The toxic mix of sports and politics, especially when it came to the treatment of Israel, soured me on the Olympics a long time ago. But even in professional sports where teams are often composed of athletes from around the globe there is no immunity to the virus of hate. While the success of the National Basketball Association’s Cleveland Cavalier’s first-year coach David Blatt has been cheered by Israelis, supporters of efforts to deprive that nation of its right to self-defense have a different take. Those who can’t stand the idea of a proud and patriotic Jew being willing to associate himself with his adopted country are bombarding Blatt with abuse because he served his country and is reportedly on speaking terms with Israel’s prime minister. When you consider that NBA players have over the years represented a variety of nations, not all of which everyone loves, without being subjected to political litmus tests, the decision of The Nation to launch a full-scale attack on Blatt for embracing Israeli identity is outrageous. In doing so, the left-wing magazine is demonstrating that the line that supposedly divides anti-Zionism from anti-Semitism is a myth.
Ironically, the New York Times, whose sports pages have often been used by its editors to pursue political causes (the paper bore a great deal of the responsibility for promoting a false and racially-tinged narrative about a rape hoax that led to the Duke Lacrosse team being temporarily disbanded) treated the story about the differing paths to the NBA finals taken by the two coaches both fairly and honestly. The connection between Blatt and Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr is that both have ties to the Middle East. Kerr’s father Malcolm was president of the American University of Beirut before he was kidnapped and murdered by the Islamic Jihad terror group. Kerr, who speaks Arabic, was born in Lebanon and lived in the Middle East with his family before going back to the United States to play both college and professional basketball. He wanted to hire Blatt as his assistant before the man who led Maccabi Tel Aviv to championships was lured to Cleveland. The juxtaposition of their connections to the region and their nearly being on the same side makes for an interesting sports story.
But The Nation’s Dave Zirin considers their backgrounds an excuse for a rehearsal of the left’s vicious slanders against Israel and its government. In his reading, Malcolm Kerr is a hero who is rightly honored by the Middle East Studies Association, a blatantly biased academic group that promotes boycotts against both Israel and Israelis. On the other, he considers Blatt reprehensible because he is a Zionist who believes in the right of the Jews to their own country and served in the Israeli Army defending it against Arab terrorists. Even worse in his eyes is that Blatt is reportedly on a first-name basis with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whom The Nation blasts as a racist.
Let’s leave aside the distortions about Netanyahu as well as the foolishness involved in blaming a celebrity for saying that he knows his country’s leader. Zirin’s real beef with Blatt isn’t the Bibi connection; it’s for being a Zionist and saying this about last summer’s war with Hamas terrorists:
“In my opinion, this war is Israel’s most justified war I can remember in recent years. I’m really sorry about what’s happening in Gaza, but there’s no doubt that we had to act there, so that Israel will have quiet there once and for all.”
Blatt was right, but for Zirin this is outrageous because of the number of Palestinian civilian casualties who were being used as human shields by Hamas terrorists. Zirin forgets to include in his account of the fighting the fact that Hamas and its Islamic Jihad allies launched several thousand rockets at Israeli cities and towns and used tunnels dug under the border to facilitate attempts to kidnap and kill Jews.
He contrasts Blatt’s Israeli patriotism and belief in his country’s people to live without being subjected to constant, deadly terrorism to some quotes from Steve Kerr in which he rightly says not all Arabs or Muslims should be blamed for terrorism before making some less defensible comments about Americans needing to ask why the terrorists hate us.
Kerr grew up in an atmosphere in which such views were mainstream and though I find them worrisome, like almost all sports fans, I’m not any more interested in his politics than I am in Blatt’s affiliations. Both should be seen as sports figures, not politicians, and accordingly cheered or jeered on the work of their teams on the court and nothing else.
But, of course, that spirit of fair competition is of no interest to sports columnists like Zirin who, in the grand tradition of Marxist journalism, uses athletics as an excuse to ride political hobbyhorses. But in the case of Blatt and his unabashed Zionism, Zirin goes farther than merely putting a political slant on a feel-good story of an American who found coaching success abroad before coming home to triumph in the NBA. For left-wing anti-Zionists, Blatt needs to be singled out for opprobrium in a way that no other coach or player from a foreign country has ever been because of what he sees as the unique villainy of Israel. No player from China who had his picture taken with his country’s tyrants has gotten this kind of treatment. Nor has any other NBA player. Only a Jew who says the Jews deserve a country and ought not to be slaughtered by terrorists must be smeared.
Whatever his sympathies in the Middle East conflict might be, Kerr understands the cost of terrorism on a personal basis. So do all too many Israelis who have suffered as he did as a result of attacks by Islamic Jihad and other Islamist and Palestinian groups. The death of Malcolm Kerr ought to be held as an example of what happens when groups like Hamas are granted impunity by their foreign cheerleaders like Dave Zinn. But what Zirin, who cannot use his Jewish origin as a defense, is doing is judging Israelis and Jews by a different standard than any other people. Though he may admit to anti-Zionism, the more accurate term for his brand of bias is anti-Semitism.