RISE Perspectives provide expert insights on critical issues surrounding race and social justice and highlight diverse voices from RISE partners, staff and program participants, including athletes, students, coaches and sports administrators.
August 12, 2020
Sports have united against racism. We need to fight anti-Semitism too.
By Ian Cutler
Throughout my time at RISE, I've learned more about the Black experience in this country. In particular, the experiences of Black parents and the conversations they're forced to have with their children about how many might perceive them as "a threat."
Having become a father a few months ago, it's a horrifying prospect to explain to your child that they're naturally seen as suspicious and to ask them to always be on alert, stay out of certain neighborhoods or present themselves in a way that's counter to who they truly are, out of necessity – to stay alive.
Being Jewish, I've always empathized with people of color in this country, knowing the history of my family and Jewish people around the world. But now as a father, I think even more about Ahmaud Arbery's, Trayvon Martin's or Michael Brown's parents, and the conversations they must have had with their sons who still fell victim to racism's most tragic result.
I won't have to have those conversations with my son and that alone personifies the privilege that white and white-passing Americans, like myself, possess.
It's estimated that around 12-15 percent of Jewish Americans are Jews of Color, but for many Jews, we can pass as white, and for the most part are afforded the benefits of the privileges our skin color provides. But being Jewish is also not the same as being white in this country. We too have a minority experience of being "othered" and demeaned and face the threat of violence because of who we are. I was reminded of that again by recent actions of the sports community.
It began with Philadelphia Eagles receiver DeSean Jackson's anti-Semitic Instagram post attempting to share a message about Black empowerment. On July 7, Jackson posted the words of the widely condemned anti-Semitic and homophobic leader of the Nation of Islam, Louis Farrakhan, and falsely attributed a quote to Adolf Hitler: "White Jews will blackmail America. [They] will extort America, their plan for world domination won't work if the Negroes know who they were."
Jackson later apologized for his post, admitted his ignorance and pledged to do more to learn about the Jewish experience and the dangers of the stereotypes he was promoting, much like the way Drew Brees committed to learn more about the Black experience after his recent comments about protests during the national anthem.
While hurt, I was encouraged by Jackson's approach and hoped this incident would create an opportunity for the sports and social justice movement to include and learn more about the Jewish experience and the bonds we share with other marginalized groups in this country.
Many are unaware of the persecution, exile, torture and genocide that Jewish people have endured globally for centuries. Take the 850,000 Jews expelled from Arab countries and Iran throughout the 20th Century or the pogroms of Jews in Eastern Europe leading up to the Holocaust. Jackson is not alone in perhaps not being fully aware of who Hitler was, the 6 million Jews Hitler's Nazis murdered, the millions more he imprisoned and tortured or the tactics Hitler and others historically have used to turn entire societies against the Jewish people – among them, falsely accusing Jews of controlling banks and seeking "world domination."
Anti-Semitism has been a problem here, too. My grandparents, fleeing persecution in Eastern Europe, were initially denied entry into the United States in the 1920s because of immigration quotas restricting the number of Jews allowed to emigrate here. The same people who didn't allow African Americans to join their country clubs, attend their schools or buy a house in their neighborhoods took measures to exclude Jewish people from living, studying or playing with them too. Those practices are still being fought today. During the infamous 2017 "Unite the Right Rally" in Charlottesville, Virginia, white supremacists marched with torches chanting, "Jews will not replace us." Mass shootings at synagogues in Pittsburgh and Southern California occurred as recently as 2018 and 2019, respectively. These are just some examples.
African Americans and Jewish Americans are therefore on the same side as marginalized groups in this country and this world. While we may not have the same experiences or face identical plights, we are in the same fight.
But since Jackson's post, an alarming number of athletes and cultural icons, some revered for their social justice leadership, have shared hateful and ignorant sentiments about the Jewish people. Instead of a teaching moment that sparked a more inclusive movement against all bigotry and discrimination, what developed was a national debate about the validity of Jewish stereotypes and a wedge between peoples.
NBA legend Stephen Jackson's voice was instrumental in helping ignite the necessary national reckoning on racism following the murder of his close friend George Floyd.
But Jackson defended and later doubled down on the anti-Semitic tropes and stereotypes that DeSean Jackson had posted, calling them "truth" even after DeSean's apology. Subsequently, he evoked the Rothschild Family and advanced conspiracy theories about Jews controlling all banks and thus a society's politics, economy and social structures – common themes of Nazi propaganda used as "evidence" to persecute Jews.
The revelation that Nick Cannon had perpetuated the same stereotypes against Jews a year earlier and was now fired by Viacom because of it inspired Big3 founder Ice Cube and NBA legend Dwayne Wade to come to his defense. Wade, who I've always admired as a champion for progressive social causes, apologized for jumping to Cannon's defense without realizing the nature of what he had said and pledged to learn more about such stereotypes, while Cannon himself has already taken steps to do the same and help bridge divides among Jewish and Black communities. But Ice Cube, who also recently shared anti-Semitic social media posts, went after leaders like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for calling out Cannon's and Jackson's anti-Semitism, saying such condemnation was a betrayal of the Black community.
