Basketball Sports Torah

Name Changes

Cross posted at Kaplan’s Korner (New Jersey Jewish News)

Some sports teams have Native American nicknames that many find to be offensive. Teams like the Chicago Blackhawks, Kansas City Chiefs, Washington Redskins, Atlanta Braves, Cleveland Indians, Cincinnati Reds, and Golden State Warriors have chosen to keep their names despite protests from the Native American community.

Some teams have changed their team nicknames to be more politically correct. I remember the debates that surrounded the decision of Eastern Michigan University to change its name from the Hurons to the Eagles. More recently, Syracuse University changed its name from the Orangemen to simply the Orange.

The recent suspension of two Washington Wizards players brings to mind the changing of sports teams’ nicknames. Wizards’ guard Gilbert Arenas and his teammate Javaris Crittenton were suspended for the remainder of the season by NBA commissioner David Stern after Arenas admitted that he brought four guns into the locker room following a heated argument with Crittenton during a card game on the team plane.

The owner of the Washington Wizards, the late Abe Pollin, changed the name of his NBA franchise from the Bullets to the Wizards in 1995 after flying back to the Washington D.C. area following the funeral of his friend, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in Israel.

In the November 12, 2005 edition of the New York Times, columnist George Vecsey wrote:

Abe Pollin decided months ago that it was wrong to call his Washington basketball team the Bullets. He pushed up the announcement the other day after flying back from the funeral of a friend, a hero, who had been killed by bullets.

“I stood in the spot when Rabin was killed,” Pollin said the other day.

Yitzhak Rabin, the Prime Minister of Israel, was assassinated a week ago Saturday in Tel Aviv. His life was no more precious than the lives of children killed by flying bullets as they cower in apartments in the District of Columbia, or teen-agers gunned down in the heat of an argument. Yitzhak Rabin’s death reinforced Abe Pollin’s belief that something must be done about the nickname.

“I’ve thought about it for 31 years,” Pollin said the other day, after announcing that a new nickname will be chosen by the fall of 1997, when the team moves to a new arena in the national capital.

“Bullets connote killing, violence, death,” Pollin said. “Our slogan used to be, ‘Faster than a speeding bullet.’ That is no longer appropriate.”

So, it is ironic that fourteen years after Pollin decided to change the name of his basketball team because it connoted killing and violence, the team’s star player is arrested for bringing four guns into the locker room.

Charles Krauthammer discussed the issue at length on This Week in Washington. He said:

“In a sense, you’re almost grateful that he died before he could see this. He’s a man who changed the name of the team, the Bullets, which had a long and distinguished history, simply because it gave the wrong message. And he did it, and he probably lost a lot of money doing it, but it meant a lot to him. And to have a member of his team in a gun issue in the Verizon Center, which he built, would have broken his heart.”

Dan Steinberg, in his D.C. Sports Blog, explains that, following Abe Pollin’s death and “Gilbert’s Great Gun Goof,” there have been several explanations for why Pollin changed the name of the team from the Bullets.

The Wizards referenced the name change in their press release about the Arenas suspension, saying: “It is widely known that Mr. Pollin took the extraordinary step of changing the team name from ‘Bullets’ to ‘Wizards’ in 1997 precisely to express his abhorrence of gun violence in our community” Most likely, it was the rampant gun violence in D.C. that convinced Pollin to change the name, but then Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination that gave a greater sense of urgency to the decision.

I don’t believe that changing a sports team’s name will have an effect on how successfully the team performs in the future. However, there is a tradition in Judaism that name changes have the ability to transform. When a Jewish person is on their deathbed, there is a custom of changing their Hebrew name to ward off (and confuse) the angel of death.

In the Torah, several characters have their names changed by God. The first Hebrews Abram and Sarai become “Abraham” and “Sarah” as they progress into the first parents of the Jewish people. Joshua was known as “Hoshea the son of Nun,” but then Moses changed his name to Joshua. The greatest transformation resulting from a name change in the Torah was following Jacob’s struggle with an angel of God when it was declared that he would henceforth be known as “Israel.”

Abe Pollin’s decision to change his pro basketball team’s name from the Bullets was a wise one. Bullets do connote violence and killing, and no sports team (especially one in a town known for gun violence) wants that association. It would be wise for the teams that use American Indian nicknames or mascots to change their names as well. If a pro sports team or a university team has a nickname that offends such a large community of people, why continue that tradition?

Sports teams should use nicknames for which their fans can be proud. In Detroit, our basketball team has been called the Pistons because of the pride the Motor City feels for the auto industry. But now that the auto industry in Detroit has fallen on hard times and there are rumors that the team may soon be for sale, a new name may be in order.

It might be a good idea for Gilbert Arenas to take after the biblical Jacob and select a new name for himself. Just as Abe Pollin honored the memory of his friend Yitzhak Rabin by changing his team’s name, Arenas would be honoring Abe Pollin’s memory by his own transformation.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Antisemitism Humor Israel Jewish Politics Television World Events

Jon Stewart on Hamas Cartoons

Last night on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, the host seemed willing to take a chance on a not-so-funny comedy skit for the sake of delivering a strong political message. On an episode when the Jewish host racked up more Yiddishisms than normal (Brian Williams later attempted his own Yiddish too), Jon Stewart showed some shocking footage of Hamas-sponsored children’s cartoons containing centuries old anti-Semitic stereotypes.

Through a hole in a public restroom wall, Jon Stewart operated a Hasidic bagel puppet with a kippah on its head. He reviews Hamas children’s cartoons spewing hatred and delivers a political message noting how “they wonder why this conflict is so intractable and hope so fleeting.” The Daily Show staff must have had some fun turning the conclusion of a Scooby Doo episode into an anti-Semitic cartoon in which the head of programming was old man Hitler who would have gotten away with the crime “if it hadn’t been for those meddling Jews and their talking bagel.”

