On Monday, the US marks Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday with a national holiday. Celebrated this year on January 18, the event comes less than two weeks after historic violence on Capitol Hill, the symbol of American democracy.
King was only 39 years old in 1968 when an assassin’s bullet ended his life in Memphis, Tennessee, but his legacy as a proponent of nonviolent conflict resolution lives on.
This year, though, a different spirit – one directly affected by the attack on the home of the US legislative bodies – adds a variant to King’s heritage.
“I have also been thinking a lot this past week about Rev. Martin Luther King’s famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech in Washington, DC, at the [National] Mall, in front of hundreds of thousands of Americans in August 1963, in which he envisioned freedom for all Americans and called for an end to racism,” Rabbi Ron Kronish, the founding director of the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel, told The Media Line.
“How relevant this is today when racism is once again tearing America apart, as we witnessed so dramatically during the insurrection incited by US President Donald Trump last week on January 6, at the same place, in America’s capital city,” stated Kronish.
What are the ramifications of these events for Israel and the Middle East?
Davka (despite expectations to the contrary) when America is having problems, we need to look back not only to King’s words but also to his actions, according to Rabbi Dr. Daniel Roth, director of the Mosaica Center’s Religious Peace Initiative, a program that seeks to use the language of religion and tradition to build trust with people whose political motivation is religious and find a way out of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“How do we move forward?” Roth asks.
“The big question is, can we still use him as a beacon of social justice and democracy? How to connect to his work? He created inspirational social change via the system and now it looks like the system is kind of broken,” Roth told The Media Line, reflecting on the violent assault on the US Capitol by right-wing American elements.
Echoing this is Rabbi Dr. Meesh Hammer-Kossoy, director of the social justice track at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.
“What is happening in the US today sends waves across the entire world and could easily happen here in Israel tomorrow. Hopefully, this tragic event sounds a major shofar blast for all of us to recommit ourselves to shared civil discourse and mutual respect,” she stated to The Media Line.
Roth pointed to the Islamic Movement in Israel as a model for reflecting on King’s legacy.
The Islamic Movement, founded in 1971 by Sheikh Abdullah Nimar Darwish, focused on providing services to Muslim communities around Israel. He also founded Usrat al-Jihad (“The Family of Jihad”), a paramilitary group dedicated to creating an Islamic state.
In 1979, following a terrorist attack in central Israel by the latter group’s adherents, Sheikh Abdullah and dozens of the movement’s leaders were arrested.
While in prison, the sheikh and his associates decided to work within the Israeli system. After release, they sought to run for positions in local councils and in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. At this point, notes Roth, the movement split into two major sections: a more moderate Southern Branch, based in Kafr Qasim and led by Abdullah, and a more strident Northern Branch, based in Umm el-Fahm.
This split, he said, was akin to the schism in Black American leadership in the late 1960s between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. over the best methodology to move forward. The central gulf between the two sides was whether to take an antagonistic, self-sufficient path or to work within the system.
Both sides believed theirs to be the best way to achieve results for the community.
Whereas the Southern Branch works nonviolently, the Northern Branch is far more militant, having been banned by Israeli authorities in 2015 and having its leadership, primarily Sheikh Raed Salah, arrested and jailed numerous times over accusations of incitement to violence and funding the Hamas terrorist group.
Sheikh Abdullah co-founded the Religious Peace Initiative in 2005 with former Israeli Minister of Social and Diaspora Affairs Rabbi Michael Melchior and Sheikh Imad Faluji.
Sheikh Eyad Amer, imam of the Al Shohada Mosque and principal of a high school in Kafr Qasim, was mentored by Sheikh Abdullah and is now director of the Religious Peace Initiative’s Sheikhs as Mediators Program.
Abdullah’s sojourn in prison afforded him time to think more deeply and changed him, according to Amer.
“He left the world of jihad to join the world of peace. He asked all his followers to understand that death from jihad was only a moment in time. But Allah expects us to live for him. Death is but for a moment, but life is longer so live for Allah,” Amer told The Media Line.
King influenced Darwish and thus Amer.
“He [Darwish] quoted King about living life rather than moving toward violence. In his life, he prevented a great deal of violence – between Arabs and Jews, Arabs and Arabs, Fatah and Hamas. He condemned all terror and because he was a man of Allah, people listened to him,” said Amer.
Sheikh Darwish died in 2017.
Despite the recent events at the US Capitol, no one is giving up on the underlying messages generated and amplified by Dr. King.
Fr. John M. Paul, SJ, the new rector of the Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem, noted that many places in the world celebrate the life of Martin Luther King Jr., telling The Media Line, “He pursued justice and equal rights for all with a commitment to do so nonviolently and without hatred.”
For Paul, the following King quote captures part of his mission at Tantur, which creates programming to introduce people to the geography, history and complex religious life of the local people and the Bible.
“People fail to get along because they fear each other. They fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they have not communicated with each other,” King said.
Paul said, “We seek to live out that desire to dialogue and get to know each other in all that we are about here, especially through our programs and our work with each other.”
For Prof. Muhammed Dajani, director of the Wasatia Academic Institute in Jerusalem, the message from America is loud and clear: Democracy is not dead. The solution to its ills does not lie in laws and legal wrangling; rather, education is the key to the future.
Stressing the need to educate for democracy, Dajani brought the story of Socrates’ death and its aftermath. He told The Media Line that following the great philosopher’s death forced by the leadership of Athens, his disciple Plato did not go around denouncing democracy; rather he started educating for a better democracy.
“We need to stress the need for democracy and education. In the early part of the last century, the famous educator John Dewey wrote about educating the young in democratic values, those that would stay with them for life. We need to focus on our children and cannot take their support for democracy for granted,” Dajani argued.
“We need to continue this mission and promote education. We need to rejuvenate democracy in the minds of our children,” he said.
David Blumenfeld, an independent filmmaker currently in Jerusalem whose short film The Legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. was released in 2020, called the minister’s legacy “riveting.”
King means so many different things for so many communities. For Ethiopian Jews, he is the force for keeping protests nonviolent; for a Palestinian rapper he is the inspiration for words that make a difference; and for bereaved families on both sides of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, his is the presence that enables them to meet each other with fortitude and quietness, the filmmaker said.
“Just talking and meeting is what it is all about. It is the first step toward a better future,” Blumenfeld told The Media Line.