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.