NBA

Visiting Israel, NBA star Enes Kanter Freedom says he’s ‘more motivated than ever’ to fight anti-Semitism

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Turkish NBA star and human rights activist Enes Kanter Freedom received a warm welcome to Israel over the weekend, visiting national and holy sites in Jerusalem, as well as hanging out in the city’s hippest spot , Mahane Yehuda, and launching his long-held dream – of a basketball camp for Muslim, Jewish and Christian children in the capital.

“It’s hard to put into words how I feel about being here,” said Freedom, who is a practicing Muslim. Jewish insider in an interview on Sunday after spending the morning praying at Al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third holiest site.

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“It’s the holiest place I know,” continued Freedom, who visited the Western Wall and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the place where Christians believe Jesus was buried, on Friday. Freedom said the visits to each holy site were deeply moving and spiritual experiences.

“Everywhere we went people were so warm and friendly to me,” added the 6ft 10in center, who happily posed for selfies with everyone who asked and shared clips on the social networks of each religious site calling on people of different faiths to unite and open up to each other.

Freedom, 30, who played for five NBA teams – Utah Jazz, Oklahoma City Thunder, New York Knicks, Portland Trailblazers and Boston Celtics – during an 11-year career, made international headlines for loudly criticizing governments, including China and Turkey, for their allegations of human rights abuses. He has also worked in the United States to educate the Muslim community about the Holocaust and speaks frequently for Israel.

Freedom was dropped from the Houston Rockets earlier this year, after a series of actions criticizing China for its systematic mistreatment of the Uyghur Muslim population, including an ad in which Freedom called the Beijing Olympics a “Genocide Games”. “.

“I have to keep speaking out,” said Freedom, which argues the NBA is hypocritical for continuing business dealings with the Chinese government. “The NBA basically fired me in February and none of the teams had the guts to call me out – it shows how committed they are.”

“They [the NBA] pushes me but I can’t keep dribbling a basketball while millions of Uyghurs are being murdered,” he told JI, adding that while he still feels too young to retire from the game, he is also very committed to these issues. that he will never stop speaking against them.

Raised in Turkey, Freedom moved to the United States in 2009, officially becoming a US citizen last November. To celebrate, he added “Freedom” to his legal name, saying at the time, “America has taught me so much. People here should feel blessed. You have freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of expression, freedom of the press.

Affiliated with the Gulen movement, led by Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom the Turkish government accuses of orchestrating a failed coup in 2016, Freedom has also been a relentless critic of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government, using its renowned for raising awareness of human rights. abuse in his former country.

His outspokenness, however, turned him into a persona non grata in Turkey and in 2017 the Turkish government revoked his citizenship. Over the years, he has watched from afar his family members still in Turkey losing their jobs, being arrested and charged with terrorism. Freedom has not returned to Turkey for many years and its matches are not broadcast in the country.

During her trip to Israel, her first to the Jewish state, Freedom visited Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center. He told JI that this experience made him more motivated to speak out against anti-Semitism and to work harder to help his fellow Muslims better understand Jews and Israel.

“I’ve always known about the Holocaust and the six million people who were murdered, but I didn’t know it was so deep and now I’m more motivated than ever to fight anti-Semitism,” did he declare.

“As a kid growing up in Turkey, there was so much anti-Semitism,” Freedom recalls, describing how as a child he saw friends in his neighborhood burning American and Israeli flags. “My mom always told me not to hate anyone until I met them and I promised her I would – and I’m so glad I listened to my mom.”

It was this rejection of hate that inspired Freedom to launch its basketball camp in Israel last week. Taking place at the YMCA in Jerusalem, the two-week program aims to bring Muslim, Jewish and Christian children together to not only work on their basketball skills, but also to learn faith-based values ​​and life skills.

“It was amazing,” said Freedom, describing how his vision for peace was reinforced on Sunday when, during a five-on-five friendly match, he saw one of the Israeli children hitting a Palestinian player after he make a basket.

“I believe we can use basketball to promote tolerance, respect and coexistence and by bringing children together on a basketball court, I know we can show them the importance of mutual respect,” he said. underline.

The camp – which is funded by US nonprofit Bnai Zion, Athletes For Israel, a nonprofit that fights anti-Semitism, and Together Vouch for Each Other US, which was started by a group of young Israeli Arabs determined to bring about change in their community – is led on the court by the American-Israeli former professional basketball player Tamir Goodman.

Rabbi Ari Lamm, general manager of Bnai Zion, who accompanied Freedom on his trip, told JI that “pop culture in general is the great equalizer.”

“I don’t care what your background is, we can all appreciate that Kendrick Lamar is amazing, or that Lionel Messi is awesome, but what makes sports like basketball special is that it’s the kind of thing where you can only win if you come together and build something bigger than yourself,” he said. “In basketball, Michael Jordan is the greatest of all time, but he’s nothing without a great team, and that’s the message we want to help Enes deliver to children from all walks of life in this country.”

Freedom told JI that the summer program was just the beginning of what he hoped to do. He said he dreams of making it a permanent year-long fixture in Jerusalem, expanding the program to other cities in Israel and even including participants from all over the Middle East – an “Abraham Athletes Agreement,” he joked, “So I’ll get to come back here every year.

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