Berger’s Burg: MLK spoke out for Jews at critical moments

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“An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.” - M.L. King

We will celebrate the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday, Jan. 20. Deservedly, he merits this honor. King was the most important public figure to emerge from the Deep South in the 20th century. He was not simply a regional figure, but a worldwide one as well. By destroying segregation in his home territory, he redefined the world’s approach to human rights.

I am very familiar with King’s life. Quite a few Mondays ago I worked with a fellow who had been a classmate of King at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Ga. I would besiege him with questions about his one-time classmate.

These discussions gave me a personal glimpse into King’s persona. I learned he had an iron will, was very disciplined and had an undivided dedication to the objectives he was undertaking, which helped him meet, complete and overcome seemingly impossible tasks. I marveled at King’s tenacity.

The co-worker recalled seeing King, the student, day by day, wade through an entire Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, word by word and page by page, studying the definition of every entry. Alphabetically and systematically, King would memorize the definitions.

When asked why he did this, King simply replied that he was preparing to become a better speaker, a better writer, and above all, to prove that the impossible is possible with a little perseverance and a lot of faith. Surprisingly, I was told that he also read the works of Jewish writers.

“Why?” I asked my co-worker.

“He wanted to compare the tortured history of the Jewish people with that of his own race.”

King graduated from Morehouse College at the tender age of 19, and three years later he earned a bachelor’s degree in divinity at Crozier Theological Seminary. In 1955 he was awarded a Ph.D at Boston University.

King was deeply influenced by Mahatma Gandhi, the former leader of India, who taught nonviolent and peaceful means to protest evil. King borrowed and transformed Gandhi’s tradition of protest. It wasn’t long before King was in the forefront of demonstrations challenging established practices and customs that violated human rights. He became involved with injustices in employment, voting procedures, housing, civil rights and individual freedoms.

King always tried to bring people together. Togetherness and love for one another was his theme. Tragically, on April 4, 1968, an assassin’s bullet ended his life in Memphis, Tenn., at the age of 39. Ironically, he was shot while in that city to lead a nonviolent demonstration of striking sanitation workers.

It is nearly 35 years after his assassination, but Martin Luther King Day still offers the Jewish people an opportunity to remember his powerful efforts on their behalf. Besides being involved in the civil rights struggle of blacks, he also championed many Jewish causes.

Jewish support for King and his civil rights movement is widely known; however, the history has another side, one that has not been fully told. In the 1960s, while King was consumed in the fight for African-Americans to secure full civil rights in this country, he made time to speak out for the rights of Jews at critical moments.

From the beginning of the movement in the 1960s to free persecuted Jews living in Russia, King was a major advocate on their behalf. He publicly sought support for the re-establishment of the “religious and cultural freedom” of all Soviet Jews. He went on to “urge the Soviet government to end all the discriminatory measures against its Soviet Jewry.”

In 1967, King addressed by telephone hookup dozens of Soviet Jewry human rights rallies across America. He admonished his fellow Americans not to sit “complacently by the wayside” while their Jewish brothers and sisters in the Soviet Union faced the possible dissolution of their spiritual and cultural life.

King’s commitment to a secure an independent Israel was also clear. With Israel threatened by its Arab neighbors, he wrote to Jewish community leaders that “Israel’s right to exist as a state in security is incontesta­ble.”

In addressing a convention of rabbis just 10 days before his death in 1968, the Nobel Peace laureate referred to Israel as “one of the great outposts of democracy in the world,” and said, “We must stand with all our might to protect Israel’s territorial integrity and its right to exist.”

King frequently denounced anti-Semitism in this country and abroad. He said, “The segregationists and racists make no distinction between the Negro and the Jew.” In a letter to Jewish leaders, he attacked anti-Semitism because it is wrong. “I will continue to oppose it, because it is immoral and self-destructive.”

In retrospect, King’s adoption of these causes is not surprising given his belief that the freedom of blacks was inextricably tied to the universal right of all groups to live in peace, free from discrimination and oppression. This belief, exemplified by King’s extraordinary leadership, was instrumental in shaping the close relationship between blacks and Jews that developed during the King years and included cooperation in campaigns to end discrimination in housing and to improve educational opportunities.

King’s beliefs are just as relevant today as they were in his time. Just as we must actively strive to reduce intolerance, we must also strive to rededicate ourselves to King’s vision of a society where people are judged not by the color of their skin or by their religion but by the content of their character.

During this period of crisis, we must commit ourselves to work toward achieving King’s dream. As King said, “We must either learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.”

King sensed he was a target for assassination, so he worked hard to complete his life’s mission. He humbly wished people at his graveside would say: “Here lived a man who did his job as if God Almighty called him at this particular time in history to do it.”

King, on behalf of Jews, Americans and all the good people of the world, your wish has been fulfilled.

Reach columnist Alex Berger by e-mail at or call 229-0300, Ext. 140.

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