“The March on Washington” was a great civil rights rally on behalf of African Americans which took place on August 28th, 1963. Among the civil rights leaders who spoke at the rally was Reverend Martin Luther King, an African American minister with a universal vision which was influenced to some degree by the writings of the Jewish prophets. For example, in his famous speech at the rally, “I Have a Dream,” he expressed the following vision of the Prophet Isaiah:
“I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”
(See Isaiah 40:4,5)

Although Martin Luther King devoted his life to the needs of African Americans – who were then called “Negroes” – he also spoke out on behalf of other oppressed peoples, including the Jewish people. The following are some examples of his statements in support of our people:

1. This letter of Martin Luther King appeared in The New York Times, on January 16, 1965:

Dr. King Joins Protest

To the Editor:

I am profoundly shocked by the treatment of the Jewish people in the Soviet Union. I would like strongly to endorse the moral protest and appeal of conscience to the Soviet Union published as an advertisement in The Times (January 14).

I should like to add my voice to the list of distinguished Americans of all faiths who have called the injustices perpetrated against the Jewish community in the Soviet Union to the attention of the world. The struggle of the Negro people for freedom is inextricably interwoven with the universal struggle of all peoples to be free from discrimination and oppression. The Jewish people must be given their full rights as Soviet citizens as guaranteed by the Constitution of the U.S.S.R. itself.

The anti-Jewish tone of the economic trials must cease. The free functioning of synagogues should be permitted. There should be no interference with the performance of sacred rites. The religious and cultural freedom of this old Jewish community should be re-established. In the name of humanity, I urge that the Soviet Government end all the discriminatory measures against its Jewish community. I will not remain silent in the face of injustice.

Martin Luther King Jr.
Atlanta, Ga., January 14, 1965

2. The next statement is from Dr. King’s 1966 Address to the American Jewish Conference on Soviet Jewry (predecessor to NCSJ):

While Jews in Russia may not be physically murdered, as they were in Nazi Germany, they are facing everyday a kind of spiritual and cultural genocide. The absence of opportunity to associate as Jews in the enjoyment of Jewish culture and religious experience becomes a severe limitation upon the individual. These deprivations are a part of a person’s emotional and intellectual life. They determine whether he is fulfilled as a human being. Blacks as well understand and sympathize with this problem. When you are written out of history, as a people, when you are given no choice but to accept the majority culture, you are denied an aspect of your own identity. Ultimately you suffer a corrosion of your self-understanding and your self-respect.

3. Professor Seymour Lipset describes a dinner in Cambridge held to allow Dr. Martin Luther King to meet with and speak to black students at Harvard and other campuses in Boston. One student made some anti-Zionist remarks and Professor Lipset recorded Dr. King’s response: “Dr. King snapped at him and said, ‘Don’t talk like that. When people criticize Zionists, they mean Jews. You’re talking anti-Semitism.’ ” (The Socialism of Fools: The Left, the Jews and Israel, page 7, by Seymour Martin Lipset )

Although Martin Luther King spoke on behalf of the Jewish people and other peoples, he devoted his life to the physical and spiritual betterment of his own people. There are some Jews, however, who will speak up on behalf of every other people, but they will ignore the needs of their own people.

They should therefore learn from the example of Martin Luther King.

And if this great African American leader protested against anti-Jewish prejudice – including the prejudice which would deny the Jewish people the right to live in their ancestral homeland, then shouldn’t all Jews who are active in progressive, new age, and other universal groups do the same? Should they not protest against the anti-Jewish hatred and violence which is spreading all over the world? As U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan stated at the U.N. Seminar on Anti-Semitism on June 21st, 2004: “It is hard to believe that, 60 years after the tragedy of the Holocaust, anti-Semitism is once again rearing its head. But it is clear that we are witnessing an alarming resurgence of this phenomenon in new forms and manifestations. This time, the world must not, cannot be silent.”

Martin Luther King expressed concern over those Jews that are facing “a kind of spiritual and cultural genocide.” Ironically, there are assimilated Jews who contribute to that genocide through their refusal to seriously explore their own spiritual roots. They should therefore think carefully about the other statement of Dr. King concerning Jews who lose their unique identity and who accept the majority culture: “Ultimately you suffer a corrosion of your self-understanding and your self-respect.”

To be “universal” does not mean that one should deny one’s unique identity and culture; to be universal means that one should develop one’s identity and culture in order to make a unique contribution to human civilization.

This is especially true with regard to the Jewish people whom the Unifying One assigned the following universal mission at the very dawn of their history: “And through you, all the familes of the earth will be blessed” (Genesis 12:3, 28:14). This means that our “family” has the responsibility to become an ethical and spiritual model for all the “families” of humankind.

Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen is the author of “The Universal Jew – Letters to a Progressive Father” (Feldheim). He is also the director of the e-mail Torah study program, “Hazon – Our Universal Vision”: www.shemayisrael.co.il/publicat/hazon