College Athletics Must Do Its Part To Combat Antisemitism

By Jason Belzer

On October 7, rather than waking up to happy birthday messages from loved ones, I instead received a flurry of texts and calls about the developing situation in Israel, learning that my cousin’s car had been blown up by a rocket and that my family was hunkered in their bomb shelters and safe rooms as terrorists wreaked havoc on their neighborhoods. In the coming hours and days, I like everyone else would learn about the horrific atrocities committed by Hamas against innocent civilians. Communities that my family lived in and that I had visited many times, devastated by genocidal extremists.

While I consider myself to have tough skin, it has been especially painful to have observed the increasingly shocking views that have been expressed by many professionals that I know within college athletics and the greater sports industry. Whether on X or LinkedIn, my timelines are full of declarations claiming that Israel was at fault for what happened, that its retaliation against Hamas unjust, and that it is in fact the Jews that are committing the atrocities.

Many know that I have long been one of the most vocal advocates of minorities in the industry. That I have warned against the dangers of bias that guide every one of our decisions. But the irony of the last month has been that one of the smallest minority groups in both our country and the world has somehow been turned into the oppressor. There are just 14.7 million Jews in this world compared to more than 2 billion Muslims and 2.4 billion Christians. Jews make up less than 2% of the US population – for comparison, some 40% of the US population considers themselves a person of color – and yet the disproportionate amount of rhetoric around the current events in Israel and Gaza has been anti-Jew.

In college sports, an industry that employs more than 50,000 professionals, those that identify as Jewish number only a few hundred. Yet countless individuals have either chosen to stay silent, refused to condemn the actions of the terrorists that have wrecked pain and destruction on the citizens of Palestinian and those of Israel for years, or in some instances outright sided with them. It is difficult to understand how an industry that has set an example for diversity, equity and inclusion, has so quickly shown nothing but silence to the co-workers and student-athletes within their campus communities that now fear for their own safety.

I am not naïve to realize that silence of many of those in our industry is a symptom of a larger refusal by their own university administration to denounce the attacks on Hamas and stop the vitriolic and hateful speech that has suddenly been directed towards their campus’ smallest minority group. But as Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel once said, “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim… Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” Perhaps it is bias, or just a symptom of the massive bureaucracy that has taken over higher education, but we as leaders of the “front porch” of our institutions cannot simply refuse to protect the very individuals that we committed ourselves to serving.

Many in the media have used the analogy that the slaughter of more than a thousand innocent men, women and children by Hamas is Israel’s “9/11”. I agree that comparison is appropriate, as the feelings of terror and dread that my family have felt over the last several weeks are comparable only to those that we had when we nearly lost my father on September 11. But what few remember is the significance of October 7, 2001, when the United States invaded Afghanistan in order to root out and destroy Al-Qaeda, Osama Bin Laden, and the terrorists that killed thousands of Americans. No one in the media or of influence criticized the US for invading another country so they could to eliminate these individuals, no one accused them of committing genocide against the Taliban. It was their sovereign right to protect their citizens against a grave threat, and the sports world rallied around our soldiers in their fight against evil. Does Israel not deserve that same right, to do what it must to ensure the safety of all its citizens – both Jewish and Muslim?

To be clear, there is no Jew in the world that wants to see any more bloodshed. My heart aches to see the unfathomable pain and suffering of the Palestinians as their own leadership uses them as human shields against the Israelis. But we have also seen this very story play itself out again and again throughout history. Much like the Jewish people making up a tiny fraction of the world’s population, the state of Israel is 70x times smaller than the rest of the Arab world, and yet for more than three quarters of a century, the country has been attacked from all sides (and from within) by its enemies. Not now, nor ever before, has Israel been the initiator of a conflict with its neighbors. The Holocaust occurred more than 80 years ago, and few remain alive in this country that remember the horrors that occurred, but us Jews do not forget.

On October 7, 2016, I had the privilege of celebrating my birthday at the Vatican in Italy. In my role as Director of the Jewish Coaches Association, I had been invited there alongside Val Ackerman and Mark Emmert as a delegate representing college athletics at Pope Francis’ Sports at the Service of Humanity. During the conference, leaders from every corner of world discussed how we could use sports and religion together to make our planet a better, more peaceful place. We heard the opinions of commissioners, team owners and media executives. We listened to the teachings of Christian priests, Jewish rabbis and Muslim imams. And of course, the Pontiff himself gave us his perspective on the power those in the room had to actually make a real difference in our local and global communities.

And when all was said and done, those present came together and decided that for all the different opinions and views in the room, we could all still make one promise. That so long as we held a position of influence, we would commit to upholding the moral ideals of compassion, respect and love to all that we could reach.

As I write this very essay, my nephew stands at the border of Israel and Gaza alongside his fellow IDF soldiers awaiting his orders and his fate. We do not know if we will ever see him alive again, or if in a week’s time a video of him riddled with bullets will appear on Hamas’ social media. Neither I, nor any Jew, seeks our colleagues’ thoughts and prayers. We do not seek for you take arms up against those that threaten our way of life. We simply ask that you not standby and remain silent against the hate and anger that the world has directed towards a people who for millennia have sought nothing more than to live their lives in peace.