On April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. In a CNN Exclusive, two men who were with King when he was killed, Reverend Jesse Jackson and former Ambassador Andrew Young, return to that balcony, the first time they have tighter since 1968,  to remember their friend 50 years later and to share little-known details of the moment King was killed.  Victor Blackwell reports.
Civil rights icons remember MLK 50 years later
02:25 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Thane Rosenbaum is a novelist, essayist and distinguished fellow at New York University School of Law, where he directs the Forum on Law, Culture & Society. He serves as legal analyst for CBS News Radio and discusses Middle East politics for various cable news networks. The views expressed here are the author’s. View more opinion on CNN.

CNN  — 

In an age in which some people believe news to be fake, it can be a short leap to adopt false analogies. It’s not a matter of information scarcity. The facts are readily available. It’s a question of what a person chooses to believe, and why.

Thane Rosenbaum

Recently, in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day (although it has also surfaced in Black Lives Matter and amid calls for greater “intersectionality” on college campuses), the civil rights movement, which King led, and the struggle for Palestinian statehood, have been analogized and morally linked – in ways that might have surprised King himself.

These tortured analogies reject everything King represented. After all, he preached peaceful and “passive nonviolent resistance,” both a term of art and a strategy that most Palestinian leaders have never embraced. It’s not that they haven’t seen “Gandhi.” It’s that too many of them are dedicated to eradicating Israel, not living beside it. Yes, some Fatah leaders have proposed or advocated a nonviolent resolution to the conflict, but most of them aren’t following the path of Gandhi or King.

Michelle Alexander, a columnist for The New York Times, took the occasion of King’s day of remembrance to demonstrate her moral courage. She pointed out that when King spoke out against the Vietnam War, he risked alienating anti-Communist Americans and even allies of his movement. But he was a man of conscience, and he could not remain silent.

Unlike President’s Day, Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday doesn’t inspire mattress sales but rather moments to reflect on matters of racial justice and civil society. Delving into one’s own conscience – as Alexander did to see how she measures up next to King – is a valuable exercise that many people should emulate this time of year.

Fortunately, like King, she, too, has a pulpit, and she used it to proclaim that there is far too much silence surrounding Palestinian suffering, which she refers to as one of the “great moral challenges of our time.” In breaking her own silence, she metaphorically locks arms with King and speculates that were he alive today, he, too, would have become a critic of Israel.

Remarkably, there’s not a word in her commentary about genocides in Syria or Myanmar, the humanitarian crisis in Yemen or the occupations in Tibet, Northern Cyprus, Kurdistan or Kashmir. These crisis zones suffer from conditions far worse than mere silence. Most Americans are unaware of their existence at all. And it is also in such places where moral judgment is arguably easier to render than in the murkier precincts of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Yet, for Alexander, the injustices against the Palestinians are the most in need of heralding, and the demonization of Israel is the most urgent.

In a region of the world where the stoning and dismembering of women and the torching of homosexuals are treated by some as mere oddities of moral relativism, Alexander could have mentioned many countries that, as she phrases it in her piece, perpetrate “injustices beyond our borders,” but she singled out Israel for condemnation.

Why? Despite widespread slanders of ethnic cleansing, there is no genocide against the Palestinians. Their people, in fact, have doubled in population since 1967. Nor are Israel’s practices, as Alexander assesses, “reminiscent of apartheid in South Africa and Jim Crow segregation in the United States,” surely not when Arabs serve on the Israeli Supreme Court and can live, work and eat anywhere they choose, vote freely in elections and are represented in parliament. While Israel may be an imperfect democracy, there is no institutionalized racism there that bears any resemblance to Jim Crow – something King would surely recognize if he were walking the streets of Tel Aviv today.

Alexander reserves her own silence for the real reason for Israel’s security fence: not separation but survival.

Alexander’s invocation of King is even more disingenuous when one considers that he, and nearly all the leaders of the civil rights movement, were avowed Zionists. Even earlier, in 1948 when the State of Israel was established, the NAACP passed a resolution supporting it. These crusaders for justice didn’t see colonial enterprise at work in Jews being given a state in their once-ancestral homeland.

