WASHINGTON, D.C. - Only Israeli basketball fans with good memories will recognize the name of Michael Ray Richardson, a player who went to Hapoel Ramat Gan more than a decade ago after being banned by the NBA for drug use. Richardson, now a coach, has a long history of short scandals; three weeks ago another was added to the list when he was suspended from a training session for the Albany Patroons team. One of the reasons: anti-Semitic remarks.
This is an incident that says more about America's habits and those of its Jews than it does about Richardson, who was never commendable for his choice of words. "I've got big-time lawyers. Big-time Jew lawyers," he said in response to a question about the renewal of his contract. When he was told that there are some people who would be offended by his comments, he responded: "Are you kidding me? They've got the best security system in the world. Have you ever been to an airport in Tel Aviv? They're real crafty. Listen, they are hated all over the world, so they've got to be crafty. They've got a lot of power in this world, you know what I mean? Which I think is great. I don't think there's nothing wrong with it. If you look in most professional sports, they're run by Jewish people. If you look at a lot of most successful corporations and stuff, more businesses, they're run by Jewish [people]."
In America, one should also be careful when giving compliments. Last week, one of the main news items was an incident that ended with the dismissal of radio talk show host Don Imus. Imus was released, and rightly so, for making racist comments about the black players on the Rutgers University women's basketball team. Where is he now and where is Richardson who only wanted to say a good word about the Jews? Not that this prevented his suspension and did not prevent the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) from railing against the "the pain his words have caused to many people." (And for the sake of accuracy, it should be added: the reasons for Richardson's suspension also included an anti-gay slur he shouted at a fan).
ADL chief Abraham Foxman's claim is understandable and in principle it's also correct: Richardson's description of the Jews is too similar to anti-Semitic stereotypes. But as Zev Chafets noted in a commentary that appeared in the Los Angeles Times, "Jews, as a people, are smart, in my experience. And they're proud of it."
Here is the proof: in the latest issue of Commentary magazine, there was a wide-ranging article by Charles Murray, one of the authors of "The Bell Curve," which sparked a controversy due to its claim that Blacks in America are less intelligent than Whites and Asians and identified the roots of "Jewish Genius" in processes that began even before the Jews entered the Diaspora.
This is an article that touches on a sensitive issue, but its subject is interesting. Such articles confirm the need for redefining the limits of verbal danger: not every use of a stereotype is a racist incident that deserves to be denounced and punished. The use of generalizations is perhaps not something we should be proud of, because generalizations are necessarily simplistic. But they are also a basic human need that allow us to compartmentalize the world's complexities.
Therefore the case of Richardson is a minor incident that conceals great, justified fear, or the majority's prejudices. But as is the way of fears, the fear sometimes silences good judgment, clarity of thought and the ability to place things in proportion. The Jews, who are a compassionate people and descend from compassionate people - another controversial generalization - should call for the reversal of Richardson's suspension. Foxman himself, who welcomed it, told Haaretz last Friday: "Perhaps it really is too harsh a punishment."
And in the almost futile quest, because after all, generalizations will not disappear, we must carefully choose the events worthy of our attention. "Jews are smart" is nice to hear. Hearing that they are "crafty" depends on the context. There are also some businesses that are not "successful" but it's hard to argue. And in any case, here's another stereotype that would be a pity to lose on the long and winding road to eliminating anti-Semitism: They, the Jews, have an excellent sense of humor.
And if I may offer some personal testimony: so does Foxman.
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