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Dr. Martin Luther King and Israel: Documents on his Relations with the State of Israel and Efforts to Arrange his Visit to Israel


Martin Luther King receives a medal from
New York Mayor Robert Wagner, 1964
Photograph: Library of Congress















"I take these means to express my deep appreciation to you for the invitation you extended to me to come to your wonderful country". This was the answer of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Prime Minister Levi Eshkol's invitation to Israel, in early May 1967. The invitation was the culmination of the efforts made by Jewish and Israeli groups, including the government of Israel, to bring Dr. King to Israel. These efforts went on for years – but were to no avail.

This year, Martin Luther King Day will be commemorated on January 21st, 2013 (the third Monday in January). 2013 will also mark the 45th anniversary since the assassination of Dr. King in April 1968. The Israel State Archives presents here 17 (10 in English) documents from its collections on relations between King and the state of Israel and the efforts to arrange his visit.

According to the documents in our possession, it is not very clear when the connection between King and Israeli diplomats began and where the idea of inviting him to Israel came from. First evidence  is found in a letter from Zeev Dover, the Israeli consul in Atlanta,  to the embassy in Washington in August 1962, from which it seems that the first body to invite Dr. King to Israel was the leadership of the General Federation of Labour (Histadrut) - Israel's main workers' union. Dover writes that he sees the invitation to King as raising some problems, since according to the white establishment King is a dominant and radical black leader who is threatening order in the southern states of the USA. This may hamper Israel's efforts to build up support and connections in the south (Document 1). On the other hand, Dover views the black community in the United States as a dynamic force of growing strength, and he recommends in another letter to establish contacts through black academics (Document 2).

Despite the consul's opinion, the Histadrut did invite King to visit Israel. In February 1963, the Histadrut representative in the USA, Ben Zion Ilan, thanked Dr. King for accepting his invitation, and added that the secretary general of the Histadrut, Aharon Becker, expressed his pleasure and promised that all the arrangements would be made to ensure the visit would be to the satisfaction of King and his wife (Document 3). Ralph Abernathy, King's colleague in the leadership of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), was also invited (Document 4).Nevertheless, in July 1963, the Atlanta consulate learned that King had cancelled the visit for an unknown reason This pattern would repeat itself in the coming years – Israeli or Jewish groups invite Dr. King, he accepts their invitation willingly but in the end the visit does not take place.

In 1964, following the announcement that King was to receive the Nobel Prize for Peace, Israeli representatives in the USA began to meet with King directly and to try to bring him to Israel. Deputy Prime Minister Abba Eban met King in Washington in November 1964 and invited him to visit. King accepted and it was agreed that he would contact the embassy in Washington to arrange a date (Document 5). In March 1965, Avraham Harman, the Israeli ambassador in Washington, invited King as an official guest on any date of his convenience (Document 6).

While the Israeli government was planning King's visit, he received another invitation from his personal friend, attorney Irving Engel, the former head of the American Jewish Committee (AJC). Engel proposed that King visit Israel as the guest of the Israeli government but under the sponsorship of the AJC, probably wanting some of the prestige of this important occasion (Document 7). King replied that he would love to visit Israel, which he finds interesting due to the "significant social experiments" happening there, but due to the heavy demands on his time, he proposed to come after participation in the summit of the Organization of African Unity in Accra, Ghana in late October 1965 (Document 8).

Engel's move caused some raised eyebrows in the United States Division of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, as Engel's letter to Ambassador Harman testifies. Engel offered to cancel his invitation to King, if it is the wish of the Israeli government (Document 10). In correspondence between Harman and the Foreign Ministry, Harman recommended taking up Engel's offer because he believed that King would only agree to come to Israel under AJC auspices (Document 9). Shlomo Argov, deputy director of the Division replied that he did not oppose co-operation with the AJC in arranging the visit, but it would be more dignified for it to be under Israeli government auspices (Document 11). Once the position of the government was clear, Engel wrote to King that the visit could take place, and agreed that it should be after King's journey to Africa (Document 12). In December 1965, Dr. King met the new Israeli consul in Atlanta, Shimon Yallon. King noted that he has an "open invitation" to visit Israel, but unfortunately it has not taken place. King expressed his hope to visit Israel early in 1966 (Document 12a). However, this date too passed. Only after some time did King respond to Harman's formal invitation and wrote that his heavy schedule prevented him from visiting Israel then, but he hoped to accept the invitation at a later date (Document 13).

In June 1966 Michael Arnon, the Israeli consul in New York, wrote to Harman that he had learned that King intended to lead a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in April 1967, before Easter. Arnon proposed to take advantage of the plan to invite King to Israel again for an official visit (Document 14) The Foreign Ministry was also informed that Jordan wanted to invite King to visit Jerusalem, and Israel sought to pre-empt that move. In February 1967, Levi Eshkol, the prime minister, wrote to Martin Luther King of his "distinct pleasure" at the coming  visit and offered to sponsor it with the extension of  all possible government support . (Document 15Typed version). In early May 1967, King wrote that he would be happy to visit Israel and meet personally with the prime minister (Document 16). Due to the Six Day War, which broke out on June 5 1967, the visit was again cancelled. Less than a year later, in April 1968, Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee.

Israel wanted very much to bring Martin Luther King for a visit. His status as a Nobel Peace Prize laureate would give the event great prestige, and it was hoped that it would have a positive impact on the status of Israel in the Afro-American community in the United States and in Africa, where King was a revered figure.  King was sympathetic to Israel and declared support for its right to exist in peace. But given all the delays and evasions, it seems he did not want to identify himself with Israel to this extent during the struggle for equal rights for blacks in the United States. This attitude may also have arisen from the decline in his status in the Afro-American community, due to the rise of more radical groups which were identified with anti-Israel positions, such as Malcolm X and the "Nation of Islam", and the "Black Panther" movement.

Editors and Acknowledgements
Historical editing
: Shlomo Mark and Hagai Zoref
English translation and editing: Louise Fischer
Internet content editing: Oranit Levi
Scanning: Shlomo Mark

A Special Joint Publication by the Israel State Archives and the Center for Educational Technology (CET)