Israel's Tallest Ambassador

Former Hapoel and Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball player LaVon Mercer is promoting Israel's case in black churches, universities and community centers in his native Atlanta.

Former Israeli basketball sensation LaVon Mercer is on a mission to serve his country. But as an African American with an Israeli passport, that's become a bit complicated given a hybrid identity that allows him to feel perfectly at home "on either side" of the black-Jewish divide.

"I'm an Israeli and a black American," he explained last week, repeating an obviously well-rehearsed mantra. Mercer, who was here for the Final Four on an Israeli consulate sponsored trip, has recently become Israel's "public relations ambassador" in Atlanta's large, vocal and traditionally segregated black community. He is trying to plead Israel's case from the inside, and the local Israeli consulate, meanwhile, couldn't be more pleased.

Standing at two meters nine, Mercer likes to think of himself as "Israel's biggest ambassador." He gets annoyed when people ask him when he first decided to work on Israel's behalf. "I never stopped working for Israel and so I never started either," he replies.

Mercer's career here began in 1980, when he arrived to play for Hapoel Tel Aviv. During the course of his 14-year stay, he acquired Israeli citizenship, switched to Maccabi Tel Aviv, served in the IDF, and played for the Israeli national team. He retired from professional sports 10 years ago and has since returned to his native Atlanta, but that he says, does not reflect on his steadfast commitment to the state. "I don't have to be here [in Israel] to help Israel," he insists.

Mercer, who regularly tours the African American circuit in Atlanta and visits churches, universities, and community centers, tries to make Israel's case "as a black man." He began soon after returning to Atlanta, but with the Israeli consulate in Atlanta's recent co-opting of his services, Mercer's PR mission has become more official, organized, and in many ways, recognized.

"There are a lot of things that I can contribute, beyond just teaching someone how to shoot a basketball," he told Anglo File last week.

Mercer's speaking tours are varied, though he usually likes to speak about his military basic training, his volunteer work with Ethiopian immigrants here, and the time when a bicycle carrying explosives went off only a few hundred meters from his home. "People are receptive to me, I know they are," he insists. "The consulate wouldn't have paid for my flight here if I wasn't doing something right."

Aviv Ezra, the Deputy Consul General in Atlanta, agrees. "The first time I heard LaVon speak, I knew that he would represent the state of Israel and the people of Israel," he said last week from Atlanta. "LaVon lived in Israel for 14 years and so he knows what the Israeli experience is all about. He's not a paid government employee and so he's more credible to a crowd. He speaks from the heart."

But not everyone is as convinced. When Mercer, who now coaches basketball at a small liberal arts college in Atlanta, tells people that he's "just doing what's right for my country," by-standers are confused when they realize that he is referring to Israel. People have stormed out of his talks before, and Mercer admits that his job has been more difficult in recent months, especially since Israel's assassinations of Hamas leaders. He insists, however, that whatever mistrust exists between the African American and Jewish communities in Atlanta is a result of ignorance, rather than anti-Semitism.

"They [African Americans] just don't know who we are," he says, in an ironic twist of pronouns.

In the meantime, Mercer admits to have checked local real estate prices during this short visit, in the hopes that he will eventually split his time between Tel Aviv and Atlanta. Racial tensions in Atlanta, he says, are demoralizing: "You accept people for who they are here. There, it all depends on the color of your skin." He is also working on a project that will bring him back later this summer to coach a joint basketball team of African-American and Israeli youth in Ra'anana, Atlanta's sister city. "I can come and go as I please," he adds. "I've got dual citizenship."