By Steve Rosenberg
The old joke from the movie “Airplane” has a passenger asking the flight attendant if she has anything light to read, and she hands her a tiny pamphlet called “Jewish Sports Legends.”
It’s a joke that has lasted a lifetime. It is funny, but it isn’t accurate. Jews have been accomplished athletes for decades and have used their skills to excel on a plethora of playing fields. Mark Spitz, Dolph Schayes, Sue Bird, Julian Edelman, Kerri Strug and Alex Bregman are just a few of the outstanding Jewish athletes of the last several decades.
However, one arena we can use assistance from athletes is in fighting antisemitism and helping with the pro-Israel narrative. There have been many great performances propelling Jewish athletes to the top of their profession and putting their religion front and center.
One can think about Sandy Koufax and his declining to pitch on Yom Kippur during the World Series, gymnast Aly Raisman performing to “Hava Nagila” after the Olympic Committee failed to recognize the Munich 11, and, of course, Holocaust survivor Alfred Nakache swimming in the Berlin games in 1936 and then competing in London, making it to the semifinals in 1948 after being a prisoner in Auschwitz.
We also can think of non-Jewish athletes who have been standard-bearers for the fight against antisemitism. Pittsburgh Steeler Zach Banner has been unrelenting in his pro-Jewish stance, as has NBA Hall of Famer Ray Allen after his visit to Auschwitz- Birkenau. Enes Kanter, a Turkish-born Muslim stood loudly and proudly with the Jewish community after Orthodox Jews were attacked in Monsey, New York.
As we approach the Olympic Games in China, it is incumbent upon all of us to remember and to think that the best way to defend antisemitism is with a good offense. Jews around the world are fighting the worst rise in antisemitism in decades. Social media is littered with alleged stars who not only don’t understand the situation in Israel but also make up their own facts, and Twitter, Instagram and Facebook allow their lies to fester. We need a counter-offensive from athletes and celebrities like Allen, Banner and others who are willing to be champions of the Jewish people.
As chair of the Philadelphia Jewish Sports Hall of Fame, we honor and take pride in the achievements of the athletes who’ve done well on the field and have a connection to Philadelphia. However, I recognize it is equally important that we also do our best to fight both public and insidious forms of antisemitism.
Sports are the opiate of the masses. It consumes our daily lives as we watch, read, wager and discuss the happenings of the games taking place. By having the games in Germany in 1936, the IOC gave Hitler a platform to help him energize his base. Hitler pressured the head of the US Olympic Committee Avery Brundage to replace two Jewish athletes from the track team, which Brundage did.
More politicians, celebrities and athletes should acknowledge Israel as the only real democracy in the Middle East, a place where women, the LGBTQI+ community and Arabs live freely, vote in elections and can participate freely in society. Who wins and who loses in athletics pales in importance to battling the prejudices inherent in society right now.
Jewish and non-Jewish athletes participating in the Winter Olympics in the next few weeks need to stand up and fight against antisemitism. We must continue to stand together, fight the good fight and use the platform of the Olympics — particularly in a place like China — to show the world that all hate, including that of the Jews and Israel, will no longer be tolerated. The memory of the Munich 11 and the fight against antisemitism depends on it. l
Steve Rosenberg is the chair of The Philadelphia Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. To learn more, visit phillyjewishsports.org, or help us rebuild by visiting gofundme.com/f/help-rebuild-our-museum.