Dr. King’s Words on Vietnam Still Ring True for Gaza

As Israeli troops continue their assault in Rafah, increasing the death toll and displacing – yet again – hundreds of thousands of Gazans, there’s much to be learned from recalling Dr. Martin Luther King’s visionary words on Vietnam 57 years ago. Breaking his silence on a war that by then had claimed over 20,000 American and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese lives, King declared that the war in Vietnam was swallowing “men and skills and money like some demonic, destructive suction tube.” It was blocking, he said, whatever progress the nation had been making toward economic and racial justice.

Moreover, any hopes for a genuine multiracial democracy were being cruelly undercut by a war that drew disproportionately on poor American youth. Noting how the conflict brought young black and white men together in a “brutal solidarity” to burn villages, King remarked on the “cruel irony” that those same young men would, in a segregated America, “hardly live on the same block in Chicago.” With a precise historical analysis showing how America supported French efforts to recolonize Vietnam, then backed South Vietnamese puppet regimes that “were singularly corrupt, inept, and without popular support,” King made clear the impossibility of compartmentalizing the fundamental values informing domestic and foreign policies.

In a word, King demonstrated that you can’t advance democracy at home when you suppress it abroad. That vision rings as true today for Gaza as it did for Vietnam in 1967.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has consistently opposed a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine, blocking a path to self-determination for the Palestinian people that would also help establish a durable foundation for peace. Since Hamas’ brutal, horrific attack against Israel last October 7, Netanyahu has doubled down on opposing such a settlement, while at the same time failing to lay out a post-conflict plan for governance in Gaza. His failure in this regard has prompted senior Israeli military and political leaders to rail openly about the costs of such inaction: continued casualties on both sides from a seemingly endless war.

Over a number of years, Netanyahu’s government encouraged the funding by Qatar of millions of dollars monthly to Hamas, despite the latter’s unmitigated hostility to Israel’s very existence. Though Netanyahu claimed that the support was intended for humanitarian purposes, both critics and right-wing allies indicate that the support was intended to help maintain divisions between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, weakening Palestinian leadership and bolstering the claim that Israel had no viable negotiating partner for a two-state settlement. The policy was premised on the flawed assumption that Hamas had neither the capacity nor the intent to launch a major assault like that of October 7.

Add to these facts the continued expansion of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem (700,000 settlers living there today, contrary to international law), a fuller picture emerges of policies that continue to exacerbate tensions and undermine possibilities for any kind of peaceful settlement.

Once Israel began its counteroffensive in the wake of October 7, the Biden administration found increasing tension between its unwavering support for the state of Israel and growing apprehensions about the Netanyahu government’s conduct of the war. Early on, Biden administration officials became aware that Israel was bombing buildings without solid intelligence that they were military targets. And despite U.S. admonitions in the ensuing weeks about insufficiently protecting civilians, the Biden administration continued to provide arms, approving and delivering 100 foreign military sales to Israel (“thousands of precision-guided munitions, small-diameter bombs, bunker busters, small arms and other lethal aid”).

To compound matters, the State Department released a report earlier this month acknowledging that U.S. weapons supplied to Israel have been used by “Israeli security forces since October 7 in instances inconsistent with its [International Law] obligations.” Nevertheless, the report asserts that the U.S. will continue to provide military aid as it sees fit.

In taking such positions, the Biden administration has, over the course of the past seven months, failed to confront and pressure the right-wing Netanyahu government in ways that could point to profoundly different alternatives for the Middle East.

As recent polling suggests, this failure may pose critical challenges to Mr. Biden’s candidacy in the coming 2024 presidential election. But more than any poll or punditry, it’s Dr. King’s words, and the implications of those words, that loom over the events of this troubled year. The suppression of human rights might be ignored, euphemized, or wished away – but only at our greatest peril.

Andrew Moss, syndicated by PeaceVoice, writes on labor, nonviolence, and culture from Los Angeles. He is an emeritus professor (Nonviolence Studies, English) from the California State University.