The University of Pennsylvania is publicizing 21 events constituting the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Commemorative Symposium on Social Change, to celebrate “Penn’s Commitment to the Legacy” on what would have been Dr. King’s eighty-fourth birthday. Two of the events, nearly ten percent of this symposium, perpetuate the lie that Zionism is racism. “Penn for Palestine” is screening a film called “Roadmap to Apartheid,” and the Penn pro-boycott community is falsely comparing Palestinians to African-Americans with a discussion: “From Birmingham to Nablus.” Although these are not official events, spreading such propaganda in a university dedicated to pursuing truth would be troubling any day. Linking these big lies to King’s birthday is a particular perversion that misrepresents Martin Luther King’s life work and diminishes the University of Pennsylvania.
King was pro-Israel and pro-Zionist, recognizing much anti-Zionist rhetoric as anti-Semitic. Christian Europe traditionally viewed Jews as the ultimate villains; now, he understood, anti-Zionism cast Israel, the collective Jew, as the modern world’s ultimate villain. Moreover, King and his allies feared this sloppy analogizing—comparing Israel to South Africa or the segregationist South—as threatening the purity of their struggle against what one activist called “real racism.”
The U.N. General Assembly passed Resolution 3379 branding Zionism as racism in November 1975, seven years after King’s assassination. As I discovered when researching my new book, Moynihan's Moment: America's Fight Against Zionism as Racism, even radicals like Cesar Chavez and the Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver scoffed at this “travesty upon the truth.” The legendary labor leader, A. Philip Randolph, founded the Black Americans to Support Israel Committee, BASIC, with Bayard Rustin, who had coached King in Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolent ethos. More than two hundred leading African Americans signed a BASIC advertisement joining Coretta Scott King and the Reverend Martin Luther King Sr. in rejecting the Zionism-racism charge, including athletes like Hank Aaron, Roy Campanella, and Arthur Ashe.
Many civil rights activists resented the Soviets and Arabs hijacking their language. Bayard Rustin described the “incalculable damage” done to the fight against racism, when the word becomes a political weapon rather than a moral standard. Rooting anti-Zionism in the noxious nexus between traditional anti-Semitism and the Arab desire to eradicate Israel, Rustin invoked King’s famous comment that “when people criticize Zionists, they mean Jews, you are talking anti-Semitism.”
Rustin addressed a midtown Manhattan rally the day after the resolution passed, attended by more than 125,000 people. Rustin ended his speech by singing “Go Down, Moses.” As thousands of New Yorkers, black and white, Jewish and non-Jewish, shouted “Let my people go,” the black and Jewish experiences reached a harmonic convergence, which would appear obsolete by the 1980s.
Resolution 3379 was indeed a grand distraction, a “Big Red Lie,” according to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, manufactured by the Soviet Union and embraced by the Arab world. Moynihan, America’s U.N. Ambassador in 1975, said the accusation “reeked of the totalitarian mind, stank of the totalitarian state.” Both Communist and Third World totalitarians, Moynihan explained, demeaned language, drained words like racism of their real meaning, to serve their larger goal—in this case, humiliating America and delegitimizing its ally Israel.
Resolution 3379 emerged as the anti-Zionist movement’s Rosetta Stone. Sensing the danger, Moynihan warned: “Whether Israel was responsible, Israel surely would be blamed…. Israel would be regretted.”
Indeed, in 1975, Soviet propagandists and their U.N. enablers helped Yasir Arafat supplement the Palestine Liberation Organization’s terror campaign with an ideological and diplomatic war to shape world opinion. Exploiting the rise of a global mass media, and what the Palestinian professor Edward Said called the twentieth century’s “generalizing tendency,” the Palestinians framed their local narrative as part of “the universal political struggle against colonialism and imperialism.” This “blackening” of Palestinians and “whitening” of Israelis worked, although this is a national and not racial conflict with some light-skinned Palestinians and dark-skinned Israelis.
Today, despite the General Assembly “revoking” its “determination” in 1991, Israel is frequently compared to Apartheid South Africa and the Palestinians are frequently compared to American blacks, especially on college campuses—which should resist such slipshod analogies.
The calendar risks further mocking King’s memory. Organizing campus Israel Apartheid weeks every spring is bad enough. In an academic world devoted to acknowledging complexity, such dishonest Soviet-pedigreed sloganeering should be repudiated. But linking these weeks with Martin Luther King’s birthday, turning his pro-Israel voice into an anti-Zionist one, is a reprehensible act of intellectual grave robbery.
In condemning this farce let us remember Moynihan’s politics of patriotic indignation, spurring us to reject sacred cows, left and right. Let us remember Bayard Rustin’s fear of the term racism becoming an all-purpose, meaningless epithet “in international discussions” like s.o.b. is “in personal relations.” And let us remember Martin Luther King’s “pledge to do my utmost to uphold the fair name of the Jews—because bigotry in any form is an affront to us all.”