Connecting Zionism and Civil Rights

As we commemorate Rosa Park’s
triumphant refusal to go to the back of a segregated bus on Dec. 1, 1955, an
action that catalyzed the Civil Rights Movement, we recall all of the wonderful
things that the movement brought to the United States. It brought the end of
Jim Crow laws, the passing of the Civil Rights Act, Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream”
speech and many other crowning achievements of a liberal society finally
changing with the times. Though great things have been accomplished, everyone
can agree that much more needs to be done to ensure that Dr. King, Rosa Parks,
A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin and many other great Civil Rights leaders did
not strive in vain.

But there is a very interesting
fact about these individuals that most people do not know: All of these freedom
fighters were also Zionists.

On Nov. 19, Claremont Students for
Israel and the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America
hosted Pastor Dumisani Washington, the Director of the Institute for Black
Solidarity with Israel. He came to Pitzer with the hope of educating students
about the connection between the Civil Rights Movement and the Zionist

Many of the leaders of the Civil
Rights Movement were prominent, staunch Zionists who believed in the
self-determination of the Jewish people. In addition, they supported the State
of Israel and fought for its obligation to defend itself and its unalienable
right to exist.

However, that did not suggest that
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., ignored the plight of the Palestinian-Arab
populations. Ten days before his assassination, Dr. King addressed the 68th
Convention for the Rabbinical Assembly of Conservative Judaism and was asked a
question about the Arab-Israeli conflict. He argued that the Israelis needed
peace through security, while also saying that Israel was a great outpost of
democracy. And he argued that Palestinian-Arabs needed economic security to
uplift their society out of the “third world of hunger, of disease, of
illiteracy.” He suggested that a Marshall Plan be used to help spark
economic development of the region to give it the economic security necessary
to build bridges for peace.

After Pastor Washington defended
Dr. King’s hopes and aspirations for both people, he discussed the campaign to
label Zionism as racism in the United Nations in 1975. Although the United
Nations passed that despicable resolution, which was overturned in 1991, an
organization called BASIC, Black Americans to Support Israel Committee, opposed
the “anti-Jewish blacklist” while simultaneously supporting “true Palestinian
self-determination.” A letter condemning the U.N. resolution was signed by the
likes of Rosa Parks, Hank Aaron, Dr. Martin Luther King, Sr., Mrs. Louis
Armstrong and many other prominent figures of the African-American

Yet Pastor Washington indicated
that several key players involved in
the Civil Rights Movement opposed Zionism. The Black Panthers and the Nation of
Islam made their dismal view of Zionism known. According to Dr. King, such members
of the community were “color consumed” and condemned anything that could be
seen as “white.” The inappropriate labeling of all Jews as “white” justified
such ideals, and Dr. King fervently rejected that belief. 

What’s the point of telling the
story about the Civil Rights Movement and its connection to Zionism? Claremont
has not had a proper conversation about what Zionism truly represents.
The latest war between Hamas and Israel consisted of an information front,
where the vehemently anti-Zionist crowd demonized Israel and the pro-Israel
community as genocidal racists who wanted to see innocent Palestinian-Arabs die.
Nothing could be farther from the truth, and yet it remains a problematic
belief that Claremont students continue to espouse.

Zionism is the
Jewish people’s civil rights movement. It was a movement founded to protect the
Jewish community from anti-Semitism throughout the world, seeing the creation
of a national homeland for the Jewish people in their indigenous home of Judea
as a means of bringing Jews out of persecution. The Civil Rights Movement
proclaimed African-Americans’ right to life, liberty and the pursuit of
happiness; as Jews, we proclaimed that we had a right to no longer be targeted
by anti-Semitism in Europe or around the world, and that we have a right to
live as self-determined, proud and open Jews in our indigenous homeland.

Zionism represents freedom, and it
extends to more than just the Jewish people: to all of the people living in
Israel. What Dr. King saw in Israel was a place where people of all different
pigmentations, ethnic identities and religious affiliations could come together
under one flag, under one national identity, and live in a world of tolerance,
openness and freedom. It was a dream that he possessed for America, too. 

Today, Israel remains the great
outpost of democracy that Dr. King and the rest of the Civil Rights leadership
recognized it as almost 50 years ago. Despite differences between both
movements, including in history, specific goals and tactics, both movements fought for
freedom and for an end to bigotry and racism. The more we recognize the strong
connection between Zionism and the Civil Rights Movement, the more we will
create a better dialogue to ensure tolerance, openness, acceptance
and peace in our chaotic world.  

Elliott Hamilton PZ ’15 is majoring
in economics and minoring in politics. He is a Committee for Accuracy in Middle
East Reporting in America (CAMERA) Fellow and the President of Claremont
Students for Israel.

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