi send people to blow up buses in London? Did he order the murder of innocent women and children? Of course not.

And what about Dr. King? Was he and his followers deprived of their rights. You know they were. But did Dr. King champion murdering the innocent? Of course not.

Like Gandhi, Dr. King pursued his noble goal through just means. And the means chosen by Dr. King tell us about his true goals. Freedom. Peace. Life. So too, the unjust means chosen by those who would murder the innocent tell us about their true goals. Tyranny. War. Death.

Ladies and Gentlemen, those who murder the innocent will never be just rulers. Those who target women and children will never be partners in peace. That is something to keep in mind when you think about peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

The great tragedy for Israelis and Palestinians alike has been that for the past century, the Palestinian leadership has had neither noble goals nor employed just means. Unfortunately, their goal has not been to establish a Palestinian state. It has been to destroy a Jewish state. And rather than abandon the path of terrorism, many Palestinian leaders have embraced it—not only by perpetrating terror but by glorifying it—by naming public squares after mass murderers, by inciting violence in their media, and by inculcating hatred in their schools.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the hope for peace between Israelis and Palestinians does not depend on who sits in the Oval Office or on what decisions are made at the United Nations. The hope for peace depends on what is in the minds and hearts of young Palestinians. The hope for peace is that those young Palestinians will dream not of being a Supreme Ruler or a Despotic King but of being their people’s Martin Luther King, Jr. The hope for peace is that a dream like Dr. King’s will be studied in the schools of Ramallah and preached in the Mosques of Gaza. When Palestinian children dream those dreams, when Palestinian leaders nurture those dreams, when Palestinian society values those dreams, there can and will be peace at last in the holy land.

And when the values of the king who was a prophet are embraced not just by our Palestinian neighbors in the land of kings and prophets but by all humanity, there will be peace at last, peace at last, peace at last. May God bless each and every one of you.

Reprinted by permission of the Embassy of Israel.

Ron Dermer is the Israeli Ambassador to the United States.