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We Must Apply MLK’s Fierce Critique of Apartheid to Israel’s War on Palestine

MLK’s struggle against apartheid and for global justice lives on in the movement for a free Palestine.

Civil defense teams and citizens continue search and rescue operations after an airstrike hit a building belonging to the Maslah family during the 32nd day of Israeli attacks in Deir Al-Balah, Gaza, on November 7, 2023.

In September, 1963, Ku Klux Klan terrorists hid dynamite in the 16th Street Baptist Church. The explosion killed four Black girls and wounded 20 more. Windows were blown. People dug through the rubble. Later, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave the eulogy: “They died nobly. They are the modern heroines of a Holy Crusade for freedom and human dignity.”

Sixty-one years later, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) bomb Gaza as collective punishment for the Hamas-led attacks of October 7. Children are found dead in the debris, many horribly dismembered, just like the Black girls killed by the KKK’s bombing in 1963. Men are shot in front of their families. At night, Gaza descends into blackness lit by IDF missile strikes. Fires blaze. Innocents die.

This year, as we honor King’s legacy of struggle on the anniversary of his birth, it’s impossible to witness the genocide in Gaza without drawing on King’s insights to recommit to confronting the violence of ethnonationalism. In order to follow King’s footsteps, we must now intensify civil disobedience to force a ceasefire in Gaza, dismantle the Israeli occupation of Palestine and defund the extreme right Israeli government in pursuit of Palestinian liberation and equal rights for all.

Beyond the Mountaintop

“Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever,” King wrote in his 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” “The yearning for freedom manifests itself.” In it, he cites St. Thomas Aquinas, Jewish philosopher Martin Buber and Socrates. It isn’t name dropping. King is telling the reader these ideas guide the civil rights movement because they transcend it. Justice based not on power or violence but on human interconnectedness creates the most powerful change. Yet how do we critically engage with King’s legacy, today? How does it help up navigate the Israeli genocide of Gaza?

At first, it seems a dead end. King did not put Palestine at the center of his sermons or writings or protests. Even when he gave the controversial “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence” speech in April 1967, which blasted the United States’s “madness” as “our bombs now pummel [their] land,” he did not mention the Nakba, the ethnic cleansing of roughly 750,000 Palestinians when Israel declared statehood in 1948. To be sure, in 1968, 10 days before his murder, King told a rabbinical gathering, “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 almost can be transformed into an oasis of brotherhood and democracy.” So, there’s that.

A few reasons are given for King’s inconsistency. The cynical one was that some U.S. Jews who espoused Zionism supported the civil rights movement, and he courted them. A less cynical one is the crisis in Palestine seemed farther away and not directly caused by the U.S., unlike the Vietnam War. King focused on his duty as a citizen. Maybe the open wound of the Holocaust obscured his view of the full picture, pushing toward the illusion of Israel as a safe haven for a long persecuted people. We can never truly know.

In the end, King’s principles are what can truly guide us. They formed early. As a boy in 1930s Atlanta, “white only” signs stung his eyes. White friends he played with cut him off. As a teen, he was forced to stand so white people could sit for a 90-minute bus ride to Atlanta. Later he wrote, “I was tired, but that wasn’t the point. It was the humiliation.” Day-in and day-out, King felt countless cuts to the soul. The “boy” this. The “n*****” that. Lynching haunted the South. Terror was as close as a wrong turn on a dirt road.

Just as important as the racism he endured were ideas that transformed it into a larger vision. King traveled from Morehouse, to Crozer Theological Seminary, to Boston University. He devoured books. He dove into ancient Greece, especially Socrates. He read philosophers Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Karl Marx. He studied theology. King saw we are deeply split and forever flawed. Each one of us has a seed of evil and a seed of grace. Forgiveness gives what is good in us a chance to take root — hopefully to blossom into something beautiful, something human.

King’s turn to nonviolence was grudging. The man packed a gun! Pacifist organizer Bayard Rustin introduced him to nonviolence. On a 1959 trip to India, King learned of Mahatma Gandhi’s Satyagraha or “hold to truth” and the use of nonviolent civil disobedience to end British colonization. The core truth was that means and ends are inseparable. No matter how just a fight, violence begets violence. Satyagraha or as King called it, “Soul Force” was the renunciation of force to peacefully resist oppression, even if it meant suffering. The goal was to purify victim and victimizer of hatred.

