July 23, 2021
Ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics, AJC compiled a list of ten times athletes stood up to antisemitism.
As we prepare to cheer on our favorite Olympians, read about these brave and inspiring athletes who triumphed over antisemitism.
- NFL Players Turn Antisemitic Conspiracy Theory into A Teaching Moment
On July 6, 2020, Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson posted two images on his Instagram story quoting Hitler and saying that white Jews “will blackmail America. [They] will extort America, their plan for world domination won't work if the Negroes know who they are. The white citizens of America will be terrified to know that all this time they've been mistreating and discriminating and lynching the Children of Israel.”
AJC and others responded swiftly at the antisemitic conspiracy theories tweets, asking for an immediate apology from DeSean Jackson, the NFL and the Eagles. Jackson apologized, stating that he had not realized the impact of his words.
In response, Pittsburgh Steelers offensive lineman Zach Banner decided to film a moving video to share his thoughts. “We need to understand Jewish people deal with the same amount of hate and similar hardships and hard times,” Banner said in the video.
Jewish New England Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman urged DeSean Jackson to visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Edelman told Jackson that if they visit the Holocaust Museum, he would then welcome a trip with him to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in D.C. to learn more from Jackson as well. The two are currently making plans to “educate one another.” “Antisemitism is one of the oldest forms of hatred. It's rooted in ignorance and fear,” Edelman said, “There is no room for antisemitism in this world. This world needs a little more love, compassion and empathy.”
In addition to Edelman, Jewish Kansas City Chiefs offensive lineman Mitchell Schwartz posted a message on Instagram: “My hope is we can use this moment to shed light on and bring awareness to the hate and oppression the Jewish Community still faces while standing strong with the Black Lives Matter movement. We can only have change if we denounce racism and bias in all its forms. Our platforms as athletes are a powerful tool, and with them comes immense responsibility. We can all do better.”
Six-time NBA champion and Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote in his latest column in The Hollywood Reporter that there has been a “shocking lack of massive indignation” over recent statements on social media by various sports and entertainment figures that perpetuate antisemitic tropes. “If it’s okay to discriminate against one group of people by hauling out cultural stereotypes without much pushback, it must be okay to do the same to others,” Abdul-Jabbar wrote. “It’s so disheartening to see people from groups that have been violently marginalized do the same thing to others without realizing that perpetuating this kind of bad logic is what perpetuates racism.”
Another basketball legend, Charles Barkley, supported Abdul-Jabbar’s column. In a video posted to Twitter by the official NBA on TNT account, Barkley said, “Y’all want racial equality. We all do. I don’t understand how insulting another group helps our cause. And the only person who called y’all on it was Kareem [Abdul-Jabar]. We can’t allow Black people to be prejudiced, also. Especially if we’re asking for white folks to respect us, give us economic opportunity and things like that. I’m so disappointed in these men. I don’t understand how you beat hatred with more hatred. That stuff should never come up in your vocabulary, and it should never come up in your heart. I don’t understand it.”
After apologizing for his comments, DeSean Jackson accepted an invitation to visit Auschwitz during a Zoom call with Edward Mosberg, a 94-year-old survivor of a Nazi concentration camp and posted, "I grew up in Los Angeles, and never really spent time with anyone from the Jewish community and didn't know much about their history. This has been such a powerful experience for me to learn and educate myself.”
- Gold Medal Gymnast Aly Raisman Pays Tribute to the Munich 11
During the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, Palestinian terrorists stormed the Olympic Village apartment of the Israeli athletes, killing two and taking nine others hostage. In an ensuing shootout at the Munich airport, the nine Israeli hostages were killed along with five terrorists and one West German police officer. The Olympics were suspended for 24 hours, but then continued largely unabated.
