Editor’s note: This article doesn’t have anything to do with the Knicks really, but friend of P&T Jeremy Cohen reached out and wanted to know if we could run this piece addressing the recent controversy surrounding the NFL’s DeSean Jackson and former NBA player/current leading BLM activist Stephen Jackson while Knicks Film School’s site is currently down. P&T has never shied away from non-basketball talk, and this is no different, so I said yes. Enjoy this bit of perspective, and please keep the discourse civil in the comments as usual. -Alex
Hi, my name is Jeremy Cohen, and if you couldn’t tell from my last name, I’m Jewish. I consider myself more culturally Jewish than I do religiously. I had a Bar Mitzvah, I’ll fast for Yom Kippur, and whenever I see my parents on a Friday night, we’ll perform the blessings over the candles, wine, and bread. That’s really it. Religion isn’t a big part of my life. My ancestry, though, is everything to me. I took a DNA test and it turns out that I’m 99.3% Ashkenazi Jewish with the remaining 0.7% being That Bitch. Honestly, that test was a waste of time. I could have just looked in the mirror and saved $100.
I’ve often tried to hide my Judaism while traveling. It’s not because I’m not proud of my people and my heritage, but because anti-Semitism is very much alive and well. Being a redhead can often disguise my identity to those who first see me, and as a result, I joke that it’s a “red hairing.” Jews are in this inexplicable Venn diagram where we’re often much too white to be viewed by detractors as a minority, but not white enough to be accepted by misguided zealots of the white community. Not all Jews have the complexion of mayonnaise like I do.
As I’ve scrolled through my Twitter feed these past few days, I’ve been constantly reminded of anti-Semitism. I’m tired of few influential people speaking up on rampant bigotry being spewed by influential athletes. I’m by no means influential, but I still feel the need to say something. And I’m especially grateful to P&T for presenting me with this opportunity while the KFS website is down for maintenance.
I believe that each of us doesn’t fully grow up until we truly start seeing athletes as people and not simply as ballplayers. That was the case for me, at least. Whether that’s for better or for worse, there comes a point where real life intersects with sports and our opinions of each athlete is transformed. Their physical gifts have provided them with a platform and many of them embrace it — but mainly when it benefits them. After all, Republicans buy sneakers, too.
Last month, Drew Brees conflated kneeling for the flag with disrespecting the troops and was instantly — and rightfully — admonished. His initial comments spread like wildfire. Seemingly every corner of the Internet involved Brees for 48 hours. More importantly, several athletes were united against him.
DeSean Jackson wanted to “unite” us. That’s what he said in his apology, which read more like a dril tweet than it did a message from the heart, after he posted what turned out to be a fake Hitler quote. And is posting something said by Hitler, misattributed or not, unifying the people you want to unify? Or how about Jackson posting a video featuring Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam, who’s banned from Facebook because of hate speech? Whose congregation is labeled as a hate group by The Southern Poverty Law Center? The same man who said about himself, “When they talk about Farrakhan, call me a hater, you know how they do — call me an anti-Semite. Stop it, I’m anti-termite!”? Jews are not vermin. No human is.
Then you have Stephen Jackson supporting DeSean Jackson. JR Smith liked the post. His brother and OAKAAK, Chris, converted to orthodox Judaism. Smith quickly unliked the post. Kevin Durant has liked a video of Farrakhan speaking. Swap out Farrakhan’s name with David Duke’s and Kevin Durant’s with Tom Brady’s. Now ask yourself if that’s problematic and a very bad look for Brady. If your answer is, “It isn’t that bad,” then you have a great deal of learning to do. What’s more, Durant’s best friend and business partner is Rich Kleiman, who is Jewish. I guess you can’t upset your cash cow by educating him, can you, Rich? Or how about when Carmelo Anthony wore a necklace sporting the Five-Percent Nation emblem in 2014? Farrakhan praised Clarence 13X, who founded the Five-Percent Nation, which is rooted in the Nation of Islam’s anti-Semitic teachings. Does Melo reject those beliefs? Was he simply ignorant to exactly what it was that he was supporting? Or does Melo subscribe to those beliefs, but he was cool with Jews like Leon Rose getting him paid?
Stephen Jackson continued his dangerous rhetoric and said “Never waste time explaining to people who never supported u [sic] anyway.” Nevertheless, he hasn’t stopped tweeting “Love for all who have love for all.” I’d like Stephen Jackson to look my cousin in the eyes and tell her that sitting in a Mississippi jail for six weeks in 1961 along with her fellow Freedom Riders, trying to help end segregation in the deep South, was a lack of support. That the strip searches and intimidation by guards, or the option for imprisoned Jews to eat pork or not eat at all wasn’t an effort to be an ally. That Jews like her simply never cared to strive for equality and helping others. My cousin is an incredible role model for how I want to effect change, and whenever I think I’m doing enough, her efforts challenge me to do more. We can all learn from the groundwork laid down by those whose goal is to make tomorrow a little better.