Malcolm Jenkins, a co-founder of the Players Coalition, called DeSean Jackson's comments wrong, but disappointingly dismissed the arguments and outrage over his anti-Semitic statements as "a distraction" and added that, "Jewish people aren't our problem, and we aren't their problem."
Soon after Jackson's post, hateful hashtags like #Jews and #JewishPrivilege were trending on social media. Then on Aug. 6, Oakland Athletics bench coach Ryan Christenson gave players a Nazi salute as the team celebrated a win. He was quickly corrected by players on the field and later apologized for making the "racist and horrible salute," but even in his apology and the team's statement that followed there was no acknowledgement of the anti-Semitic charge behind that gesture and no attempt to enact discipline or commit to learning more.
What this all showed me was a lack of understanding and empathy within the sports community for Jewish suffering and our history of allyship in the fight for racial equity. For people I admire like Jenkins to not realize the connection between our peoples, or for Stephen Jackson to single out Jews as "not doing enough" to fight racism honestly caused me to question my place in the larger social justice movement. Of course we can all do more to advance racial justice, and it's true that Jews of Color have had to push for full acceptance within the larger Jewish community, but all of these statements made me feel vilified and scapegoated like my ancestors before me.
In addition to Abdul-Jabbar, there have been significant leaders and voices like Jemele Hill and Charles Barkley who have spoken out about the need for more outrage over anti-Semitism and the unity that African Americans and Jewish Americans must maintain to combat bigotry. But as a Jewish person working for an organization that uses sports to combat racism, I was especially hurt by these events and the way this issue has ultimately died down without much action or acknowledgement from the larger sports community.
Working for RISE, I am proud to continue a legacy of Jewish Americans fighting racism in our country. Speaking at the March on Washington in 1963, Rabbi Joachim Prinz said Jews and African Americans were natural allies because of our shared history of oppression and that it is incumbent on all of us to speak out and act against racism, saying, "The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence." The famed Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel echoed this message of unity between our two communities and joined Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on the famous march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. Jewish Americans played an essential role in the work of CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) and Freedom Riders fighting segregation in the South. The Ku Klux Klan murdered Jewish Americans Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner for trying to register African Americans to vote in Mississippi as part of the Freedom Summer in 1964, just before the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The Jewish community in which I was raised instilled me with values that call on us to fight for equality. I know that my skin color affords me privileges and opportunities that Black and Brown Americans do not have, and that it is my responsibility to use that privilege to create a more inclusive and equitable society.
It is also my responsibility to speak with my son about racism. It is my job to help him develop empathy for those who face racial bias, and to expose him to the unfortunate realities people of color must deal with daily so he is best equipped to help create change. It is my job to inspire him to seek a diverse group of friends and to teach him to be an advocate for racial justice.
But in that same conversation, I too will have to explain that he also might be forced to hide who he is to avoid bullying, discrimination or violence. I'll have to explain people in this country will be raised to believe that we, as Jews, are greedy, conniving and determined to control the world and oppress others, and that some of the athletes and movie stars who define our American culture, who he and his friends will look up to, are the same people who believe we are the main reason for their suffering and the endurance of systemic racism. I'll have to tell him why our synagogue has armed security and metal detectors, and why I might wait until we approach the synagogue doors to put on my kippah and remove it as soon as we leave services.
The most recent data from the Anti-Defamation League reported record acts of violence against Jews. Anti-Semitism is unfortunately one of the few things that lives across political parties. It exists on all sides of the aisle, in all cultures.
In this country, anti-Semitism is not entrenched in our social structures the way racism is a systemic issue. Still, the ultimate danger of anti-Semitic stereotypes is the way governments and individuals have historically used them to kill and persecute Jews. We cannot allow such tropes to carry any weight while thinking that what has happened to Jews throughout the world can't happen again.
My aim is not to debate the severity of different minority experiences or argue over who has it worse. It is instead to call on all of us to learn from and empathize with each other and realize that we are in this together.
It is to live by the Jewish principle of "Tikun Olam," to use our time on earth to make life better for everyone and create a more equitable and harmonious society for all.
The core message of Black Lives Matter is critically important. The fight against anti-Semitism does not distract from it. They can and should go hand in hand.
My hope is that more sports leaders, who have been so instrumental in advancing the conversation around racial injustice, will also take time to learn and speak out against the dangers of anti-Semitism.
True equity cannot be achieved by denigrating one group to lift up another. We all must be better allies for each other.
Ian Cutler is RISE's Senior Director, Communications.