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Earlier this month, a young Jewish boy won the Martin Luther King, Jr. Writing Award for best high school prose. The contest, held by Carnegie Mellon University and sponsored by the school’s Office of the President, is said to “celebrate excellence in creative writing and the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.”
Far from celebrating Dr. King’s spirit, though, the winning essay profaned his legacy by promoting the very bigotry he fought so hard to eliminate.
The writer announced that Jews consider themselves better and smarter than everyone else. “I once belonged to a wonderful religion,” the piece begins. “I belonged to a religion that allows those of us who believe in it to feel that we are the greatest people in the world—and feel sorry for ourselves at the same time. Once, I thought that I truly belonged in this world of security, self-pity, self-proclaimed intelligence, and perfect moral aesthetic.” But he would no longer remain a part of such an ill-willed “Self-Chosen People.”
The writer then turned to Israel, the purported cause of his disenchantment. Israel’s military operations, which are rightly viewed, at least outside of Carnegie Mellon, as a response to suicide bombings and missile barrages, were described as “genocide.” Israeli Jews were cast as “racial supremacists,” a group that “killed while praising its own intelligence and reason.”
It should go without saying that such noxious rhetoric, which would blend in seamlessly on a white nationalist hate site, will fuel anti-Semitic views in readers who trust the piece deserves its accolade. That such an essay would be submitted for a contest named after Martin Luther King, and, more disturbingly, that a professor would select it as an award-winning entry, underscores how dramatically Dr. King’s legacy, 44 years after his death, is being warped.
Those who worked with Dr. King have recalled his opposition to anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, his strong support for Israel and his understanding of the links between Israeli security and peace.
Consider the words of Clarence B. Jones, Scholar in Residence at Stanford’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute: “I was his lawyer and one of his closest advisers, and I can say with absolute certainty that Martin abhorred anti-Semitism in all its forms, including anti-Zionism.”
Indeed, Dr. King often stood up for the Jewish people, and pledged to do his utmost “to uphold the fair name of the Jews—because bigotry in any form is an affront to us all.”
U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), a disciple of Dr. King’s and himself a civil rights leader, has noted that Dr. King defended not only the Jews, but also their nation-state. “During his lifetime King witnessed the birth of Israel and the continuing struggle to build a nation,” recalled Rep. Lewis. “He consistently reiterated his stand on the Israeli-Arab conflict, stating ‘Israel’s right to exist as a state in security is uncontestable.’”
Dr. King knew that for peace to come to the Middle East, the right of Israelis to live in security “must be a reality.” He said that “peace for Israel means security, and we must stand with all our might to protect its right to exist, its territorial integrity.”
Carnegie Mellon is not alone in misappropriating Dr. King’s legacy. Among a small but influential group that includes directors of slick propaganda films and anti-Zionists on lecture tours, the abuse of Dr. King’s legacy to bash Israel has become a meme.
As an anti-Israel strategy, it makes sense. High school-aged Jews, like the one who wrote the winning essay, can be made to feel embarrassed by Israel in part because they never learned Martin Luther King felt such pride in the country. It is time we remind them— and university students, and professors—that while Israel, like all countries, is imperfect, it is also the kind of place that would lead a great man to say, “I see Israel as one of the great outposts of democracy in the world, and a marvelous example of what can be done, how desert land can be transformed into an oasis of brotherhood and democracy.”
Gilead Ini is a Senior Research Analyst at the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA).