If you’re a basketball fan, and also a supporter of justice for Palestine, then you have probably heard about the controversy surrounding the offer of a proposed trip to Israel for the new NBA champs the Toronto Raptors, from one of their co-owners Larry Tanenbaum.
News broke on multiple media sites, starting on June 12, 2019, about Tanenbaum’s pledge to bring the team to Israel, made during an earlier visit in April of this year. The Times of Israel, the Jerusalem Post, and the Jewish Telegraphic Agency were just some of the agencies to run with the story; even the Israeli Embassy in Ottawa got in on the act by tweeting the Raptors that they would be calling to “help with the arrangements”.
However, since then silence, except for a one-line update at the end of an article in the Canadian Jewish News that “A source in Toronto confirmed Tanenbaum is exploring a group trip to Israel for the team.” The Canadian BDS Coalition, which began a petition the day following the Raptors victory, have officially requested clarification from all of the team’s owners (Bell 37.5%, Rogers 37.5% and Tanenbaum’s company Kilmer Sports 25%) as to whether such a visit is under consideration or has already been approved.
Tanenbaum has a long history as an ardent supporter of Israel and is one of the founders of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs in Canada. He also took an NBA delegation to Israel in 2017, a visit that produced a rather awkward video put out by the Israeli PM’s office featuring a meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu. So, although Tanenbaum’s announcement that “If we win the NBA championship, I will come with the Toronto Raptors to visit the Holy Land” seemed incongruous to many at first glance, there was ample reason to take it seriously.
And, in December of 2017, Israeli Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev succeeded in obliging the NBA to apologize and remove wording from its website referring to “Palestine – occupied territory”. Regev went on to thank NBA Commissioner Adam Silver for removing the language, brazenly saying: “Israel’s lands are not occupied; therefore what was written was false and should have been deleted.”
All this is happening in the context of the ramped-up efforts by the Israeli government, especially Gilad Erdan, the minister of strategic affairs, and associates, and pro-Israel lobby groups, to both smear pro-Palestinian activists and brighten Israel’s image with visits of celebrities, artists and sports heroes.
But back to Tanenbaum and the Raptors possible visit to Israel. What does this new silence reveal? Is there a plan in the works and the powers that be realized that bragging about it in advance was harmful? Or did the overwhelming negative response from fans and activists give the majority owners of the team pause for thought? The petition started by the Canadian BDS Coalition has gathered over 6300 signatures as well as the endorsement of Roger Waters. Another petition started by CodePink has over 2600 people signed on. Jewish Voice for Peace also picked up the campaign on social media and ran a succinct one question poll: Should the Raptors take a free trip to Israel? The message was the same – such a trip was a blatant and crude attempt to sports-wash Israel’s crimes against the Palestinians.
An open letter on June 15, 2019, from the coordinator of BDS Vancouver-Coast Salish, Aiyanas Ormond, pointed out: “Around the world poor and oppressed people have embraced basketball as a sport of the people, and basketball players, many of whom come from poor and struggling backgrounds, have an important history of taking progressive positions and giving back to their communities. From Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Russell’s stand with Muhammad Ali against the draft and the Vietnam War to public and collective statements against police brutality against Black people in America, NBA players have stood on the side of social and racial justice.”
In fact, the NBA champions for the previous two years declined the traditional White House visit in opposition to the policies of US President Donald Trump. And Toronto player Danny Green has already publicly speculated that there is very little chance of the Raptors changing that pattern this year, commenting he felt a visit to Trump was “a hard no”. The reasons behind the refusal to visit Trump’s White House are very similar to the reasons Palestinians are asking the international community to take a stand against Israel’s violations of their human rights and international law.
The experience of a 2017 NFL delegation, that fell apart after several Israeli cabinet ministers bragged that the players would become “ambassadors of goodwill for Israel”, may well be fresh in the memories of sports fans and team owners. And the backlash to NBA player Draymond Green’s visit in July 2018, organized by Friends of the IDF, where he posed holding an Israeli sniper’s rifle, was both swift and decisive.
Whatever is happening in the minds of the Raptors team owners, and it was from their ranks that this proposal came forth, has not yet been made public. And it is incumbent upon them to clarify whether this trip is quietly being organized or has been put in the dustbin of history where it properly belongs. Until such clarification is forthcoming, activists will continue to express why they feel this trip is wrong on so many levels. From the boycott of Puma over their sponsorship of the Israel Football Association, which includes teams from the illegal settlements, to this #RaptorsDontGo campaign, people are refusing to allow sports-washing to become Israel’s next frontier.