More than four decades after his death, the lessons from the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. remain as telling today as they did in the days when his teachings revolutionized a nation and led to a new understanding of civil rights.
While his messages of hope and tolerance were clearly designed for a specific time and place, they are in many ways universal. In fact, there is little doubt that he would have taken great pride and satisfaction in looking upon Israeli society as an exemplar of what is possible when people learn to live among each other in peace and harmony.
While many might be shocked to hear Israel described in such terms, the facts are that despite the political and security tensions which continue to define this region, its peoples still long for the types of coexistence which King so eloquently advocated.
These truths were revealed as recently as last week, when a study, commissioned by The Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, found that 43 percent of Israelis would oppose legislation banning the construction of minarets in Israeli cities. The strongest opposition to such legislation came from the National Religious and even the haredi camps.
This survey’s findings cannot assume that Israelis have suddenly softened their stance on issues of security or territorial concessions. In these regards we know that the National Religious camp in particular often adopts the hardest lines, and it would be ignorant to suggest that they have so dramatically changed their outlook.
What it does indicate, however, is that the dreams of recognizing the rights of the other and the need for tolerance of the other can shine through even in the most challenging of situations.
DR. MARTIN Luther King Jr. was a passionate supporter of Israel. Even while he would have taken great pride in the findings of this survey, we can be equally confident in knowing that he would not have been surprised by them.
His ardent solidarity with the then infant Jewish state was built upon his firm belief that peace could be reached between Israel and its neighbors. This peace, he often preached, would only be achieved if the tolerance and mutual respect which he knew existed in this society would be adequately exposed and championed.
On this anniversary of King’s birth, it would therefore be prudent for all friends and defenders of Israel to rally behind the nation’s accomplishments in promoting a more tolerant society. While Israel’s detractors are always want to focus on its negatives, the reality is that this nation has a great deal for which to be proud and can aptly be described as a "light unto the nations."
As just one example, Israel serves as the only country to ever actively take blacks out of Africa and bring them to freedom.
While the United States is often described as a melting pot, Israel’s diversity is another of its proudest characteristics. A modern day fulfillment of the prophetic "ingathering of the nations," peoples from all walks of life, of all ethnic and national origins and of all colors of the skin proudly call themselves Israeli and contribute equally to the national discourse.
King was known for a great deal of wise teachings that arguably changed the very nature of the human experience, both in America and throughout the world. But perhaps the most relevant for today’s world, and for Israel in particular, centers on his contention that the greatest honor in fighting for one’s own rights comes when one also fights for the rights of the other.
Israelis have increasingly recognized that successfully addressing the many challenges facing their society will require a heightened appreciation for the needs of the country’s neighbors and even its enemies. This was a challenge that King not only recognized fully in his own quest, but is one that he knew applicable to many other causes around the globe.
In his very last address, just before his assassination, King recalled his trip to Israel years earlier, describing it as "one of the great outposts of democracy in the world and a marvelous example of what can be done, how desert land almost can be transformed into an oasis of brotherhood and democracy."
Nearly 42 years later, the world would be wise to rally behind this tremendous man’s vision and appreciate that only through tolerance, respect and mutual understanding will that ever-elusive peace become attainable.
The writer, a rabbi, is president of The Foundation for Ethnic Understanding and author of Shared Dreams: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Jewish Community.