Kyrie Irving #11 of the Brooklyn Nets handles ball during game against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden on March 22, 2022 in New York City. (Photo: Michelle Farsi/Getty Images)

The NBA, Anti-Semitism, and a Missed Opportunity at the Garden

The controversy over Irving's Tweet was an opportunity for the NBA to step forward and promote public education about anti-Semitism and the importance of solidarity in defense of any group whose human rights are threatened.

"That energy in Madison Square Garden. I know that was one of the first nationally televised playoff games where we had a full arena. . . When they saw that Madison Square Garden full, it was almost like 'Wow, pandemic is ending'. . . . I know for people watching people come together in Madison Square Garden, I think that was meaningful."

Only a few weeks ago Adam Silver faced a problem more serious than attendance at basketball games: what to do about NBA superstar Kyrie Irving's Twitter recommendation of an anti-Semitic film.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, commenting on Madison Square Garden in August, 2021.

Only a few weeks ago Adam Silver faced a problem more serious than attendance at basketball games: what to do about NBA superstar Kyrie Irving's Twitter recommendation of an anti-Semitic film. The impasse between Silver and Irving was a teachable moment, for the NBA and its fans, and for the country at large. And indeed, the history of the beloved "Garden"--sometimes the site of things much less uplifting than basketball-might have furnished an important lesson. But the NBA, eyes always on the financial prize, chose instead to settle for hastily conceded gestures and a quick return to the business that is professional basketball.

Irving has now done his penance; Silver has declared that Irving has no hate in his heart; and Irving, his suspension suspended, has returned to the court.

All is well with the NBA.

But all is not well with the world.

For the most important issue raised by the affair was never whether Irving would or should atone or whether "hateful things" should be denounced by decent celebrities. It was anti-Semitism itself, a serious and potentially deadly form of hostility and racism on the rise in a society witnessing a broader rise of extremism and violence.

The controversy over Irving's Tweet was an opportunity for the NBA to step forward and promote public education about anti-Semitism and the importance of solidarity in defense of any group whose human rights are threatened.

The history of "the Garden" indeed provided the NBA with a unique opportunity. But it was squandered.

Take a look at the screen shot below:

It depicts the marquee of the old Madison Square Garden, on 8th Avenue, on the night of February 20, 1939. There was basketball that week at the Garden, hockey too. But on that night, something else was taking place: a "Pro-American Rally."

The photo is a clip from an award-winning seven-minute documentary directed and edited by filmmaker Marshall Curry, entitled "A Night at the Garden." The documentary consists of nothing but seven minutes of newsreel footage from the "pro-American rally" organized by the German-American Bund, a 1930's Nazi organization with chapters and training camps in many states including New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. On that night, over twenty thousand people filled the Garden to pay tribute to Adolph Hitler against the backdrop of an enormous, 30-foot portrait of George Washington surrounded by American flags and swastikas. Fritz Kuhn, the group's "Bundresfuhrer," led the assembled crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance, and then launched into a diatribe against Jews and "the Jewish controlled press," calling for a "white, gentile-ruled United States" and "gentile-controlled labor unions free from Jewish Moscow-directed domination." "Wake up! You, Aryan, Nordic and Christians," Kuhn declared, enjoining his crowd "to demand that our government be returned to the people who founded it!"

Yes, that happened on the same hallowed Garden floor that days later featured the New York Rangers and the Fordham University basketball team (both the New York Knicks and the NBA were only formed in 1946).

How many NBA players know about this? How many NBA fans know about it? How many Americans know? My Indiana University students are shocked when they learn about this.

And yet the "Pro-America rally" at "The Garden" was hardly a one-off. For in the 1930's a number of Nazi and fascist organizations flourished in the U.S., ranging from the Hitlerite Bund to Father Charles Coughlin's National Union for Social Justice to William Dudley Pelley's Silver Legion of America to the Ku Klux Klan itself. These groups held rallies, organized marches, conducted campaigns of intimidation, and helped elect many politicians to political office.

What if instead of pretending that anti-Semitism in the U.S. is reducible to a Kyrie Irving Tweet, the NBA mandated the showing of the powerful seven-minute "Night at the Garden" during halftime of every single NBA game, live and televised, for a week or two? And what if this were linked to a broader campaign of public education (the film's website provides an excellent link to resources)?

Only weeks before the Irving controversy, PBS aired a six-hour Ken Burns documentary on "The U.S. and the Holocaust." Like most Burns documentaries, "The U.S. and the Holocaust" has been something of a media event--and it is another resource on which the NBA might have drawn if it were serious about anti-Semitism. The film details the history of the Nazi effort to exterminate European Jewry and the ways that the U.S. government turned away Jewish refugees and refused to do everything in its power to put an end to the genocide. It also details the complex interconnections between American racism and Nazi racism, including the ways that both Hitler's racism and Nazi race laws were influenced by Jim Crow laws in the American South (the film draws heavily on historian James Whitman's Hitler's American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law). The Burns documentary underscores the synergies between anti-Black and anti-Jewish racism, shedding light on how Jews and Blacks have long been joined as victims but also as allies in the struggle for civil rights and democracy.

Yet another resource is the terrific "Race and Citizenship in Nazi Germany and Jim Crow United States," a new curriculum developed by Aya Marczyk and her colleagues at Yale University's Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies. While the curriculum was developed for high school students, it is a wonderful resource for anyone seeking to better understood the connections between these two dangerous forms of 20th century racism. Using videotaped testimonies of individuals who lived through these experiences, the curriculum centers on close, empathetic listening, and on the mutual understanding that this can generate. And the curriculum, like the Burns documentary, makes clear how much American Blacks and Jews, and indeed all Americans, have to learn from the sharing of these experiences, and from the collaborative defenses of freedom that such sharing makes possible.

Even the most enlightened NBA responses to the Irving Tweet--the response of Silver and, eventually, the responses of LeBron James and C.J. McCollum, the most vocal and articulate NBA players--have basically taken the position that "it is wrong to say hurtful things about other groups." But anti-Semitism is more than a hurtfulness towards Jewish others. It is a form of racism that is hostile to the core values of a pluralistic and democratic society, and should be offensive to everyone who cares about human rights and democracy. To paraphrase Martin Luther King, Jr., an injustice against any group is an injustice against every group.

Precisely because the incident was about more than a remark that hurt the feelings of some Jews, the NBA and Silver were wrong to focus so narrowly on Kyrie's Tweet, his punishment, and his apology. What should have been--and what should be--the powerful NBA's focus is a matter that runs much deeper: the reservoir of anti-Semitism upon which so many people, from Kyrie Irving and Kanye West to Nick Fuentes and Donald Trump, draw, and the way this reservoir poisons everyone who comes into contact with it.

And some serious attention to that night at the Garden back in February 1939 is a good place to start.

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