Forty years later, after Olympic officials refused to mark the anniversary of the slaughter during the opening ceremony of the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, American Jewish gymnast Aly Raisman honored the slain Israeli athletes by competing in the floor exercise to the melody of “Hava Nagilah,” an event in which she won gold. “The fact it was on the 40th anniversary is special, and winning the gold means a lot to me,” said Raisman, who then accepted an invitation from Israel Diaspora Affairs Minister Yuli Edelstein to make her first visit to Israel along with her family.
- Pittsburgh Steelers Honoring Tree of Life Victims
On October 27, 2018, 11 people attending Shabbat services at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh were murdered by an antisemitic gunman. The day after the shooting, the Pittsburgh Steelers football team held a moment of silence to honor the victims. A year later, they did it again and also altered their team logo to include a Star of David and the words “Stronger than Hate.” The team then donated $70,000 to the victims of the shooting and Art Rooney II, the Steelers’ President, posted a heartfelt message of solidarity on the team’s Twitter account.
Similarly, the Pittsburgh Penguins hockey team said, ‘‘Hatred and discrimination have no place in Pittsburgh or anywhere else,’’ and the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball team echoed that sentiment, saying the memory of the victims ‘‘will always be a reminder that hatred has no place in our world.’’
- English Soccer Team Chelsea F.C. starts a Campaign to Educate People about Antisemitism
Since the 1970s, the London-based Premier League Chelsea Football Club has struggled to combat antisemitism from some of its supporters. In January 2018, Chelsea Football Club announced their new campaign “Say No to Antisemitism” to raise awareness of and educate players, staff, fans and the wider community about antisemitism in soccer. In January 2020, coinciding with the International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the club unveiled a mural which paid tribute to the memory of Julius Hirsch and Árpád Weisz, two Jewish soccer players who died at Auschwitz. The 40-by-23-foot piece by British Israeli artist Solomon Souza, whose grandmother escaped the Nazis in 1939, hung at the stadium until the close of the soccer season in May. Chelsea also announced it would adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s Working Definition of Antisemitism, saying it was the first sports team in the world to do so. The players and staff will be educated on the subject and the definition will appear in match-day programs.
- Former NBA player Ray Allen’s Passion for Teaching Others about the Holocaust
Ray Allen, ten-time NBA All-Star, went to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) with the Milwaukee Bucks team owner, Herb Kohl in 1998. His visit had a tremendous impact on him to the point that he encouraged his teammates to join him on tours of the USHMM whenever they were in D.C. When he was traded to the Seattle Supersonics, and later to the Boston Celtics, he continued the tradition. His frequent visits to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and his education there fueled a full-on passion project. Now, he leads by example: encouraging those close to him, and anyone who will listen, to learn about the Holocaust through his dedication to the cause.
President Barack Obama appointed Allen to the United States Holocaust Memorial Council in 2016. “I am proud to serve in this role and to continue to share the important messages and lessons we all need to remember from the Holocaust,” Allen said in a statement. “I want to inspire people to break down stereotypes, and treat one another — regardless of race, religion or anything else — like family. It’s more important now than ever.” On April 30, 2017, he visited Auschwitz and has made a point of talking about his experience and educating people who did not understand why he was taking this trip and learning about the Holocaust.
- 1930s Baseball player Hank Greenberg’s Triumph Over Hate Speech
On a central Illinois baseball field in 1931, Hank Greenberg was heckled by the opposing team’s third baseman with antisemitic insults. When Greenberg could no longer stand the provocations, which were echoed by an angry, roaring crowd, he confronted the third baseman and was rushed out of the park by local police for protection. “Every ballpark I went to, there’d be somebody in the stands who spent the whole afternoon just calling me names,” Greenberg recalled in a 1980 interview for the American Jewish Committee's oral history project. “If you’re having a good day,” he said, “you don’t give a damn. But if you’re having a bad day, why, pretty soon it gets you hot under the collar.”
