I never fully understood what anti-Semitism was until a few of my middle school football teammates cornered me in the locker room after practice and told me they were going to finish what Hitler started.
In that moment I knew what pure hate was, what the fear that caused my grandparents to flee Poland as Hitler rose to power must have felt like, and the weight of the struggle for equality that has plagued Jews for thousands of years. Punches and anti-Jewish slurs rained down until another teammate – the only one to do so – stepped in and helped me fend off the 3-on-1 attack.
As I learned as I grew older, anti-Semitism comes with the territory of being the only Jewish kid on a sports team. Anti-Semitism is a shameful fact of American life, as are racism, homophobia, and xenophobia, along with myriad other forms of bigotry and oppression.
Unexpectedly, that attack actually left me with more hope than scars, because of the actions of that teammate. He was the only one amongst many bystanders to step up to defend me both in the heat of the moment and while school officials doled out discipline. He was, in the truest sense of the word, an ally.
To have an ally was more valuable than any hollow, half-hearted apology from the attackers. Ignorance is not cured overnight, but anyone can become an ally in a heartbeat.
This is why it is so disheartening to see the lack of allies in the NFL right now in the wake of Philadelphia Eagles receiver DeSean Jackson’s praise of a virulent anti-Semitic quote attributed to Hitler to his more than 1.4 million Instagram followers – not once, but twice. Jackson still has his $9.3 million per year job; Roger Goodell has done nothing; Jackson’s teammates have been silent; and most of the league’s coaches and players have not even addressed the issue, preferring instead to let Jewish players like Patriots receiver Julian Edelman combat anti-Semitism without much-needed allies (other than Steelers lineman Zach “the mensch” Banner). Just as puzzling, why have all the prominent sports media members who claim to stand for tolerance and oppose bigotry suddenly vanished?
Why is it so hard to condemn hate for what it is? It seems highly doubtful that anti-Semitism is prevalent among professional athletes. So, why, then, have only a few in the football community—to my count, a handful of players— spoken out?
There is a Hebrew phrase that can guide the sports world right now: tikkun olam. It means, “repair of the world” and underpins Jewish teachings to strive to bring the world together in peace, prosperity, health, and equal justice for all. Judaism teaches to fight for social justice and combat hatred in all its forms, a responsibility that is particularly urgent in light of the brutal murder of George Floyd, the massacre of Jews in a Pittsburgh synagogue, and the harm hate has inflicted on countless other minorities in America. Although they did not break it, the other 1,695 NFL players need to repair the recent unity that Jackson shattered and speak up, just as they have in the past when others expressed hateful views. Look at how NASCAR rallied around Bubba Wallace. Why isn’t the football community standing up for its Jewish members?
Players and coaches with massive platforms must be active allies for all oppressed, minority, and marginalized people. Certainly, in the blackballing of Colin Kaepernick and the slap on the wrist for Riley Cooper, league leadership has proven itself incapable of true allyship. Change will not come from the top. It must come from within the locker rooms. Our favorite gridiron stars need to step up and put Jackson and others who share his same hateful views in their places.