In covering these NBA preseason protests that have confronted the presence of Maccabi Haifa and Maccabi Tel Aviv, I’ve spoken to numerous fans of Israeli basketball. Invariably, they have issued the following complaint against demonstrators. They say, in the words of one person, “Sports should be a politics-free zone and we should be allowed to come here to enjoy our Israeli teams without being confronted by chants and people shouting about Gaza. It’s just a game.” Protesters have consistently responded to this by arguing that there is nothing apolitical about the NBA hosting Israeli teams in the shadow of the summer’s Gaza war as well as the continual blockade.
What was so interesting about tonight’s protest in front of the Verizon Center where the Washington Wizards were hosting Maccabi Haifa was that several of the Palestine-solidarity protesters took this complaint and turned it on its head. A young man named Yanal said, “I am a huge Wizards fan and I don’t want to see my team used to prop up an apartheid regime. I don’t understand why this is happening. I don’t know when this decision [to host Maccabi Haifa] was made, but if it was made over the summer during the attacks on Gaza, that’s just appalling to me.”
His friend chimed in, “I thought this was my league, too.”
I also spoke with a multi-year Wizards season ticket holder named Iman. She said, “I was so disappointed when I heard this game was happening. This is my politics-free zone where I come to escape. I love basketball and I love my Wizards and this is just unacceptable that they are hosting this team.”
Iman also wrote a letter to the Washington Wizards team as a season ticket holder. I asked her to send it to me and she was kind enough to oblige. The full letter is below. She writes in part:
I’m a loyal Washington Wizards fan and season ticket holder. Coming off a great post-season run, I have to say, I’m very excited for this upcoming 2014-2015 season. Things are looking pretty good for the Wiz kids (#dcRising!). However, I am deeply disappointed in the Wizards (and the NBA) for the decision to host a pre-season exhibition game against Maccabi Haifa…. Hosting an exhibition game against teams from a nation whose government is brutally attacking a besieged population is questionable, at best. Hosting individuals and teams who openly and publicly support such human rights violations and honor those who have committed these violent atrocities against civilians is, frankly, a slap in the face of those killed, injured, and displaced by Israel’s attacks on Gaza. Moreover, these exhibition game appears to show that the Washington Wizards and the NBA have chosen to publicly take sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
There are a lot of basketball fans out there who are so heartbroken over what is happening in the West Bank and particularly the Gaza Strip that NBA basketball is the equivalent of self-care, a break from the dead bodies and numbing political hypocrisy that engulf the region. The fact that the NBA has chosen to take that sweet escape away has driven people to protest.
The DC action was not huge, about thirty people, although the torrential rains, lightning and thunder had at least something to do with that. The weather also meant there was a paucity of people who showed up for the game. When several dozen protesters inside the arena unfurled their flags and chanted Free Palestine, they were heard across the arena. Many were escorted out by security, but there were no arrests. As one in-arena protester, Jianing, said to me, “We were in two levels of the arena for half the game and held steady until the end. A pro-Israeli couple camped themselves behind us and started cursing us calling us worthless etc. They almost got into a fight with us at the end and grabbed away our flag. Security then took some of us out one at a time for standing up.”
There have now been or will be protests at Maccabi Tel Aviv or Maccabi Haifa games in Brooklyn, Cleveland, DC, Sacramento, Portland and Toronto. The question that lingers is why in the world, given Israel’s summer offensive in Gaza and continual blockade, did NBA Commissioner Adam Silver think this was in any way a good idea for the league? Why choose to alienate fans across the world who love basketball precisely because it constitutes a brief, and desperately needed respite from the horrors in this world? How could Silver bear witness to what happened over the summer and say, “We need to host this country’s teams during our preseason.” These are questions we will continue to ask the NBA in the weeks to come.
Letter of Protest from a Wizards Season Ticket Holder
I’m a loyal Washington Wizards fan and season ticket holder. Coming off a great post-season run, I have to say, I’m very excited for this upcoming 2014-2015 season. I’m jazzed about the addition of Paul Pierce and happy we were able to re-sign Marcin Gortat! Things are looking pretty good for the Wiz kids (#dcRising!).
However, I am deeply disappointed in the Wizards (and the NBA) for the decision to host a pre-season exhibition game against Maccabi Haifa. The recent and ongoing situation in Gaza has triggered public outcry from Americans across the country and others around the world. According to the UN, 69% of those killed by Israeli attacks on the besieged Gaza strip were civilians (among them 495 children and 253 women), and even as a ceasefire has been accomplished, the humanitarian crisis continues. The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) has bombed civilian homes, unarmed boys playing soccer on the beach, and UN shelters and schools. One-fourth of the Gaza population has been internally displaced as a result of the recent violence (according to UN estimates).
Despite undeniable facts that highlight the extent of the death, devastation, and destruction caused by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) in this summer’s aggressive offensive on the besieged people of Gaza, the NBA has allowed (and perhaps also participated in) a ceremony in Brooklyn’s Barclays Center to honor the IDF with Maccabi Tel Aviv (who played the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Brooklyn Nets in the past few weeks).
Hosting an exhibition game against teams from a nation whose government is brutally attacking a besieged population is questionable, at best. Hosting individuals and teams who openly and publicly support such human rights violations and honor those who have committed these violent atrocities against civilians is, frankly, a slap in the face of those killed, injured, and displaced by Israel’s attacks on Gaza. Moreover, these exhibition game appears to show that the Washington Wizards and the NBA have chosen to publicly take sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
This is why, as a season ticket holder and Wizards fan, I have sent a letter to Wizards owner, Ted Leonsis, and Wizards management sincerely requesting the following:
Consider canceling the exhibition game scheduled for October 15th at the Verizon Center vs. Maccabi Haifa;
Issue a public statement condemning the violence and human rights violations committed by Israel and expressing regret and condolences to the Palestinian civilians who have lost their lives and livelihoods at the hands of severely problematic Israeli policies and military attacks;
Urge the NBA to avoid partnering with Israel’s BSL in domestic and international exhibition games; and
Meet with me and other season ticket holders and local fans who feel strongly about this issue.
Tragic violence has plagued the Middle East for far too long. Politics aside, everyone can agree that peace is the best solution, and that the loss of innocent human life is indefensible. Out of respect for those who have suffered, I request that the Wizards and the NBA act to respond to those concerned worldwide with the ongoing suffering in Palestine.
A Concerned Wizards Fan and Season Ticket Holder
Note: In an e-mail, Iman added:
I wanted to make sure I mention about my letter to Wiz ownership and management is that they did respond to me with a phone call from a senior leader thanking me for sharing my perspective, apologizing if I or others took any offense to the game, and reiterating that the wizards certainly do not intend any political statement. They also offered to exchange my tickets to the maccabi game as a season ticket holder to another game of my choosing. I personally think they handled it well to make sure their season ticket holder’s concerns were at least acknowledged so I didn’t want that to get lost in my letter.