Greenberg participated in at least one early foreshadowing of modern penalties for hate speech. During the 1935 World Series with the Detroit Tigers Greenberg recalled members of the opposing Chicago Cubs loudly called him “Jew this and Jew that.” An umpire attempted to get the players to stop and “cleared the Chicago Cubs bench.” A few weeks after the event, the baseball commissioner fined the umpire as well as three Cubs players for using “vile, unprintable language.” Although outraged that the umpire had also been fined, Greenberg endorsed the sanction. When Greenberg retired from baseball in 1947, he knew he had become a symbol of how Jews were moving into the American mainstream. “Every home run I hit,” he once said, “was a home run against Hitler.”
Because he had been subjected to antisemitic insults throughout his career, Hank Greenberg was committed to social justice and formed a strong bond with Jackie Robinson when he became the first African American to play in Major League Baseball in the 20th Century. In 1947, their careers overlapped for a year, when Greenberg played his final season for the Pirates and Robinson debuted for the Dodgers. Days before they met on the field, according to the Journal of Sport History, Robinson and his family had received threats on his life and that his infant son Jackie Jr. would be kidnapped. Members of opposing teams sat in their dugouts pointing baseball bats at him — simulating machine gun noises. The hotel in which the Dodgers stayed refused to admit Robinson. During the game, Greenberg told Robinson, “Don’t pay any attention to these guys who are trying to make it hard for you. Stick in there. You’re doing fine. Keep your chin up.” Robinson was deeply moved by the supportive words of Greenberg, who was praised in the African American press. Greenberg and Robinson remained friends over the years and, in the end of his career as Cleveland’s general manager, Greenberg would leverage his stature, refusing to let his team stay at any hotel that denied admittance to all his players, remembering when he, as a ballplayer, had been turned away from hotels because he was Jewish.
- Boston Celtics Enes Kanter Standing Up Against Antisemitism
At the end of December 2019, five people were wounded in an antisemitic stabbing attack at a Hanukkah celebration in a rabbi’s home in Monsey, New York. The rabbi, who was gravely injured in the machete assault, passed away a few months later. This incident took place after several antisemitic attacks on the Jewish population in Monsey in the span of a few weeks.
Boston Celtics center Enes Kanter posted a Twitter message that expressed support for the Jewish community. The 27-year-old Turkish NBA player, who is Muslim, tweeted, “America has no place for hate. Our Jewish sisters and brothers should not be living in fear. #Antisemitism will NOT be tolerated.” Enes Kanter has spoken at many events about genocide education and fighting antisemitism. In January 2020, he surprised participants by showing up at AJC New England’s Holocaust Remembrance Day event, hosted by the Consulate General of Israel to New England, Boston University’s Elie Wiesel Center for Jewish Studies, and Boston University’s program in Genocide and Human Rights Studies, sharing brief personal remarks about the need to remember the Holocaust. “Standing up against antisemitism is a duty for all of us,” said Kanter, “I’m here to support my brothers and sisters […] I am humbled and honored to be part of this important event, […] It’s everybody’s fight. I’m a Muslim person coming here to give my support.”
- Soccer Team FC Bayern Munich’s Commitment to Rebuilding German-Jewish Relations
When Hitler came to power, FC Bayern Munich, which was the biggest sports club in Germany and one of the biggest football clubs in the world at the time, was denounced because the Club president and head coach were both Jewish. Kurt Landauer, president of FC Bayern Munich, and the head coach were forced to resign. Landauer was imprisoned in the Dachau concentration camp in 1938. Because he was a decorated German soldier from World War I, he was released from the camp and escaped to Switzerland.
In 2018, in a joint effort to advance German-Jewish relations, AJC and FC Bayern hosted a screening in New York of A Life for Football, a film about Kurt Landauer, along with a panel discussion featuring the Consul General of Germany and Anthony E. Meyer, Co-Chair of the AJC Berlin Ramer Institute, to discuss the role of both FC Bayern and AJC in rebuilding the German-Jewish community in the aftermath of World War II and combating antisemitism.
