Martin Luther King on Anti-Semitism

"It would be a tragic and immoral mistake to identify the mass of Negroes with the very small number that succumb to cheap and dishonest slogans, just as it would be a serious error to identify all Jews with the few who exploit Negroes under their economic sway."


Martin Luther King on Anti-Semitism
September 28, 1967

Mr. Morris B. Abram, President
American Jewish Committee
165 East 56th Street
New York, New York

Dear Mr. Abram:

I am in receipt of your letter making inquiry of SCLC’s position on anti-Semitism. First, let me apologize for being rather tardy in my reply. Absence from the city and the accumulation of a huge volume of mail account for the delay.

Serious distortions by the press have created an impression that SCLC was part of a group at the Chicago Conference of New Politics which introduced a resolu­tion condemning Israel and unqualifiedly endorsing all the policies of the Arab powers. The facts are as follows:

1. The staff members of SCLC who attended the conference (not as official delegates) were the most vigorous and articulate opponents of the simplistic resolution on the Middle East question. As a result of this opposition, the Black caucus modified its stand and the convention voted to eliminate references to Zionism and referred to the executive board the matter of final wording. This change was the direct result of the spirited opposition on the floor by Hosea Williams, Director of Voter Registration and Political Education of SCLC. Incidentally, I only attended the conference to make the opening speech and left immediately after. I had no part in planning the structure or policy of the conference, nor was I a delegate. If I had been at the conference during the discussion of the resolutions, I would have made it crystal clear that I could not have supported any resolu­tion calling for Black separatism or calling for a condem­nation of Israel and an unqualified endorsement of the policy of the Arab powers. I later made this clear to the press, but a disclaimer seldom gets the attention that an original sensational attack receives.

2. SCLC has repeatedly stated that the Middle East problem embodies the related questions of security and development. Israel’s right to exist as a state in security is incontestable. At the same time the great powers have the obligation to recognize that the Arab world is in a state of imposed poverty and backwardness that must threaten peace and harmony. Until a concerted and democratic program of assistance is affected, tensions cannot be relieved. Neither Israel nor its neighbors can live in peace without an underlying basis of economic and social development.

At the heart of the problem are oil interests. As the American Jewish Congress has stated, “American policies in the Middle East have been motivated in no small measure by the desire to protect the $2,500,000,000 stake which U.S. oil companies have invested in the area.” Some Arab feudal rulers are no less concerned for oil wealth and neglect the plight of their own peoples. The solution will have to be found in statesmanship by Israel and progressive Arab forces who, in concert with the great powers, recognize that fair and peaceful solutions are the concern of all humanity and must be found.

Neither military measures nor a stubborn effort to reverse history can provide a permanent solution for peoples who need and deserve both development and security.

3. SCLC has expressly, frequently and vigorously denounced anti-Semitism, and will continue to do so. It is not only that anti-Semitism is immoral — though that alone is enough. It is used to divide Negro and Jew, who have effectively collaborated in the struggle for justice. It injures Negroes because it upholds the doctrine of racism which they have the greatest stake in destroying. The individual Jew or gentile who may be an exploiter acts out of his greed as an individual, not his religious precepts. Just as a criminal, Negro or white — is expressing his anti-social tendencies — not the ethical values of his race.

On the general question of anti-Semitism, I would like to quote a few paragraphs from my recent book Where Do We Go From Here:

“One fact is decisive for perspective and balance: the amount of anti-Semitism found among Negroes is no greater than is found among white groups of the same economic strata. Two polls cited by Professor Thomas Pettegrew and a very recent study in depth conducted by Dr. Oscar Lewis arrived at this same conclusion. These revelations should allay the alarm that has arisen from exploitation and exaggeration of the issue by some white and Negro publicists whose appetite for attention exceeds their attachment to truth and responsibility.

“The question that troubles many Jews and other concerned Americans is why oppressed Negroes should harbor any anti-Semitism at all. Prejudice and dis­crimination can only harm them; therefore it would appear that they should be virtually immune to their sinister appeal.

“The limited degree of Negro anti-Semitism is substantially a Northern ghetto phenomenon; it virtually does not exist in the South. The urban Negro has a special and unique relationship to Jews. On the one hand, he is associated with Jews as some of his most committed and generous partners in the civil rights struggle. On the other hand, he meets them daily as some of his most direct exploiters in the ghetto as slum landlords and gouging shopkeepers. Jews have identified with Negroes voluntarily in the freedom movement, motivated by their religious and cultural commitment to justice. The other Jews who are engaged in commerce in the ghettos are remnants of older communities. A great number of Negro ghettos were formerly Jewish neighborhoods; some storekeepers and landlords remained as population changes occurred. They operate with the ethics of marginal business entrepreneurs, not Jewish ethics, but the distinction is lost on some Negroes who are maltreated by them. Such Negroes, caught in frustration and irrational anger, parrot racial epithets. They foolishly add to the social poison that injures themselves and their own people.

“It would be a tragic and immoral mistake to identify the mass of Negroes with the very small number that succumb to cheap and dishonest slogans, just as it would be a serious error to identify all Jews with the few who exploit Negroes under their economic sway.

“Negroes cannot rationally expect honorable Jews to curb the few who are rapacious; they have no means of disciplining or suppressing them. We can only expect them to share our disgust and disdain. Negroes cannot be expected to curb and eliminate the few who are anti­-Semitic, because they are subject to no controls we can exercise. We can, however, oppose them and have, in concrete ways. There has never been an instance of articulated Negro anti-Semitism that was not swiftly condemned by virtually all Negro leaders with the support of the overwhelming majority. I have myself directly attacked it within the Negro community, be­cause it is wrong. I will continue to oppose it, because it is immoral and self-destructive.”

Let me thank you for writing, and also for your consistent support. I realize that this letter is long, but I hope it will shed some light on what can be an unfortunate misunderstanding.

Martin Luther King Jr.