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King's Pro-Israel Legacy Should Guide Obama

January 15, 2009 By:
Rabbi Marc Schneier
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Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (far right) in the Selma Civil Rights March with Martin Luther King Jr. Heschel later wrote: "When I marched in Selma, my feet were praying."

Since claiming the presidency, Barack Obama has been universally praised by foreign leaders as a breath of fresh air for American diplomacy. On Dec. 27, however, world leaders' jubilant anticipation of his inauguration took a backseat as Israel began its current operation in Gaza and questions arose as to how the incoming president would respond to the conflict.

While President-elect Obama has correctly insisted that there cannot be "two presidents at a time," his inauguration is rapidly approaching, and soon the global community will be looking to him for guidance on the Middle East. Obama would be best served by embracing the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and his unequivocal support and commitment to Israel.

Israel launched Operation Cast Lead in order to end Hamas' capacity to launch rockets from the Gaza Strip into southern Israel. There, Israeli citizens are on the frontlines, and continue to be bombarded on a daily basis by an endless barrage of attacks from the terrorist group Hamas.

Pro-Israel supporters should take comfort in the pronouncements by Obama and key figures in his administration. Obama himself has already affirmed his pledge to pursue aggressively an end to the conflict upon taking the oath of office.

When visiting Sederot last July, then-candidate Obama said that he would do whatever he could to protect his daughters if they were threatened by rocket attacks. His top political adviser, David Axelrod, has been quoted as saying: "When bombs are raining down on your citizens, there is an urge to respond and act to put an end to that. That's what [Obama] believes."

Axelrod has also said that the Obama administration plans to work closely with Israel, which he called Washington's "most important ally in the region."

Needless to say, one's rhetoric is only just that -- words. It is action that will dictate legacy. King's life is that legacy.

What irony that Barack Obama's inauguration falls one day after King's 80th birthday commemoration and national observances of the day across the country. King's struggles and his supreme sacrifice laid the groundwork for an Obama presidency. As we come together to swear in the first African-American president against the backdrop of the current crisis in the Middle East, Obama should recall the noble legacy of King and his steadfast dedication to Israel.

King understood the necessity for Israel to protect its citizens, invoking the sentiment: "Peace for Israel means security, and we must stand with all of our might to protect its right to exist, its territorial integrity."

Israelis held a special place in King's thinking. During the 1956 war with Egypt, he wrote: "There is something in the very nature of the universe which is on the side of Israel in its struggle with every Egypt."

In March of 1959, returning to the United States by a circuitous route that took him through Jordan and Egypt, King visited Jerusalem and Jericho, then still in Arab hands. Though Jordan refused to let him into the Jewish Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem, King often spoke of the adventure and excitement of being in the Holy City and the Holy Land.

In fact, the last speech he gave before his death referred to that very trip. King remarked: "I see Israel, and never mind saying 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."

Jan. 20 is rapidly approaching, and the weight of the world will soon be thrust upon Barack Obama's shoulders. The Mideast will present a great challenge to our new president, and I trust King's legacy will offer him great wisdom and guidance.

As King so eloquently stated: "The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy."

Rabbi Marc Schneier is president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding and author of Shared Dreams: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Jewish Community.

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