Moreover, they deeply resented any attempts to misappropriate their cause, hijack their language or conflate their struggle with that of others. King feared the very thing that is happening today: diluting the essence of racial justice by introducing false analogies, such as comparing Israel to South Africa, or Gaza to Selma. King was among the first to see how anti-Zionism was a smokescreen for anti-Semitism. He famously said, “when people criticize Zionists, they mean Jews. You’re talking anti-Semitism!” And he was not alone. More than 200 African-American leaders publicly rejected the 1975 UN General Assembly resolution equating Zionism with racism. Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver called it a “travesty upon truth.”

The alliance between African-Americans and Jews, which helped galvanize the civil rights era, began to fray by the 1970s. Today it is largely forgotten. The disunity within the Women’s March and charges of anti-Semitism against some of its founding leaders (which those leaders have denied) is emblematic of this lost love. Black Lives Matter, with its origins in Ferguson, Missouri, coincided with the 2014 war in Gaza. Together they became twin cities of solidarity, inspiring dangerously false comparisons – like Israel’s separation barrier being analogized to maximum-security prisons.

Alexander is not alone in her thinking, although her argument is one-sided and lacks the historical complexity that defines this longstanding dispute. Even many liberal Jews have grown weary of Israel’s continued custody over a people with dreams of self-determination. Israel, an otherwise young country, is perceived as a colonial oppressor – as if Jews have no connection to these biblical lands, despite what the Bible actually says.

King, a reverend himself, famously invoked the saying, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Surely justice should bend for the Jewish people and their homeland, too. Yet, a number of Palestinian leaders, and some in the enabling BDS movement (those who support the boycotting of, divesting from and sanctioning of Israel), are unequivocal in singling out Israel as illegitimate. No two-state solution for them. They are interested in a very different kind of contortion than the one King contemplated – one of breakage, not bending.

The romance of King’s legacy transcends the national holiday and extends throughout the year – especially in black churches and on college campuses. In 2013, throughout the month of King’s birthday, the University of Pennsylvania hosted a Commemorative Symposium on Social Change. Two of the events perpetuated the very canard that King himself debunked – the falsehood that Zionism is racism. The organization Penn for Palestine screened a film, “Roadmap to Apartheid,” and BDS supporters hosted a discussion, “From Birmingham to Nablus.” And at universities around the country, student protesters conflate the legacy of King and other civil rights leaders with events such as “Israel Apartheid Week,” mock checkpoints and “die-ins,” and the posting of mock eviction notices on the doors of dormitories.

How does a skewed understanding of the plight of the Palestinians honor King’s legacy of truth? After all, the Palestinians could have had a state of their own, even if it meant sacrificing some important security and nationality priorities, had they accepted the various land-for-peace proposals that Israel offered over the years. King received prison sentences and death threats, not olive branches, from Southern governors. If he were alive today, he might lament the squandered opportunities for peace.

It is certainly true that what King believed in the 1960s, when Israel was regarded as a socially-democratic underdog, may have changed over time as it became a regional superpower. Five decades later, with the expansion of settlements, two intifadas, checkpoints and curfews, King’s romance with Israel might have waned. He could still admire its religious freedom, pluralistic makeup and start-up moxie, but the fate of the Palestinians might have weighed on him, too.

As for violence perpetrated by Palestinians, especially within Hamas but also, to some degree, among Palestinians living in the West Bank, in a world of hardened absolutes, King might, as others did, have come to doubt the virtues of nonviolent resistance. After all, should the moral claims of a people for self-determination be forfeited simply because so many of them resort to violence? King was not unfamiliar with such moral and tactical conflicts. He had competition, in Malcolm X and the Black Power movement, for the hearts of African-Americans. If the cause of a people is just, does their moral authority disappear simply because they employ violent means – even if they sacrifice their own civilians for a perceived greater good?

Unlike Alexander, I can’t speak for King – but I believe it does. Moral authority, not to mention global sympathy, can be forfeited when some leaders, when choices are presented to them, consistently choose rejectionism over pragmatism and reconciliation.

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    This much we do know. The only nation in the Middle East or Persian Gulf where civil rights exist for racial minorities, homosexuals and women is Israel. It is to Israel where Ethiopian Jews were airlifted from Sudan, escaping famine and civil war, and where an Israeli-born Ethiopian woman was in 2013 crowned Miss Israel. It’s also in Israel where a forest is named for King.

    Some essential truths, like the moral clarity of nonviolence, are beyond distortion. And Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday and the various efforts undertaken to memorialize him throughout the year are not the time to undermine that.