On 13 June, the Toronto Raptors won the National Basketball Association (NBA) Championship. A few days earlier, news had broken in the Israeli media that one of the team's billionaire co-owners, Larry Tannenbaum, announced in April that if the team won, he would take them on a trip to Israel. Tannenbaum is one of the founders of the leading pro-Israel lobby group in Canada, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) It is interesting to note how the Zionist lobby seamlessly merges Israel and Jewish. The reaction by progressive fans to this proposed trip was initially shock, and then a commitment to push back on such a blatant attempt to sports-wash Israel's war crimes. The Canadian BDS Coalition started a petition on 14 June, calling on team members not to be part of such an infamy; it has already gathered over 3,000 signatures.
An open letter was also sent the following day to the Raptors by the BDS Vancouver-Coast Salish coordinator, asking them to use their stature and influence to stand with Palestinians in their struggle for liberation and freedom.
There is precedent here, as NBA champions for the past two years have declined the traditional White House visit in opposition to the policies of US President Donald Trump. There has also been tension between Trump and National Football League players which has had a negative impact on visits to the White House, especially over Trump's virulent opposition to the "Take a Knee" protest.
All of this is happening in an atmosphere of increased repression of Palestinian activism, and official condemnation and even criminalisation of BDS, both in Canada and the US. A recent article in Canada's National Post went so far as to suggest that the BDS movement represents a "national security threat"; one can only imagine the trajectory from "security threat" to further punitive action against those who dare to call out Israel's brutal policies against Palestinians.
Such heavy-handed tactics will not stem the global movement to reject Israel's violations of international law and will not stop grassroots campaigners from speaking up. Toronto Raptors fans and activists are asking the new NBA champs to #SkipTheTrip to Israel, be on the side of history and social change, and take a stand not just for Palestinian rights, but also the rights of oppressed people all over the world.
Open Letter to Toronto Raptors
We are writing to you as long-time fans to urge you to uphold Palestinian human rights and not to travel to Israel. Since 2004 Palestinian civil society organisations have called for the academic and cultural boycott of Israel until such a time as Israel recognises the Right of Return of over 5 million Palestinian refugees and their descendants displaced in the process of Israeli colonisation and occupation of Palestine; ends its occupation and colonisation of the West Bank and its siege of Gaza; and dismantles the Apartheid system of racial discrimination and segregation for Palestinian citizens of Israel.
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 Russel's stand with Mohammed 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.
Israel's occupation of the West Bank, its settlements and its Apartheid Wall are a war crime. The siege of Gaza, and the death and misery meted out on an effectively jailed civilian population, is a crime against humanity. And its system of racial discrimination and segregation is a form of Apartheid, as articulated by survivors of South African Apartheid including Desmond Tutu and Mandla Mandela (grandson of the great freedom fighter Nelson Mandela).
As NBA Champions, you have the opportunity to use your stature and influence to make the world a better place for the young people all over the world who admire you. Please take this opportunity to stand with Palestinians in their struggle for freedom and liberation, and do not travel to Israel.
Coordinator, BDS Vancouver-Coast Salish Territories
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.