“When people criticize Zionists, they mean Jews. You’re talking anti-Semitism!”
—Martin Luther King, Jr.
Aptly quoting Martin Luther King, Jr. is a common way to make a point or win an argument, and it’s no surprise that his new memorial in Washington includes an “Inscription Wall” of quotes carved in stone. It’s also no surprise that the quote about critics of Zionists didn’t make the cut for inclusion in the memorial. Still, it’s been put to use on many an occasion, most recently by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last year, in his address to the Knesset on International Holocaust Remembrance Day. A few years back it even cropped up in a State Department report on antisemitism. So I was perplexed to see it categorized as “disputed” on the extensive page of King quotes at Wikiquote—for better or worse, the go-to place to verify quotes. Indeed, as of this writing, it’s the only King quote so listed.
The attempt to discredit the quote has been driven by politics. In particular, it’s the work of Palestinians and their sympathizers, who resent the stigmatizing of anti-Zionism as a form of antisemitism. Just what sort of anti-Zionism crosses that fine line is a question beyond my scope here. But what of the quote itself? How was it first circulated? What is the evidence against it? And might some additional evidence resolve the question of its authenticity?
King’s words were first reported by Seymour Martin Lipset, at that time the George D. Markham Professor of Government and Sociology at Harvard, in an article he published in the magazine Encounter in December 1969—that is, in the year following King’s assassination. Lipset:
Shortly before he was assassinated, Martin Luther King, Jr. was in Boston on a fund-raising mission, and I had the good fortune to attend a dinner which was given for him in Cambridge. This was an experience which was at once fascinating and moving: one witnessed Dr. King in action in a way one never got to see in public. He wanted to find what the Negro students at Harvard and other parts of the Boston area were thinking about various issues, and he very subtly cross-examined them for well over an hour and a half. He asked questions, and said very little himself. One of the young men present happened to make some remark against the Zionists. Dr. King snapped at him and said, “Don’t talk like that! When people criticize Zionists, they mean Jews. You’re talking anti-Semitism!”
For the next three-plus decades, no one challenged the credibility of this account. No wonder: Lipset, author of the classic Political Man (1960), was an eminent authority on American politics and society, who later became the only scholar ever to preside over both the American Sociological Association and the American Political Science Association. Who if not Lipset could be counted upon to report an event accurately? Nor was he quoting something said in confidence only to him or far back in time. Others were present at the same dinner, and Lipset wrote about it not long after the fact. He also told the anecdote in a magazine that must have had many subscribers in Cambridge, some of whom might have shared his “fascinating and moving” experience. The idea that he would have fabricated or falsified any aspect of this account would have seemed preposterous.
That is, until almost four decades later, when two Palestinian-American activists suggested just that. Lipset’s account, they wrote, “seems on its face… credible.”
There are still, however, a few reasons for casting doubt on the authenticity of this statement. According to the Harvard Crimson, “The Rev. Martin Luther King was last in Cambridge almost exactly a year ago—April 23, 1967″ (“While You Were Away” 4/8/68). If this is true, Dr. King could not have been in Cambridge in 1968. Lipset stated he was in the area for a “fund-raising mission,” which would seem to imply a high profile visit. Also, an intensive inventory of publications by Stanford University’s Martin Luther King Jr. Papers Project accounts for numerous speeches in 1968. None of them are for talks in Cambridge or Boston.
When King was assassinated, the Crimson, Harvard’s student newspaper, did write that he “was last in Cambridge almost exactly a year ago—April 23, 1967.” That had been a very public visit, during which King and Dr. Benjamin Spock held a press conference to announce plans for a “Vietnam Summer.” War supporters picketed King.
But in actual fact, that wasn’t King’s last visit to Cambridge. In early October 1967, when news spread that King would be coming to Boston for the Belafonte concert, a junior member of Harvard’s faculty wrote to King from Cambridge, to extend an invitation from the instructor and his wife:
We would be anxious to be able to sit down and have a somewhat leisured meal with you, and perhaps with some other few people from this area whom you might like to meet. So much has happened in recent months that we are both quite without bearings, and are in need of some honest and tough and friendly dialogue…. So if you can find some time for dinner on Friday or lunch on Saturday, we are delighted to extend an invitation. If, however, your schedules do not permit, we of course will understand that. In any case, we look forward to seeing you at the Belafonte Concert and the party afterwards.
Two days later, King’s secretary, Dora McDonald, sent a reply accepting the invitation on King’s behalf: “Dr. King asked me to say that he would be happy to have dinner with you.” King would be arriving in Boston at 2:43 in the afternoon. “Accompanying Dr. King will be Rev. Andrew Young, Rev. Bernard Lee and I.”
Who was this member of the Harvard faculty? Martin Peretz.
…It was against this background that King came to dinner at the Peretz home at 20 Larchwood Drive, Cambridge, in the early evening of October 27, 1967. A few days later, King’s aide, Andrew Young, thanked the couple
for the delightful evening last Friday. It is almost too bad we had to go to the concert, but I think you will agree that the concert, too, proved enjoyable but I am also sure a couple of hours conversing with the group gathered in your home would have been more productive.
In fact, the evening’s significance would only become evident later, after King’s death. For the dinner was attended by Peretz’s senior Harvard colleague, Seymour Martin Lipset, and it was then and there that Lipset heard King rebuke a student who echoed the SNCC line on “Zionists”: “When people criticize Zionists, they mean Jews. You’re talking anti-Semitism!” Peretz would later assert that King “grasped the identity between anti-Israel politics and anti-semitic ranting.” But it was Lipset who preserved King’s words to that effect, by publishing them soon after they were spoken. (And just to run the contemporary record against memory, I wrote to Peretz, to ask whether the much-quoted exchange did take place at his Cambridge home on that evening almost 45 years ago. His answer: “Absolutely.” )
It is worth reading the whole thing.
And yet, even today, anti-Israel activists are casting doubt that the quote is accurate. For good reason: they know it is, and the idea that MLK was probably a Zionist drives them crazy.
(This tweet was deleted after I responded, but her sarcastic response is still up.)
More on MLK and Israel, between Kramer and Yaacov Lozowick, here.