An investigative piece in Haaretz, “How Martin Luther King Jr. Avoided Visiting Israel,” says that from the time that Martin Luther King Jr. won the Nobel Prize in 1964, Israeli officials urged him to visit Israel and King played ball but apparently had reservations about going; he never went in the four years that were left to him.
And before King won the prize, Israel wasn’t interested in him. The Israeli consul in Atlanta warned that he was too militant, and notwithstanding the high black birth rate– yes, it’s always a demographic question– the black community was not important enough for Israel to woo it.
The internal debate within Israel regarding Martin Luther King was revealed in a classified document that the consul in Atlanta sent to the Washington embassy in August 1962. Exactly a year later, King led the huge demonstration in Washington, where he delivered his historic “I have a dream” speech.
The Israel Consul in Atlanta wrote that he “places great importance on forming connections with the black leadership,” but added: “In my opinion the time is not yet ripe for his visit to Israel.” He explained that this was because King represents “the militant wing of the civil rights movement,” and that important organizations “are not in agreement with him and oppose his methods.” He also added that alongside the global fame King had attained, he also had managed to alienate groups of moderate African Americans.
The consul raised the concern that inviting King to Israel would lead to “severe negative responses,” and recommended that “in any case, we should not be the first country that gives King so-called international status.” He also warned that King’s visit to Israel could harm Israel’s ties with Southern states in the U.S., who felt threatened by the dominant radical leader. At the end of the memo he recommended “shelving the idea until the right moment,” and added “our efforts to enter into discussions with different factors in the black community must be done…without being overly conspicuous.”
The next letter he sent on the subject to his superiors at the Foreign Ministry, in November 1962, presented a more complex picture: On the one hand, the black community does not have real impact or importance in the U.S. – and therefore Israel shouldn’t go out of its way to woo it. On the other, he noticed the unrest that had begun, and warned that Israel should not ignore it.
“It is important that we define what our specific objectives are towards this population, and accord them the appropriate treatment,” he wrote. He added the argument that African-Americans only comprise 11 percent of the population of the U.S., and said that: “despite the high birthrate [they] will remain a minority. Moreover, many more years will pass until this racial minority recovers from the economic and educational backwardness that is the result of discrimination.”