I’m disappointed in the lack of response by NFL and NBA players, but I can’t say I’m surprised. I appreciate Julian Edelman, who shares Jewish heritage, for speaking up. There aren’t many active Jewish athletes, so it’s important for those who are Jewish to take a stand. Yet what about the non-Jewish athletes? The reality is that athletes seldom come into contact with Jews unless they’re involved with a player’s earning potential. Perhaps we can chalk this up to general ignorance. After all, two-thirds of millennials don’t know what Auschwitz is. And it’s certainly not uncommon knowledge that Jews are often associated with money because our people were not allowed to carry out several professions during the Middle Ages, and were relegated to money lending as well as collecting tax and rent. Who will stand up for a marginalized community when the people in the spotlight aren’t the ones who are marginalized? I care about black lives. Hopefully you do too. Is it so wrong to hope for a mutual level of love and respect, DeSean, Stephen, and any other athletes who stand with them? I don’t think it is.
I applaud those in the media who have been vociferous against this chapter of hatred. Stefan Bondy and Ian Begley used their platforms for good, as did Stephen A. Smith, Yaron Weitzman, Elle Duncan, Pablo S. Torre, Rachel Nichols and many more journalists. At the same time, though, I’m upset by those who remain noticeably absent. I would name them, but fortunately the criticism is trickling in, and I don’t want the list to be passé. For those in the media who are Jewish or not, have a platform, and haven’t condemned this batch of bigotry, is this an issue for individuals like yourself, or is discrimination only a problem when it affects the people you profit off of? And for anyone who expressed outrage at the Knicks not releasing a statement while you sit in silence as this controversy evolves, how does that make you any different than the entity you publicly denounced in the first place?
Arguing over why one community’s plight is greater than or less than another’s is a pissing contest that I have no interest in having. Quite frankly, it shouldn’t be one that Jackson wants to have either. Marginalized communities have all endured struggles. The black community is suffering and the Jewish community is not. The Jewish community is, however, hurting in the wake of divisive words and actions by members of the black community. DeSean and Stephen Jackson do not represent the black community with their anti-Semitic remarks, yet their thoughts are not unique. Systemic changes have to be made. Stephen Jackson happens to have a platform and a voice that has been amplified by his best friend’s death, and he is now using it to sow discord and bigotry. His actions are sullying a powerful, righteous movement and giving your local racist the power to say “See? I always knew BLM was rooted in hatred.”
The NBA prides itself on diversity, as it should. The Knicks have consistently been a leader in the fight for equality. The first basket ever scored in the NBA was by Ossie Schectman, a Jewish Knick originally from Queens. Wataru Misaka, the NBA’s first non-white basketball player and the first player of Asian descent, was a Knick and broke the color barrier in 1947. One of the first three African-Americans to play in the NBA in 1950 was Nathaniel “Sweetwater” Clifton, a Knick. “Red” Holzman, the best coach in Knicks history whose “613” hangs in the rafters of Madison Square Garden, was Jewish. Amar’e Stoudemire converted to Judaism. The Knicks have had 13 head coaches since the 2001 season, and eight of them have been black. Diversity is important. Actions speak louder than words, but words matter from teams and players right now.
When an ESPN article about Jeremy Lin in 2012 was titled “Chink in the Armor,” people were rightfully offended. Jeremy Lin stood up for himself. Not many players vocalized their support. When Kenyon Martin criticized Lin’s dreadlocks in 2017, Lin opened a dialogue. There were concerns of cultural appropriation, but Lin respectfully countered by pointing out Martin has Chinese characters tattooed on him. The NBA currently has zero Jewish players. So if one of our own can’t stand up for our people because that platform simply doesn’t exist, who will stand up for us?
You fight for the movement. You fight for the voiceless. You also fight even harder for the people who have been beaten down and oppressed, whether it’s through slavery, redlining, gentrification, the CIA destroying communities with crack cocaine, police brutality, general racism, micro-agressions, or any other strife that a black person endures. That’s who we must support. Similar can be said of other minorities, but they are not the focus right now. We need to help, but this is not a new battle for us as Jews. I want to use my privilege to help, and that will not waver despite what both Jacksons said. That doesn’t take the hurt away and that doesn’t resolve the bitterness.
Stephen Jackson apologized, saying he takes full responsibility and what he said was never his intentions. Agreeing with a fake Hitler quote?
Their comments are a sign that we have to keep going. We have come so far and yet we have so far to go. I’ve been asking myself, “If one person changes for the better because of this controversy, will it have been worth it?” I wish I had a more concrete answer than “I don’t know.” My only hope is that we as a society are taking a step backwards so we can then take multiple steps forward. Let’s prevent this from being viewed as a missed opportunity and instead use it as a much-needed catalyst in the fight against prejudice in all forms.