When Israeli sports teams travel to Europe, they are often met with protest. Palestinian solidarity and human rights organizations, such as Red Card Israeli Apartheid, have argued that such spectacles “normalize” the military occupation suffered by Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. They also argue that it is fantasy to pretend that these games do not carry a strong political as well as symbolic weight.
Now the specter of a pro-Palestinian protest at an Israeli sporting event is coming to the United States. This will happen next month when the most celebrated basketball team in Israel’s history, Maccabi Tel-Aviv, will return to the United States and play two NBA preseason games against the Brooklyn Nets and Cleveland Cavaliers. As Euroleague Champions, this will be the fifth time in nine years that Maccabi has played in the United States. But coming on the heels of the summer bombardment of Gaza, there are many activists in New York City arguing that it can no longer be hoops as usual.
I spoke to Tsvia Thier, an Israeli citizen now living in New York, who plans to be a part of whatever protest assembles outside the Barclays Center on October 7th. She said to me, “Israel dropped thousands of pounds of weapons on Gaza. More than 2,000 people died. More than 500 children were killed. There has been no justice for this. We cannot allow for these games to go forward without bearing witness…as if these criminal acts did not just take place. Our memories cannot be that short.” Thier was on her way to a meeting of the group Jewish Voice for Peace to raise plans to protest when I spoke with her.
It is not just Thier and others who are unable to separate these games from Israel’s summer war on Gaza. It is the NBA. Before the Brooklyn game, the league signed off on a “VIP celebration” at the Barclay’s Center for Maccabi Tel Aviv hosted by an organization called Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF). According to the press release, “FIDF has arranged for 12 IDF soldiers wounded during the Operation in Gaza to take part in the event.” (For people who want a full accounting of the death and destruction that the Gaza War wrought, see the United Nations report here. ) The FIDF event in Brooklyn will also honor the only Jewish American player named as one of the NBA’s Top 50 All-Time players Dolph Schayes, and his son, one of my boyhood heroes, eighteen-year NBA veteran Danny Schayes. (Yes, I’m aware that I may be the first person to use “boyhood hero” and “Danny Schayes” in the same sentence.) My love for Schayes aside, this is, without pretense, an NBA/FIDF production.
The ties between people in power at the NBA and Israel are nothing new. (See the family history of Miami Heat owner Micky Arison, who comes from one of Israel’s most powerful families. Or look at the Israeli connections being fostered by New York Knick forward Amar’e Stoudamire). Yet the celebrations of these bonds will be particularly boisterous this season, now that the Cleveland Cavaliers will be led by former Maccabi coach David Blatt. The Cavs, with Favorite Son LeBron James and Kevin Love on the roster, are everyone’s choice to make the NBA finals from the Eastern conference and Blatt is held in high regard amongst his fellow coaches. Blatt has dual Israeli and US citizenship and the preseason game on October 9 between Maccabi and Cleveland is already being billed as a feel-good media spectacle. Blatt was also a high-profile supporter for the summer war on Gaza. In an interview with the Israeli newspaper Globes, he said, “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, and we can live in peace.” He then chided the people of the United States for not cheerleading Israel’s war to a greater degree, saying, “There’s support, although sometimes it’s not enough.In my opinion, though, there’s more support this time than before.”
Unlike players such as Dwight Howard who were shamed into public apologies for tweeting the hashtag #freepalestine, there was no establishment wagging of the finger at Blatt for failing to mention the civilian and child casualties of Gaza. No one called for him to reconsider his words, given that under the current conditions, there will never be “quiet” in Gaza, let alone “peace.”
As for the NBA, it has made no announcements to signal any effort to bring a Palestinian basketball team to the United States, despite the league’s popularity in both the West Bank and Gaza. The absence of an invitation is somewhat understandable, because, if international soccer is any guide, even if invited the players probably would not be able to attend. Surrounded by armed checkpoints, attempting to journey to the United States would be a frustrating if not fruitless act. Commissioner Adam Silver, who acted with great moral clarity during the Donald Sterling debacle, should make it his mission to invite a Palestine club team to the United States, and apply pressure to make it a reality. It would be a sign that he is willing to do what so many will not: recognize the humanity of the Palestinian people. He should also tell Maccabi that they will be delinking these NBA preseason games from Friends of the IDF. We have a message out to the office of NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and this article will be updated if and when we receive comment.
UPDATE NUMBER 1: I have received word since posting this article that there will also be a protest of Maccabi Tel-Aviv in Cleveland on October 5, when they play their ex-coach David Blatt and the Cavaliers.
UPDATE NUMBER 2: Since this article went to press, a Facebook page went up for a Brooklyn protest October 7 at Barclay’s, sponsored by Jewish Voice for Peace.
UPDATE NUMBER 3: Pertinent to all of this seems to be that "Subprime Dan" Gilbert, the owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers and the founder of Quicken Loans, is a massive financial supporter of Friends of the Israeli Defense Forces. They even gave him an award.
UPDATE NUMBER 4: We have comment from the NBA Commissioner's office on the question of aiding teams from Palestine. We had a little miscommunication on our end in receiving an answer to the question about whether there are any concerns at the NBA offices about Friends of the IDF having a fundraiser at Barclay's. We will update again when that is cleared up. Here is the answer to question two from the NBA about whether there are plans to bring a team from Gaza to the states on any kind of goodwill tour:
“For more than a decade, the NBA has supported Seeds for Peace and each year our NBA and WNBA players attend the program’s annual summer camp that brings together Palestinian and Israeli kids to foster cultural understanding. As it relates to preseason games against international teams, our NBA teams want to get prepared for the season by playing against elite international competition and traditionally have played preseason games against Euroleague teams, such as CSKA Moscow, FC Barcelona and six-time – and reigning – Euroleague Champion Maccabi Tel Aviv.” – NBA Spokesman, Michael Bass