Revisiting Angela Davis: Right Side, Wrong History

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the Fox Cities community gathered in Lawrence University’s Memorial Chapel to commemorate King’s legacy and to celebrate those in the community who continue his struggle.

The keynote speaker Angela Davis gave an impassioned speech about King, social justice, prison abolition and the police state in the United States, and how it relates to the Israeli-Palestinian tragedy. This connection, however, is historically inaccurate. She ended her speech by quoting the prophet Amos, who is known for rebuking not just the surrounding kingdoms for immorality, but also for rebuking faithful Israelites for not practicing what they preached. After the benediction, the whole community joined together in the famous civil rights anthem, “We Shall Overcome.”

As a Jew and someone who likes to stay informed, I often think and read about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. One thing that many—mostly older—pro-Israel Jews like to point out is how pro-Israel King was.

This knowledge raised a question for me: Is it academically honest to link King’s legacy with the Palestinian liberation movement? Some may say that Davis was just expressing her ideas and that she never claimed to be speaking for King. However, if she had claimed that violent resistance was part of King’s legacy, the audience would definitely have questioned those sentiments. So why was it OK to misattribute Palestinian solidarity to King?

I think the reason that the connection between Palestine and King was accepted was that it fits easily into the liberal paradigm and a commonly-held oversimplification of what intersectionality is.

I am not saying Davis cannot say what she wants to say. I am not even saying her ideas were wrong. I am also not claiming that King’s extreme pro-Israel sentiments justify Israeli actions in the West Bank or Gaza. What I am asking is whether the connection that Davis made and the one that many people make is an honest one. I am also saying that this dishonesty may lead people to form an inaccurate basis for their position on the conflict.

To show the drastic difference between Davis’s ideology on the conflict and that of King, take these two quotes as examples. In 1968, King said at Harvard University that “when people criticize Zionists, they mean Jews. You are talking anti-Semitism.” This idea that criticizing Zionism is anti-Semitic is a main facet of the extreme pro-Israel camp. Israel’s advocates often discredit criticism of Israel as being anti-Semitic.

Davis said at a public talk in Cape Town in 2014—and elsewhere—that “Zionism is racism.” This idea is also radical, and I think King would say it is inherently anti-Semitic. This notion of Zionism as racist ideology is one of the main issues many protest groups raise when they organize against the Jewish state.

In my opinion, Davis should have acknowledged the disconnect between her beliefs and those of King. Those who are not informed about King’s pro-Israel beliefs likely walked away from that talk believing that King was anti-Israel or for the demilitarization of Israel when he certainly was not. Even in this very publication, in the article covering the event, it was claimed that “she spoke on the work of King and how it relates to current struggles—both at home in the United States and in the struggle for answers in Palestine. In doing so, Davis highlighted King’s lesser-known ideas on seemingly contemporary issues.”

We need to be honest about our history and acknowledge it even if it is problematic. This kind of revisionist thinking is what leads to an uninformed electorate.

Just 10 days before King was assassinated, he spoke at a convention of the Rabbinical Assembly. At this convention, he said that “we must stand with all our might to protect its [Israel’s] right to exist, its territorial integrity.” A demilitarized Israel, then and now, is a non-existent Israel in my opinion. I find the occupation abhorrent and think that Israel must end its many unfair and illicit policies and programs. So while I do not agree with everything that Davis said, I do agree with her in many ways.

Famous figures like King, Mohandas Gandhi and Mother Theresa have, especially recently, been re-examined by modern academics for their conduct and beliefs. Davis should have engaged with this history, not ignored it.

Davis is an inspirational figure, and I truly enjoyed her speech. However, she should have followed the lead of Amos and criticized everyone, especially those who are hard to criticize.



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