Inside Israel's Embassy: Honoring or dishonoring Dr. Martin Luther King

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, 1/16/2004

How do we honor Dr. King? This is a personal report of an action I took on my own. After that, some thoughts about ancient Torah, Dr. King, and our own generation.)

Late in December 2003, I was invited to take part in an annual commemoration of the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, to be held the evening of January 14 at the Israeli Embassy in Washington — co-sponsored by the Embassy of Israel and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

And that day, it turned out, was when began the trial of Rabbi Arik Ascherman, executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights in Israel, for acting precisely like Dr. King — standing in the path of bulldozers that came to (and did) demolish the homes of Palestinians.

No one claims these families had any connection to terrorism. They had built homes without a permit. Permits are almost never granted Palestinian families to do this, while Jewish families either get permits easily or find the lack of permits is totally ignored.

More than 400 North American & European rabbis have now signed a letter condemning both Rabbi Ascherman's arrest and the home-demolition policy. It was physically delivered to the Embassy in Washington and the Israeli consulate in NYC. So many people have called the Embassy in Washington that when one caller reached the ambassador's office, the secretary said, "Oh, are you calling about Rabbi Ascherman?")

Back to the Embassy's honoring of Dr. King:

The contradiction between praising King and punishing Ascherman stuck in my craw too much for me to ignore. So I accepted the invitation I had received, and went Amtrakking off to Washington.

There were about 120 people at the Embassy— two Members of Congress, two Ambassadors from Africa, various civil-rights and liberal and Jewish-community leaders. After politely and with real interest listenng to Rabbi David Saperstein and Ambassador Ayalon welcome the gathering, I spoke up in the momentary pause just as the next part, honoring two civil-rights/ liberal activists who have worked in some aspects of the King tradition, was about to begin. (Neither had opposed war, used nonviolent civil disobedience, or criticized the whole structure of American economic materialism, as did King.)

I described the arrest of Rabbi Ascherman and said that arresting him and demolishing homes stood in contrast to the work of Martin Luther King — and why. I spoke for about three minutes. The person who had been about to chair the next part of the meeting tried mildly to shush me, but it was clear people were listening intently.

When I ended, the ambassador then asked "May I respond?" and of course then did. He said two things: "Israel is a state of laws; Rabbi Ascherman violated the law, and so is on trial. ... We should turn back from these political questions to focus on honoring those who are doing the work of Dr. King."

It would have been easy to answer — "Dr King violated unjust laws; this home demolition policy is unjust; and as for politics, what was Dr. King doing but "politics" in a spiritually deep way?"

But in his own home, the Ambassadior was entitled to the last word, off-point though it was. And those present and the honorees were entitled to enjoy the moment. So I kept quiet.

The rest of the event went as programmed — except that Rabbi Saperstein, in closing remarks, said how moving had been the eloquent words of the Ambassador and of the honorees and even the dissent that had been voiced, "just as [he said] in democratic Israel dissent is part of the society."

Half a dozen people, including a couple leaders of the mainstream Jewish community and several leaders of non-Jewish religious and liberal organizations, came up to me afterwards to thank me. (I don't know whether they'd want me to name them, so I won't.)

So I am glad to have nmade unmistakably clear to the Ambassador that the policy at least of home demolition and possibly more broadly the Occupation is upsetting enough people that not only are 400 rabbis from the sometimes silent US Jewish community ready to sign a letter of protest, not only are dozens ready to phone his office, but some are even ready to challenge him face-to-face.

And I am glad that 120 influential people heard that there is a Jewish opposition to Sharon and the Occupation, in the US as well as Israel, and heard about the home-demolition policy and Reb Arik.

Some people may have seen as "disruption" my intervention in the Israeli Embassy's annual commemoration of the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King.

Other people saw it as a fulfillment of the honor due Dr. King, weaving a necessary thread into a fabric left unfinished by the Embassy.

I am awed by the timing of these events. That week not only included Dr. King's actual birthday, it included the yohrzeit of his close co-worker Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.

And even more moving, it was the week in which we read from the Torah the beginning of the Book of Exodus, which bears the first recorded stories of nonviolent resistance to a violent government: the story of the midwives and then of Miriam and Pharaoh's own daughter, who refused to carry out Pharaoh's murderous orders. (Exod. 1: 15-22 and Exod. 2: 1-10.)

This tradition continues, in our own generation directed against a government that claims to be Jewish but is acting like Pharaoh. (The Torah warns against Israelite kings who might try to reduce the people to an egypt-like slavery. Deut. 17: 14-17.)

Just weeks ago, five young Israeli men, just out of high school, were sentenced to one year in prison — on top of fourteen months of previous imprisonment while awaiting trial. They had refused to serve in the army of occupation, while offering to do civilian public service or to serve in detachments of the Army that defend Israel proper.

The refusers said they had for years studied closely the occupation, and had concluded soldiers were often sent to perform acts that were war crimes. The court ruled that their objections were indeed rooted in conscience, but that since they had called public attention to their views they were trying to affect public opinion rather than individually obeying conscience.

And just weeks ago, Israeli troops fired live ammunition at nonviolent demonstrators -in the Palestinian town of Budrus — Israelis, Palestinians, and others — who were protesting against the Separation Wall.

For many Israelis, the Wall is intended as a defense against terrorist attacks. But it has been built into and over Palestinian territory in such ways that it strangles towns and villages and destroys homes and farmland.

One Israeli protester was seriously wounded by the Army's gunfire. He was a veteran of the Army who had finished his service in the occupation only weeks before, and knew its evils intimately. — Because it was an Israeli who was wounded, there was a furor in the Israeli press. But no let-up in the building of the Wall.

Note that Palestinian villagers were the backbone of this nonviolent protest. It is easy to see why and how many Israelis fail to notice such nonviolent efforts; for many, these efforts get drowned out in the streams of blood from terrorist attacks.But however, understandable, claims that there are no Palestinian nonviolent resisters are false. And it is important for Israelis and Americans to know the truth.

Just as Dr. King drew on the long tradition of nonviolence that reaches back to the midwives Shifra and Puah, so every one of these forms of protest against violence stands in the tradition of Dr. King. He struggled not only for racial justice but also for the end of the Vietnam War. In a major speech exactly one year before he was killed, he called "racism, militarism, and materialism" the major dangers to American society.

Why was he harrassed by the US government, why was he finally murdered? Why is the Israeli government cracking down on its own citizens who believe the occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza is fueling — not preventing — terrorism, and who are trying to prevent the human rights violations that go with the occupation and stir rage among Palestinians?

Because no government can for long oppress other peoples abroad without finding it needs to repress its own people at home. For as its own citizens realize what indecencies are being committed by their leaders, their own sense of decency rebels.

We teach that God is One, that all life is interwoven. It is not just a teaching, not just wishful thinking. It is true Reality — though sometimes it takes a while for the Reality to sink in.

Not only must we love our neighbors as ourselves, but we DO love our neighbors as we love ourselves. For if we pour hatred out upon our neighbors, our love for each other and ourselves curdles into bile. And poisons us.

Sometimes the "we" and the "us" are Israelis. Sometimes the "we" and the "us" are Palestinians. Sometimes, American Jews. And sometimes, Americans of any background and belief, or none that they — we — affirm.

Like the law of gravity, the law of love and loss crosses all boundaries. Whoever "we" are, if we pour hatred out upon our neighbors, our love for each other and ourselves curdles into bile. And poisons us.

Or we can choose to surmount our fear, our rage, and reach with care and caring across the boundaries, the doorways, the gateposts — for God is One.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, Director
The Shalom Center <>