Only 26 percent of white Americans supported Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1966. As a white Jewish American, I try to hold on to that truth more tightly even than the sepia-toned memory of Abraham Joshua Heschel at King’s side. What can I learn, what can I use, in organizing for justice today, with the knowledge of how rare white solidarity with the Black-led struggle for freedom was and is. As a white Jew, it feels critical to interrogate where and how King’s adversaries and their legacy might be alive today in our world, in our movements, in ourselves.
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King’s Letter From a Birmingham Jail is a touchstone for me in facing this question. In it, he writes:
I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action.”
It gives us a chance to question: Where am I behaving like the white moderate who King so brilliantly takes to task? Where is my community choosing comfort over the urgent need for action? Where do we want negative peace? Where do we question the tactics of the oppressed in their struggles for freedom?
As a queer Jew, the desire for the absence of tension comes up most in my communities on discussions of Palestine-Israel.
King’s teachings in that letter have everything to do with why I asked the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force to cancel two events at their upcoming Creating Change conference.
There Is No Dialogue if Only One Side Has the Power
Over the past weeks LGBTQ people of color and their allies have called the Task Force to account for two terrible decisions in their planning: 1) to host a caucus of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) representatives and 2) to include in the program a reception put on by Israel advocacy organization A Wider Bridge.
In response to this organizing, the Task Force canceled both events. The backlash around the Israel advocacy event was so swift and severe that they have now retracted that decision and reinstated the reception, citing their desire to provide space for inclusive conversation and open dialogue.
King’s letter was the first place I learned to understand this dynamic: When those in power call for conversation, and at the same time deride and derail any effort by the oppressed to shift structures of power through nonviolent pressure so that the negotiation can be between two equal parties, we can be sure they don’t truly want change. The fact was as true in 1963 as it is today: Dialogue accomplishes nothing if it only serves to silence dissent.
Why should LGBTQ Latinx and Chicanx and other leaders in the fight for migrant rights have to listen to ICE depict themselves as “sensitive” when ICE is the same state agency terrorizing and tearing apart their families with constant deportations and raids?
And, likewise, why should LGBTQ Palestinians welcome conversation with an organization that does PR for the nation-state that bombs their families, bulldozes whole villages, and has occupied and oppressed them for decades?
The mission of A Wider Bridge is to be a “pro-Israel organization that builds bridges between Israelis and LGBTQ North Americans and allies.” Partnering with the Israeli government and organizations from the Jewish institutional world that range from liberal to neoconservative, they work to build support for Israel’s government by centering the conversation about Israel on civil rights for LGBTQ Jews, with little to no acknowledgement that Palestinians – straight or gay – even exist.
The work of A Wider Bridge uses this well-documented “pinkwashing” tactic as a part of “Brand Israel,” a campaign launched by Israel in 2005 to counter its increasing international isolation. Rather than address Israel’s human rights violations – the root cause of the concern in the international community – the Israeli government decided instead to direct international attention away from its treatment of Palestinians by promoting Israel as a model of progressive modernity and portraying Palestinians (if at all) with Islamophobic and racist tropes.
This clever PR plan works as well for the US government’s human rights abuses as it does for Israel’s, and so it’s no wonder that ICE is eager to distract from the underlying goal of its work to tear families apart with some window dressing about how friendly ICE is to LGBTQ people while the agency detains and deports them.
The crisis of deportation and detention facing immigrant communities in the United States and the crisis of Israel’s occupation and apartheid will only deepen if our social justice organizations fail to hear the difference: Some voices are papering over oppression and others are calling out for freedom.
Just as King said, one-sided monologues conducted by those in power will never lead to change.
On the Need for Outside Agitation
In a dog-whistle political tactic, many defending A Wider Bridge have called the Palestinian, Muslim, Middle Eastern and other people of color leading our campaign to cancel pinkwashing “dangerous extremists.” In a climate of violent Islamophobia and anti-Arab racism in this country, those words are intended to further incite hatred. Such coded language isn’t an original attack, but King’s words continue to offer fresh insight and powerful framing for hearing it.
In the letter, King responds to the exact same accusation: that he is an outside agitator, and an extremist. He embraces the language of extremism, saying that we must all be “extremists for love,” and he lambasts the idea that struggles for justice have a proper jurisdiction. “Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham,” King writes. “Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial ‘outside agitator’ idea.”
The intersectional calls for justice from the coalitions fighting the ICE workshop and A Wider Bridge receptions at Creating Change are wonderful examples of King’s vision of a beloved community. Black Lives Matter Chicago’s beautiful statement explains the joint struggle and mutual solidarity at hand: “As They/We all struggle to achieve healing, safety and autonomy in our own lives, families and communities, let us commit to mobilize ourselves and honor the self-determined struggles of Palestine so as to divest from the violence of the occupation. Black & Palestinian Lives depend on it.” If our queer and trans efforts to create change force single-issue understandings, we will never succeed. King’s words urge us to understand there is no such thing as “outside agitation” because we are all responsible for agitating, because we are all responsible for each other and because “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Wait Almost Always Means Never
It is a sign of the changing times that nearly everyone weighing in on this controversy will say they also wish for an end to the Israeli occupation. However, those opposed to cancellation follow their condemnation of the occupation with the emphatic demand that the Task Force do nothing about it. Criticize the occupation, sure, but under no circumstances should you stop justifying, supporting or distracting from it.
Those opposing nonviolent pressure on Israel offer not one substantive, practical idea to force Israel to end its terrible abuses of Palestinian human rights. But they are nonetheless emphatic that Palestinians forestall their calls for justice for a later day, and use a different approach.
None of this is new. King wrote about the troubled timetable of those who decry nonviolent pressure: “For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.'”
King’s letter ought to compel us to understand what Palestinian waiting has meant. Wait, as the Palestinian family – LGBTQ members or not – weeps next to their demolished home. Wait, as the student – transgender or cisgender – stands at the checkpoint for hours just trying to get to school. Wait, as the 7-year-old in Gaza – no matter what sexuality she has or will have – cowers through another aerial bombardment decimating her home and school, killing more of her relatives. Wait, as Palestinians with the keys to the homes from which their grandparents were violently driven out, keep waiting, waiting, waiting to turn that lock.
If This Feels Like a Crisis, That’s Because It Is
The pinkwashing reception is a perfect example of the negative peace – the absence of tension – many leaders of the Jewish institutional world would prefer. Palestinians – and their struggle for freedom, equality and dignity in the face of great oppression – are swept under the rug of the conversation about Israel, a rug upon which my community and I are invited to mingle with cocktails.
If canceling the reception feels serious, it is because it is. I plan conferences, and I understand that it’s a real ask with difficult ramifications to cancel an event. And more to the point: I am Jewish, and I understand that it feels hard and uncomfortable and terrible to face the violence done in our names, and the way the communal institutions that are supposed to serve us often instead serve the agenda of a brutal nation-state. It would be disingenuous to say that it is not a big deal. Indeed, that’s the point.
King’s letter is a master class for the privileged on the opportunity of tension, discomfort and inconvenience: “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has consistently refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.”
In those who question the “usefulness” of podium takeovers of Black leaders, in those annoyed by the lockdowns that keep deportation buses from leaving, in those who criticize any call for boycott by Palestinians, it is so easy to hear the echo of those who wrote King to offer some “friendly” advice.
I say with sincerity to those – included loved ones of mine – who feel so deeply unsettled by this cancellation: If it makes us uncomfortable that an oppressed community refuses to be erased, then perhaps we are too comfortable.