IT IS PAINFUL to be called an anti-Semite by a deceased saint. Yet the dead speak, even when we wish they’d keep their thoughts to themselves. There is a tremendous effort to deny that Martin Luther King ever said these words: “When people criticize Zionists, they mean Jews. You’re talking anti-Semitism.”
Unfortunately, he did. He said them at a dinner party in Cambridge (as quoted by Seymour Martin Lipset in Encounter magazine, December 1969, p. 24)
In fact, the complete quotation has a much sharper tone: Dr. King took a zero-tolerance approach to anti-Zionism:
One of the young men present happened to make some remark against the Zionists. Dr. King snapped at him and said, “Don’t talk like that! When people criticize Zionists, they mean Jews. You’re talking anti-Semitism!”
Martin Luther King’s quotations have been examined pitilessly by historians: his family in particular is careful to discredit words falsely attributed to him. One document in particular, “Letter to an anti-Zionist Friend,” is unquestionably a hoax. The quotation recorded by Lipset, however, is undisputed. To be precise, it is “undisputed” in the only sense that matters: we know that he in fact said it.
This isn’t my opinion. It is, no matter how feverishly you work to bury that stony quotation, a fact.
I don’t happen to agree entirely with Dr. King’s equation. You can be critical of Israel without being an anti-Semite: many people are, including a few million Israelis. It is even possible to hold the view that Israel has no right to exist, yet harbor no animosity towards Jews. (It’s possible. Not likely, but I can imagine that scenario.)
If you pronounce the word “Zionism” with righteous contempt, however, you’ll have to accept this cold brute fact: Martin Luther King clearly and unequivocally considered you a bigot.
I can imagine that will be painful. Difficult. Uncomfortable. Or rather: it will be painful if you are in other respects a liberal. A neo-Nazi will welcome Martin Luther King’s judgment. Proud Jew-haters are happy to be considered anti-Semites, especially by loathed giants of the Civil Rights Movement.
No, it is evidence of a profound liberal conscience that you squirm when an unlit corner of your soul is exposed and condemned, by a man—now dead—who you acknowledge was a better human being than you are. (You do, I hope. He was.)
Lots of otherwise very decent people feel personally assaulted by this undisputed quotation, as it stands. Hence there’s a whole lot of disputation going on.
The trouble is, as I mentioned, that an overly eager Zionist did in fact go about forging a spurious letter, in which King was made to wax gluco-hyperbolic about Zionism in a way that the man obviously never could have: “And I say, let the truth ring forth from the high mountain tops, let it echo through the valleys of God’s green earth: When people criticize Zionism, they mean Jews—this is God’s own truth.”
(Not that King wasn’t an unblinking supporter of Israel: he was. He could never have found it in his soul, however, to be a bad writer.)
Armed with the knowledge of this unrelated letter, a small army of pseudo-scholars is out casting not-very-credible doubt on the Lipset quotation. This is a crucial business. You should be able to spit on Zionism without the inconvenience of being called a rank bigot, posthumously, by a famously decent man.
The best these righteous scholars can do, after a long desperate analysis, is this: “While these points raise some doubt, let us assume that the quote is accurate.”
And this whipped canid at “Electronic Intifada” (oy) goes out with the fellowing whimper: “Assuming this quote to be genuine, it is still far from the ideological endorsement of Zionism as theory or practice that was evidenced in the phony letter.”
If you insist. But it sure accords nicely with this other undisputed quotation:
Peace for Israel means security, and we must stand with all our might to protect its right to exist, its territorial integrity. I see Israel as one of the great outposts of democracy in the world, and a marvelous example of what can be done, how desert land can be transformed into an oasis of brotherhood and democracy. Peace for Israel means security and that security must be a reality.
I note that even the politically bashful Wikiquote acknowledges that Dr. King unequivocally said this (on March 25, 1968, two weeks before his death).
This second quotation, however, is galling. Based solely on the first quotation, you can virtuously deny Israel’s right to exist, and suggest that you’re simply disagreeing with a great man. If this quotation is allowed to stand undisputed, on the other hand, your attempt at polite disagreement marks you as something pretty unlovely in his eyes.
I was innocently trying to source the Lipset quotation for a different article, when this little squabble spat in my eye. I could not remember whether King had said this at Harvard (he had). Yes, I knew the history of the fake letter: it’s no secret. What I did not expect was to see a genuine quotation appear as “disputed” in Wikiquotes. So I’ve joined the battle in the Talk section of that otherwise reasonably accurate site. I’ve found myself saying unruly things, like the following (which I’ve loosely edited and augmented for entertainment value):
Look. “Disputed” implies that MLK might not have said this. That’s all it implies. Period. Which is false. That other people dispute the content of what he said is completely and utterly irrelevant. Good God: every single important assertion in history, by that criterion, is disputed. Do we put the word “disputed” beside Newton’s Laws?
Believe me, I wish George Bush had scribbled the word “disputed” on his “Mission Accomplished” sign, but he didn’t. And if we were to append it to that sign on Wikiquote, we would be: a) making a pretty good joke, and b) making a joke out of the entire enterprise. Either this site is a serious scholarly undertaking, or it isn’t.
One editor responds: “I personally see little valid reason to dispute that the quote is genuine, but see valid reasons to dispute associated claims or assertions related to it.”
To which I say: Excellent. Cherish that opinion—publish it on your blog; put it on a sandwich board and walk the streets with it—but get it off the official Martin Luther King page.
This quotation is no more disputed than the Gettysburg Address. I’m sure there are interesting people out there who don’t believe that Lincoln existed—who “dispute” his words—but that doesn’t make his words disputed. Nor does disagreeing with the math in “four score and twenty.”
It’s a subtle distinction. You may not like Dr. King’s words, but I’m afraid that doesn’t mean that he didn’t say them.
Anyway, don’t worry. I’m sure he wasn’t talking about you.