News Release

MLK and the Silence on Palestine

Michelle Alexander, a New York Times columnist and author of The New Jim Crow, over the weekend wrote the piece “Time to Break the Silence on Palestine:Martin Luther King Jr. courageously spoke out about the Vietnam War. We must do the same when it comes to this grave injustice of our time.”

Wrote Alexander: “On April 4, 1967, exactly one year before his assassination, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stepped up to the lectern at the Riverside Church in Manhattan. …King … said, ‘I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscience leaves me no other choice.’ Quoting a statement by the Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam, he said, ‘A time comes when silence is betrayal’ and added, ‘that time has come for us in relation to Vietnam.’ …

“It was a lonely, moral stance. And it cost him. But it set an example of what is required of us if we are to honor our deepest values in times of crisis, even when silence would better serve our personal interests or the communities and causes we hold most dear. It’s what I think about when I go over the excuses and rationalizations that have kept me largely silent on one of the great moral challenges of our time: the crisis in Israel-Palestine.

“I have not been alone. Until very recently, the entire Congress has remained mostly silent on the human rights nightmare that has unfolded in the occupied territories. Our elected representatives, who operate in a political environment where Israel’s political lobby holds well-documented power, have consistently minimized and deflected criticism of the State of Israel, even as it has grown more emboldened in its occupation of Palestinian territory and adopted some practices reminiscent of apartheid in South Africa and Jim Crow segregation in the United States.

“Many civil rights activists and organizations have remained silent as well, not because they lack concern or sympathy for the Palestinian people, but because they fear loss of funding from foundations, and false charges of anti-Semitism. They worry, as I once did, that their important social justice work will be compromised or discredited by smear campaigns.

“Similarly, many students are fearful of expressing support for Palestinian rights because of the McCarthyite tactics of secret organizations like Canary Mission, which blacklists those who publicly dare to support boycotts against Israel, jeopardizing their employment prospects and future careers. …

“Just as King received fierce, overwhelming criticism for his speech condemning the Vietnam War — 168 major newspapers, including The Times, denounced the address the following day — those who speak publicly in support of the liberation of the Palestinian people still risk condemnation and backlash. Bahia Amawi, an American speech pathologist of Palestinian descent, was recently terminated for refusing to sign a contract that contains an anti-boycott pledge stating that she does not, and will not, participate in boycotting the State of Israel.

“In November, Marc Lamont Hill was fired from CNN for giving a speech in support of Palestinian rights that was grossly misinterpreted as expressing support for violence. … And just over a week ago, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in Alabama, apparently under pressure mainly from segments of the Jewish community and others, rescinded an honor it bestowed upon the civil rights icon Angela Davis, who has been a vocal critic of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and supports B.D.S. [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions].”

MICHAEL FISCHBACH, mfischba at rmc.edu
Available for a limited number of interviews, Fischbach is professor of history at Randolph-Macon College and author of the just-released book Black Power and Palestine from Stanford University Press. He recently wrote the piece “The Firing of Marc Lamont Hill Raises This Question” for History News Network.

See just-released “Open Letter to the Leadership of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in Support of Dr. Angela Y. Davis,” initiated by the Scholars for Social Justice, a “new national network of progressive scholar-activists.” A contingent of the group will “travel to Birmingham, Alabama on February 16th to participate in an alternative ceremony to honor Angela Y. Davis organized by local activists and officials in the city.”