Today is Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) Day and one important way we can honor his legacy is by condemning the US-Israeli alliance committing genocide in Gaza, just like he condemned America’s war in Vietnam.
While we often whitewash and sanitize Dr. King’s work to make it more palatable, he was a controversial figure in his time. For me, a Jewish chaplain whose work involves making space for life’s most difficult emotions and experiences, I’m thinking especially of his scathing speech “Beyond Vietnam: A Time To Break The Silence” which he delivered in 1967 at Riverside Church in New York City. It was powerful, angry, and full of rage.
His closest advisors even begged him not to preach it, worried it was a tactical mistake that would alienate him from civil rights allies. But Dr. King insisted, saying American imperialism had become so violent that his conscience called him to speak out against it no matter the cost.
From the pulpit, he described the devastating costs of the war on the millions of Vietnamese women and children killed by American bombs and who faced death, disease, starvation. He called the United States “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today” and called for an immediate end to the bombing, a unilateral ceasefire, and a negotiated peace settlement with Vietnam.
He also said that the immorality of an unjust war would also have implications on our shores by corrupting the country. “If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned,” he noted, “part of the autopsy must read Vietnam.”
The condemnation was swift, as expected: 168 major newspapers denounced him the next day, President Lyndon B. Johnson disinvited from the White House even though he had been an ally on Dr. King’s civil rights work, and masses of supporters turned against him.
But Dr. King had no regrets and today, as the same violence enacted by the US against Vietnam is being executed by the US and Israel against Gaza, we each face the same choice as Israel uses the horrific pain of October 7th to justify racist expansionism, ethnic cleansing, widespread displacement, and the outright genocide of the Palestinian people.
Now, not everyone will agree that Gaza is similar to Vietnam.
To those indoctrinated by Zionism — this won’t make sense.
To those who conflate Judaism and Zionism, antisemitism and anti-Zionism, and Jewish identity and a political ideology in an act of complete corruption — this won’t make sense.
To those who unfathomably insist this unprecedented violence in both scale and intensity is just self-defense and not active aggression by a government who has made their supremacist agenda clear — this won’t make sense.
To those who erase Palestinian existence and suffering from their narrative in order to more easily champion violent nationalism — this won’t make sense.
To those who insist ancient Jewish biblical claims to the land justify the oppression of Palestinians with greater claim — this won’t make sense.
To those who insist Israel-Palestine is such a uniquely complex geopolitical situation that only those who agree with Israel’s actions understand it correctly — this won’t make sense.
To those who argue that the importance of eradicating Hamas justifies any amount of Palestinian civilian loss of life as if bombing concentration camps in WW2 to kill more Nazis even at the expense of Jewish prisoners would be acceptable — this won’t make sense.
To those who refuse to reckon with the explicit colonial context and try to claim violence against Israel stems from intrinsic Jewish hatred and not the desire for freedom from occupation — this won’t make sense.
To those who only condemn terrorism by the oppressed and not the much greater systemic terrorism by the state of Israel — this won’t make sense.
To those who exceptionalize Jewish suffering and use it as an excuse to persecute others instead of a reason to cultivate empathy and compassion — this won’t make sense.
To those who care more about speaking out against Palestinians using the slogan “From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be free” in a liberatory way than against the state of Israel which has spent 75+ years actually executing the erasure and genocidal intent often attributed to the origins of the phrase — this won’t make sense.
To those who are displaying a shocking and immoral selective grief that cares only about Jewish/Israeli losses and dismisses much greater Palestinian loss as “collateral damage” or unfortunate but unavoidable — this won’t make any sense.
To those who engage in mental gymnastics and gaslighting tactics to try explaining away what Israeli politicians and military leaders are saying and what we are seeing with our own eyes — this won’t make sense.
To those who fail to see a spectrum of possible action after October 7th between “do nothing” and “do this” as if Israel has no choice other than ethnic cleansing and genocide on a population they have so thoroughly dehumanized and conflated with terrorism — this won’t make sense.
To those who incorrectly think an occupying power has a legal right to self-defense against those it effectively occupies and that such a claim provides a blank check to act with impunity, including the indiscriminate bombings of hospitals, schools, refugee camps, residential neighborhoods, and safe zones all in direct violation of international and humanitarian law — this won’t make sense.
To those who expect Palestinians to graciously accept daily violence, dehumanization, subjugation, theft of familial lands and homes, indiscriminate imprisonment, and lack of basic human or civil rights — this won’t make sense.
As professor, legal scholar, and human rights attorney Noura Erakat poignantly analyzes the overall situation, Israel and its staunch supporters have “become the most brutal of oppressors while still claiming the mantle of victimhood and cloak their cruelty as a matter of right.”
But to anyone who has retained a sense of conscience, humanity, morality, and clarity in a world bullied into centering Jewish safety and comfort above even the lives and basic human dignity of Palestinians, the connection between Vietnam and Gaza is clear.
So just like Dr. King had a choice, we too can either stay silent or find a way to speak up. And while not everyone has the privilege and safety required to do so loudly or publicly when simply standing for Palestinian liberation can lead to doxxing or being fired from your job, we must each find a way to live our values — especially if we claim to or want to honor MLK Day.
What will you do?