More recently, FC Bayern soccer player Leon Goretzka has been outspoken about the difficulty of opposing right-wing politics in Germany and explained that as a professional footballer, he has the ability to express his beliefs in a way that perhaps other occupations cannot. In February 2020, Goretzka visited the Dachau concentration camp and published four photos from the memorial on his day off from training and wrote: “#NieWieder #NeverForget #Dachau.”
- Halle Pro Sports Clubs Unite Against Antisemitism, Racism and Violence
On October 9, 2019, a heavily armed gunman with a live-streaming head camera tried to storm a synagogue in Halle, Germany, as congregants observed the holy day of Yom Kippur. Foiled by a locked door, he killed two people outside and wounded two others. The Halle assailant recorded himself in a 35-minute video of shooting, mayhem, and hateful language. The far-right extremist denied the Holocaust, denounced feminists and immigrants, and then declared: “The root of all these problems is the Jew.”
After the synagogue shooting, the four largest sports clubs in the city came together for a campaign of solidarity and determination. The Saale Bulls (ice hockey), the Gisa Lions SV (women’s basketball), the Wildcats (women’s handball), and the third-division soccer team Hallescher FC called for “a common action against violence, racism, and antisemitism.” They held a rally against antisemitism and racism, gathering behind a banner that read, “Together against violence, racism and antisemitism” and put together a fund for the victims’ families.
- Holocaust Survivor Alfred Nakache competes in 1948 Olympics
Born in Constantine, Algeria, in 1915, Alfred Nakache, nicknamed Artem, competed for France in the 1936 Olympic Games and, in front of Hitler at a Berlin Games soaked in swastikas, Nakache finished fourth as part of the 4x200m Relay team, missing a Bronze medal by just six seconds. The team may not have made the podium, but they defeated the German team (who finished fifth) in their home country. Between 1936 and 1944, Nakache won the French 100 freestyle six times, the 200 free four times, the 200 breaststroke four times and an assortment of other French swimming titles, many of them setting national records.
In 1942, Nakache began approaching the Jewish resistance networks, mainly by helping with the physical preparation of the recruits. As an Algerian Jew, he lost his French citizenship and was restricted from entering races. Under the Vichy regime he was forbidden to practice or compete, lest he “muddy the waters of France with his filth.” Other journalists wrote that “the Jew Nakache should not be allowed to hold any European titles because he is Jewish.” The media was split in their support for Nakache. While some welcomed his swimming and the records broken by Nakache, others called for his exclusion from national competitions because of his “Jewishness.” While media and officials tried many tricks and cited many clauses and rules to keep Nakache out of the water, some French swimmers withdrew from national competitions in support of their fellow athlete. The French Swimming Federation however finally gave in to the pressure from the Germans and banned Nakache from swimming in the 1943 national championships.
In 1943, Nakache, his wife, and their two-year-old daughter were all arrested by the Gestapo and deported to Auschwitz. Both his wife and daughter were murdered there. Nakache became known as the “Swimmer of Auschwitz,” as he managed to swim in the camp’s water tanks. Towards the end of the war, he was transferred to Buchenwald, yet somehow Nakache not only survived, but found the resolve to return to swimming. When he was freed by the Allies, he was one of the 47 survivors of this camp, weighing only 42 kg (92 pounds) at the time.
Less than a year after the liberation of Buchenwald, he was part of the French team that set a world record in the 3x100m relay. That year, he also became French national champion at butterfly and in the 4x100m relay. In the 1948 Summer Olympics in London, Nakache swam in the 200m breaststroke, reaching the semi-finals. He was one of only two Jewish Olympians to compete in the Olympic Games after surviving a concentration camp. A water polo player as well as swimmer, Nakache was posthumously inducted into the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 1993 and into the International Swimming Hall of Fame as a member of the Class of 2019 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on May 18, 2019.