As NFL Players Take a Knee Against Racism, U.S. Jews Butt Heads Over Whether to Speak Out

Many Jews say their people’s history commands them to stand in solidarity with athletes fighting injustice, while others say the protest has to be kept off the field

Indianapolis Colts players kneel during the national anthem before a home game against the Cleveland Browns, September 24, 2017.
Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports / Reuters

The storm over the NFL protest and U.S. President Donald Trump’s calls to fire players who “take a knee” during the national anthem is prompting some American Jews to speak out in solidarity as fellow minorities whose own history reflects the terrible cost of silence amid racial injustice.

From synagogue pulpits to conversations between friends – whether in person or on social media – the question of whether Jews have a special obligation to take action is being raised.

It’s a conversation that began during the presidential election when Trump called Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals and was then reluctant to distance himself from the support of white supremacists. The controversy only intensified with the travel ban from six Muslim-majority countries, the crackdown on illegal immigrants, and Trump’s blaming of “many sides” for the violence at the white supremacist march in Charlottesville.

>> Opinion: Take the knee as an act of Yom Kippur <<

”How many times in our long history of being a persecuted people did we hope, pray and cry out for righteous and courageous neighbors? And how often were those cries met with silence?” said Aaron Alexander, a rabbi at Adas Israel, the largest Conservative synagogue in Washington.

“Too often. Our brothers and sisters of color have for too long endured institutionalized degradation in this country. Their cries, their knees, their pain, is our collective obligation to embrace with love, support and compassion.”

Carin Mrotz, the executive director of the Minneapolis-based Jewish Community Action, said her group, as an organization that works for racial justice, stands with the protesting athletes.

>> Trump says NFL protests are not about race. Wikipedia shows otherwise <<

“As a Jewish organization, we find it disheartening that the president, who managed to frame a neo-Nazi rally (which ended in a woman’s death) as peaceful assembly, would condemn these athletes so strenuously for their actions,” she said.

“White supremacy hurts all of us. It’s in everyone’s self-interest that we show up together. The fact is that privilege is conditional. We are in a very challenging moment and I don’t think there is any path through it that happens if we are all alone.”

In Pittsburgh, Jonathan Mayo, a baseball writer who used to write a column on Jews and sports, said he’s concerned that the original impetus for the NFL players’ protest – police brutality and racial inequality – has been overshadowed by Trump’s positioning of the issue as matter of patriotism and the flag. This distracts from the real question, he said.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin speaking in New York during the UN General Assembly meeting, September 21, 2017.
Andres Kudacki / AP

“I think there is no question we have an obligation to not stand idly by,” he said, citing the biblical injunction to help one’s neighbor in distress. “It is of upmost importance when we see those in our community that are mistreated for us to stand shoulder to shoulder with them. For me that is what it means to be a Jew in this country, or anywhere.”

Mnuchin backs Trump

Of course, not all American Jews feel that this sentiment applies to the NFL protests, which have now spread to other sports including basketball and even baseball, where there is a far lower percentage of African-American players. Take one of the most high-profile Jews in Trump’s administration, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. He was among White House officials defending Trump’s position, saying athletes have a First Amendment right to speak out, but not on the playing field.

“This is about respect for our military,” he told CNN on Sunday. “This is about respect for our first responders. This is not about Republicans or Democrats. Players have the right for free speech off the field. On the field, this is about respect for lots of people.”

Mort Klein, the longtime president of the Zionist Organization of America, a right-wing group that has been supportive of Trump, spoke in his personal capacity, not for the ZOA. He agreed with Mnuchin that the protest belonged off the field. But he said Trump should not have taken the protests on as an issue.

“I think Trump handled this very poorly, impetuously and poorly,” Klein said. “I am embarrassed by President Trump using curse words about these players. That went too far, even though I disagree with those athletes, I would never say they should be fired.”

He also did not think there was any response warranted by Jews as Jews on this topic, saying the charges of police brutality and racial injustice were overblown.

“I disagree with the premise that there is substantial racism in America. Of course there is some, but it’s quite minimal. What country has done more to promote quotas and affirmative action? America has bent over backwards to help blacks and Hispanics in our society,” Klein said.

“It’s quite amazing, football players making millions of dollars a year complaining of racial injustice. I think this country has given Asians, blacks, Hispanics and Jews amazing opportunities.”

He dismissed ideas that the legacy of slavery had an impact on the lives of blacks in America today. “It was 200 years ago,” he said.

Multiethnic Jewish community

Mrotz from Jewish Community Action had a response for fellow Jews who may hold similar opinions.

“I think when people tell us they are experiencing oppression, the power of believing them should resonate for Jews. We are a community who in part survived from telling our own story,” she said.

“We are a people with such a rich narrative passed down to us that the resistance of believing other people’s oppression cannot be good for us. Every single year in the spring we observe our major holiday. What if someone said, ‘Passover happened so many years ago. You should get over it already?’”

Stosh Cotler, CEO of Bend the Arc Jewish Action, spoke of a Jewish imperative to act.

“Now more than ever the Jewish community – which itself is a multiracial and multiethnic community – must double down on our commitments to ending all forms of white supremacy and bigotry. That is the prophetic tradition we have inherited, which says that each human being is created in the image of the Divine,” she said.

“This is work we must do, because it is the right thing to do, and because our lives depend on it – racism and white supremacy threaten the safety and ethical integrity of all of us. And because, a generation from now, when our grandchildren ask us how Jews responded in this moment, we must be able to say we used every tool, every avenue, every ounce of Jewish communal resources to resist these unacceptable times.”