In a world marked by diversity and the pursuit of equality, sports have emerged as an unexpected but effective battleground against prejudice and hatred. Antisemitism, the age-old bigotry that has plagued humanity for centuries, is no exception to this trend.
Sports, with its ability to unite people from all walks of life, has played a pivotal role in dismantling stereotypes and fostering understanding among Jews and non-Jews alike. While athletes can and should be better, it is important to understand why sports are crucial in the fight against antisemitism and to understand how certain individuals and organizations have leveraged their power to promote tolerance and unity.
Sports, at its core, transcends cultural, religious and racial boundaries. It provides a platform for individuals to showcase their talents and compete on a level playing field, regardless of their background. This inclusivity has the power to challenge and reshape deep-seated prejudices.
One example of this transformational power can be seen in the story of Benny Leonard, a Jewish boxer who dominated the lightweight division in the early 20th century. Leonard’s success in the ring helped break down stereotypes about Jewish physical prowess and resilience, thereby contributing to a shift in public perception.
Leonard’s story is just one among many where Jews have excelled in sports, countering negative stereotypes. From Mark Spitz, who won an astonishing seven gold medals in swimming at the 1972 Munich Olympics, to Aly Raisman, a Jewish gymnast who has represented the United States in multiple Olympics, these athletes have not only shattered records but also stereotypes about Jewish physical abilities.
Their accomplishments have shown the world that talent knows no religious or ethnic boundaries. The Philadelphia Jewish Sports Hall of Fame has dozens and dozens of these examples at our home inside the Kaiserman JCC in Wynnewood.
However, the fight against antisemitism in sports goes beyond individual achievements. It extends to the broader community and the powerful role that sports organizations can play.
An exemplary case is the collaboration between the Chelsea Football Club and the Anne Frank House. In 2019, Chelsea FC launched an initiative to raise awareness about the Holocaust and combat antisemitism. The club invited Holocaust survivor and Anne Frank’s stepsister, Eva Schloss, to share her story with players and staff. This initiative demonstrated the club’s commitment to using its global platform to educate and promote tolerance. We need more of these partnerships and collaborations.
I wish I could say the same about the International Olympic Committee, which has not been a friend to the Jewish community. From the time in 1972 when 11 of our brothers were murdered in Munich by the terrorist group Black September and Avery Brundage, the IOC chair couldn’t find it in his heart to cancel one event in their memory, to all of the following Olympiads until the summer games in 2021 (one year later due to COVID) in Japan when the 11 murdered Israelis were finally recognized.
However, the spirit of camaraderie in sports fosters relationships that defy prejudice. Take, for instance, the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation, an organization dedicated to building bridges between Israelis and Palestinians through sports. It organizes joint sporting events and initiatives that bring together Jewish and non-Jewish youth, fostering understanding and empathy. These initiatives are crucial in breaking down the barriers of mistrust and hatred that have existed for generations.
Furthermore, the fight against antisemitism in sports extends to the realm of fan behavior. In recent years, numerous sports organizations have taken proactive steps to combat antisemitic incidents in stadiums.
A number of Jewish organizations have been at the forefront of this effort, partnering with various sports leagues to educate fans about the consequences of hate speech and discriminatory behavior. Such initiatives aim to create a welcoming environment for all spectators, irrespective of their background.
Sports holds a unique and potent position in the battle against antisemitism. From iconic Jewish athletes who have defied stereotypes to sports organizations promoting tolerance and unity, the world of sports has made significant strides in dismantling prejudice. The stories of individuals and organizations we have read about demonstrate how sports can transcend cultural and religious boundaries, fostering understanding and empathy among people of all backgrounds.
As we continue to harness the power of sports to combat antisemitism, we are reminded that the pursuit of equality and tolerance knows no bounds, just like the spirit of competition on the field. Let’s continue to raise awareness of the world’s oldest (and most accepted) form of hatred — that of the Jews — through sports.
Steve Rosenberg is board chair of the Philadelphia Jewish Sports Hall of Fame and an author.