There was really nothing very funny about the bit, but Jon Stewart was able to forgo a few minutes of humor for a chance to do what organizations like MEMRI and CAMERA do every day — inform the public about the messages of hate that Hamas directs to Palestinian children through the medium of television cartoons.

What made Jon Stewart decide to do a skit like this? After all, it was an unusual segment for Comedy Central’s Daily Show. My guess would be that he might be trying to appease his large pro-Israel following after a show this past Fall in which he appeared overly critical of Israel. As CAMERA documents on their website: “In a segment dealing with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Stewart hosted Palestinian politician Mustafa Barghouti and anti-Israel agitator Anna Baltzer. Barghouti presented a familiar narrative of Palestinian grievances of the kind often heard. But it was the pairing with Baltzer that sparked indignation among many viewers. Fortunately, the segment’s producers edited out much of Baltzer’s misinformation about Israel, making the version that was broadcast substantially less objectionable than the original taping.

The Huffington Post reported on Jon Stewart’s attempt to get some laughs from the serious subject of Hamas propoganda: “In a segment geared toward children, a shocked Jon Stewart rolled clips of Hamas cartoons that depict Jews and Israelis as evil, blood-drinking psychopaths. Even Stewart’s “Story Hole” partner, Dr. Bagelman was appalled, as each clip left the two with their jaw (or bagel slice) dropped. Bagelman, a stale Hasidic bagel “thrust through a rest-stop hole in a bathroom wall,” recognized that the blatantly anti-Semitic cartoons were most likely Hamas’s retaliation for his old kids show, “Jewby Doo.”

Here is the segment from the February 2, 2010 episode of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart:

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
AIPAC International Relations Israel Politics World Events

Goldstone Report and Dore Gold

I first met Dore Gold, the former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations and foreign policy adviser to Bibi Netanyahu, a few years ago at a Jewish National Fund event. I was very impressed with what he had to say and how articulately he said it. Therefore, I was excited when I was invited to hear Ambassador Gold speak about the Goldstone Report this past week at a private lunch for local rabbis.

The Goldstone Report is the independent fact-finding mission created by the United Nations Human Rights Council and led by a South African jurist to investigate international human rights and humanitarian law violations related to the Gaza War. I had read several articles about the report and had seen Dore Gold debate Justice Richard Goldstone (video below), but was interested to ask him some questions about how Israel will respond to the report. Sure enough, at the luncheon arranged by AIPAC, Mr. Gold didn’t disappoint. He was able to translate the 575-page report full of legalese into easy-to-understand language. (Even he admitted that getting through the report in preparation for his debate against Justice Goldstein required much coffee and Advil.)

Ambassador Gold characterized the report as a way to de-legitimize Israel (the report says that the Israeli Defense Forces deliberately killed innocent Palestinians). He pointed out that the report doesn’t merely state that the IDF used excessive force or ignored the laws of proportionality, but that the Israeli Army intentionally targeted civilians (as part of its program). The report, he explains, attacks Israel’s very foundations. Some might be surprised that a Jewish judge (Goldstone) who has a daughter living in Israel would come to such conclusions. However, based on the history of the United Nations’ relationship with Israel over the past six decades, the report should not come as a shock.

Goldstone cites eleven cases where there was “no fog of war” and yet Israeli soldiers killed innocent Palestinians. In perhaps his best refutation of the Goldstone Report, Dore Gold points out that early in the report, Goldstone admits that it was difficult to obtain information about these questionable attacks through Palestinian testimonies because the Palestinian civilians were afraid to talk about it because they were scared of retribution. Later in the report, however, Goldstone cites individual testimony from these Palestinians as proof of the eleven cases where there was “no fog of war.”

Further, Gold points out that Hamas was using Palestinians as human shields and storing weaponry in the basements of schools during Operation Cast Lead. Contrary to what Goldstone reports, the IDF went above and beyond to warn the Palestinian civilians of impending attacks on locations where they knew weapons were being kept (leaflets were dropped and even phone call warnings were made to home and cell phones).

There will be debate among Israelis (and the world) as to how Israel should respond to the Goldstone Report. The New York Jewish Week interviewed Moshe Halbertal, co-author of the Israeli military code of ethics, who said that Israel’s refusal to conduct an independent, thorough probe of its military‚Äôs handling of last winter’s 22-day war against Hamas in Gaza as demanded by the United Nations is a “missed opportunity.”

The article stated that “Israel has said its Gaza incursion occurred in response to a nearly incessant barrage of rocket fire by Hamas terrorists in Gaza on Israeli civilians. It said the large number of Palestinian civilian casualties was because Hamas terrorists fought Israeli troops from civilian areas. Israeli media reported this week that Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi favored a limited review of the war by a committee of senior Israeli jurists. They would be permitted to question political and military leaders, as well as Israeli military officials who investigated UN allegations of war crimes, but would be barred from interviewing officers and soldiers who took part in the war.”

Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz published a lengthy rebuttal of the Goldstone Report in the January 31st Jerusalem Post online issue in which he calls the report a “study in evidentiary bias” and refers to Goldstone as an “evil, evil man” and a traitor to the Jewish people.

However the Israeli government ultimately decides to respond to the Goldstone Report, after listening to Dore Gold discuss the inherent problems and factual errors of the report, I’m glad the Israeli prime minister is consulting with him. He really seems to understand what was underlying such a one-sided UN report. Here is the video of Dore Gold responding to Justice Goldstone at the Brandeis University debate:

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |