Dr. King's Birthday and the
Jewish View of the Middle Eastern Conflict

James Adler

This past week's birthday celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King may be as good a time as any to make some surmises on what may be a close connection between King's message of nonviolence and the probable view of an important Israeli and Diaspora Jewish view of the Middle Eastern conflict.

King's view was that the end does not justify the means. That we try to love those whom we seek to change.  And that deliberate violence against innocent people is as  hurtful and awful as any perceived injustices it may seek to ameliorate.  And so that means and ends are not necessarily even that different from one another.

In King's own era, most liberals understood this.

But today some of us seem to think that certain things -- "social conditions" -- are more real and important than whatever  may be used to try to change them.  But I believe for most Jews that this is not true. Violence is as real and important as anything else.  It is itself an actual and immoral "social condition."   Jews, above most people, after millennia of pogroms and mob attacks and at last the Holocaust, are especially sensitive to being targeted by this--equally--real and important social condition.

In fact, most of the past century of this conflict could even be seen as the history of the Jews' response to violence.  It seems to me that the left needs to understand this.

For most Israeli  Jews, I would think, violence isn't a "symptom" of some "deeper social reality."  Instead that there is itself no deeper and immoral and more real a social reality than violence.

And this may even be where the left most acutely misunderstands the conflict-- and least from the viewpoint of most Jews.  For Jews, at or near the core of the conflict is the violence itself.

After all, from this point of view, there would, today, exist practically nothing for liberals like as ourselves (or even Palestinians or other Arabs) to criticize -- no security fence, checkpoints, by-pass roads, border or access impediments, or -- mainly -- even any displaced Palestinian refugees in the first place -- if it were not for the repeated pattern of the onset of threats of violence and actual violence against the innocents.

For some people and in some circumstances this may be considered an affectation. But for the Jews, and after the millennia of pogroms and mob violence and at last the Shoah against them -- it should by no means be considered an affectation.

This may get at the heart of the psychology of the conflict from the vantage of many of us on the Israeli "side" of it. It may be why this view, and the view of us who have other ways of looking at it, including many of onlookers on the left, go past each other without any encounter or communication, like the proverbial pair of ships passing each other in the night.

And it is this matter of nonviolence that is at the core of King's legacy-- the idea that a pattern of violence which targets innocents  is itself as profound an injustice, as much an actual and evil social condition as that of any other injustice.

It is not to say Israel and its progenitors haven't made grave and unethical errors -- as they have -- to say, nevertheless, that this Jewish perspective ought to give to those people who only criticize Israel, but never the other side, something lengthy and important and serious to contemplate.

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Harvard Square Commentary, January 22, 2007