Following the fallout from the recording of racist comments by the Jewish owner of the National Basketball Association’s Los Angeles Clippers, Jewish organizations, both local and national, moved quickly to take the focus off his ethnicity and remind the country of the Jewish involvement in the civil rights movement.
Meanwhile, elements of the Jewish community in Southern California, including a number of organizations Sterling donated to, are worried that focus on Sterling’s Jewishness has been overplayed.
“I’m troubled by the fact that the Jewish community and the Jewish press seem to be making Donald Sterling more Jewish and more of a Jewish leader than he actually is,” said Jay Sanderson, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. “I think it’s dangerous for us to just take someone who’s Jewish and connect them to the Jewish community. In fact, nothing about Donald Sterling’s involvement would make you think that he’s involved in the Jewish community.”
Sanderson said that Sterling’s foundation would make occasional gifts of $10,000 to groups attached to the L.A. Jewish community “to make himself look like a philanthropist” but was uninvolved. Besides donating to the Jewish Federation, Sterling also gave to the Jewish Vocational Service, the Museum of the Holocaust, the Creative Arts Temple, the Temple of the Arts, Beit T’Shuvah, and, ironically, the Museum of Tolerance, according to the Forward.
Rabbis Marvin Hier and Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and Museum of Tolerance said in a statement that they fully support NBA Commissioner Adam Silver’s actions against Sterling — a lifetime ban and fine of $2.5 million. Silver also urged the NBA’s board of governors to find a way to force Sterling to sell the team.
The Wiesenthal Center and Museum of Tolerance no longer will accept funds from the Donald Sterling Foundation, the statement said. A previous gift of $30,000 “will not be returned because all funds were used for programming that help fight and prevent the very racism and hate that was expressed in Mr. Sterling’s tape.”
The outrage followed a leak of a taped phone call between Sterling and his mistress, V. Stiviano.
In it, Sterling told Stiviano, who is of African-American and Hispanic heritage, not to bring “black people” to his games — specifically referring to Instagram pictures of Stiviano with basketball legend Magic Johnson.
Stiviano can be heard on the recording challenging Sterling’s racism by comparing his hatred of African-Americans with hatred of Jews.
“The white Jews, there’s white Jews and black Jews, do you understand?” Sterling explained to Stiviano about Jews in Israel.
“And are the black Jews less than the white Jews?” asked Stiviano.
“A hundred percent, fifty, a hundred percent,” Sterling answered.
In addition to the local Jewish community, Sterling’s comments outraged a number of national Jewish organizations, which felt compelled to decry him publicly.
“The Jewish people have a long history of fighting racism, and we are deeply disturbed by the reprehensible statements attributed to Donald Sterling,” the Jewish Federations of North America said in a statement. “There is no place for racism or bigotry in America today and certainly not in Jewish life.”
With the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 next month and this year the 60th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision striking down segregation in public schools, Sterling’s comments contradict a longstanding American Jewish tradition to support civil rights.
Jews played a large role in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Jews, including prominent rabbis both from the North and the South, participated in marches, sit-ins and freedom rides. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel demonstrated alongside Martin Luther King.
According to Larry Brooks, editor and publisher of Southern Jewish Life Magazine, Jews made up the largest proportion of the white activists arriving from the North to participate in the civil rights movement — causing resentment from Southerners who would direct their anger against the local Jewish community.
But years before the freedom riders came South, white supremacists were targeting the Jewish community. The Hebrew Benevolent Congregation in Atlanta, known as The Temple, was bombed in 1958. Its rabbi was an outspoken supporter of African-American rights. That same year, 54 sticks of dynamite were found near Temple Beth-El in Birmingham, Ala. Wet fuses prevented the detonation. In 1960, Congregation Beth Israel in Gadsden, Ala., was firebombed during Friday night services.
During the Freedom Summer of 1964, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner — two Jewish activists working in Mississippi — were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan, an event and its aftermath dramatized in the film “Mississippi Burning.”
The Anti-Defamation League, established because of anti-Semitism in the South, denounced Sterling’s statements and agreed with the commissioner’s punishment. But the ADL had a different reaction when, just a week prior to the revelations about Sterling, Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy was recorded openly saying that he believes that “Negroes” had it better as slaves than in the government-dependent society he says exists today.
Bundy was taking a stand against the federal Bureau of Land Management and lost much of his support after the racist comment. Unlike with Sterling, the ADL took no position against Bundy. Did the group placed Sterling under more of a microscope because he is Jewish? The ADL says no.
“We responded with a formal statement on the racist comments of Donald Sterling because this was a national and international story involving the owner of a major sports franchise whose coach and many of his players are African-American,” the ADL said in a statement to the Washington Jewish Week.
“Cliven Bundy’s racist remarks,” said the statement, “coming from an individual who was unknown to the public until recently, were so over the top, offensive and outrageous and there was enough of a public outcry that we did not feel the need to weigh in at the time with a written statement.”
(Dmitriy Shapiro is the political reporter for the Washington Jewish Week. He can be reached at email@example.com.)
JNS.org contributed to this story.