King testified to this transformation in a 1958 essay, “My Pilgrimage to Non-Violence.” He wrote, “As I delved deeper into the philosophy of Gandhi, my skepticism concerning the power of love gradually diminished.… I discovered the method for social reform that I had been seeking.”

Footprints in the Sand

“Free! Free Palestine,” I chanted on the Brooklyn Bridge this October, shouting in unison with thousands of mostly young protesters. Queer and straight, Jewish and Arab, all united. The march was a swiftly moving river. The air shook. We carried the name of Palestine loudly into Manhattan. Cars honked in solidarity. Strangers cheered.

Protests have roiled cities across the world. In Ireland, pro-Palestinian marches filled Belfast. At the Eiffel Tower in Paris and the Sydney Opera House in Australia, crowds unfurled Palestinian flags in solidarity and called for a ceasefire. After a holiday lull, the protests picked up steam. The IDF’s genocide in Gaza has left 23,357 dead, which is 1 percent of the total population — 1 out of every 100 people. By time you read this, it will be higher.

As the bodies pile, so does global outrage. South Africa filed a genocide case against Israel in the International Court of Justice. Also fueling the outrage are extreme right cabinet members in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government who call for Palestinians in Gaza to be expelled to Egypt and Israelis to take their land. One even proposed to nuke Gaza. Israelis support the current bombing campaign by a ratio of two to one, according to a poll by the Israel Democracy Institute. The outnumbered objectors are left-wing and Palestinian citizens of Israel. This means the slaughter of innocent civilians, whether through explosives, disease or starvation, can go on for a long, long time.

Walking in King’s footsteps means going beyond his limits. To choose nonviolent, civil disobedience means accepting the truth in “Letter from Birmingham Jail” that, “Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever” and, “If his repressed emotions do not come out in these non-violent ways, they will come out in ominous expressions of violence. That is not a threat; it is a fact of history.” First, we must accept that the Hamas attacks of October 7 were part of a larger history of violence that began in Europe. The Holocaust led to the Nakba, which led to the Intifadas. The centuries-long hatred visited upon Jews made them swear to never again be victims, even if that meant stealing land from Palestinians and turning them into a permanent underclass.

I believe choosing Satyagraha would mean condemning all attacks on civilians — including Israel’s ongoing rapid genocide against Palestinians and 75-year history of colonial violence, which has included horrific gender-based violence and rape. It includes the bulldozing of homes. It includes the checkpoints, the humiliations, the open racism.

I believe choosing Satyagraha would mean condemning Hamas’s shooting, kidnapping of civilians and alleged rapes. I take seriously King’s 1967’s Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community. He wrote, “I could imagine nothing more impractical and disastrous than for any of us, through misguided judgment, to precipitate a violent confrontation…We had neither the resources or techniques to win.” Which was true then for Black America is true now for Hamas. A deeper reason than battlefield tactics exist. In King’s “My Pilgrimage to Non-Violence,” wrote, “It is better to be the recipient of violence than the inflictor of it, since the latter only multiplies the existence of violence and bitterness in the universe, while the former…bring about a transformation and change of heart.”

We face a question. Is Satyagraha even possible? Palestinian are being slaughtered. Are they just supposed to die to create possible shame in right-wing Israelis, when prominent officials like Defense Minister Yoav Gallant calls them “human animals”? The Israeli right will exterminate or expel them. In the face of genocide, it is not our place to admonish Palestinians.

For those us in the U.S., choosing Satyagraha means defining Israel’s collective punishment of Gaza as genocide. It means escalating civil disobedience, putting on pressure to stop the flow of money and weapons from the U.S. to Israel. It means recommitting wholeheartedly to the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign. It means using media to relentlessly share testimony from Palestinians in Gaza. It means using our position in the U.S. empire, of which Israel is a satellite, to build public solidarity with Palestinians, and much more.

In King’s “A Time to Break Silence” speech, he described war as a “demonic, destructive suction tube,” sucking money and men into death. Today, Israel’s genocide of Gaza threatens to ignite a regional war that will sweep Iran, Hezbollah and the U.S. into a tornado of violence. Add to that the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine. Add to that the many other conflicts already blazing across the globe.

Think of our military technology. Think of the thousands of nuclear missiles in their silos. Think of the bombs ready to be dropped. Think of the endless bullets and the endless guns, waiting to be deployed against oppressed populations.

What path can save us from ourselves? What path can save Gaza?

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