Summer 2001, Vol. 4, No. 2

Summer 2001

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Related Articles
The Minister, the Rabbi, and the Baccalaureate, Religion in the News, Summer 2001

Superceding the Jews, Religion in the News, Summer 2001

Spiritual Victimology, Religion in the News, Fall 1999

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Other articles
in this issue

From the Editor: The Minister, the Rabbi, and the Baccalaureate

Idol Threats

Purging Ourselves of Timothy McVeigh

The Pope Among the Orthodox

Faith-Based Update: Bipartisan Breakdown

The Perils of Polling

The Rael Deal.

Superceding the Jews

Evangelism in a Chilly Climate

Correspondence: Palestinians and Israelis


Jamming the Jews
by Thomas Hambrick-Stowe

It was in an April 22 New York Times Magazine story on New York Knick Marcus Camby that point guard Charlie Ward, the good citizen of the team, ignited a firestorm.

On the day the Knicks were to open their first-round playoff series against the Toronto Raptors, freelance journalist Eric Konigsberg reported that during a Bible-study in Milwaukee, Ward said, "Jews are stubborn…tell me, why did they persecute Jesus unless he knew something they didn’t want to accept…They had his blood on their hands."

Quickly taking out his Palm Pilot, shooting guard Allan Houston got Ward’s back by finding the relevant Scripture (Matthew 26:67): "Then they spit in Jesus’ face and hit him with their fists." Returned Ward, "There are Christians getting persecuted by Jews every day. There’s been books written about this—people who are raised Jewish and find Christ, then their parents stop talking to them." Concluding the Bible-study, power forward Kurt Thomas offered Konigsberg, who is Jewish, "[Y]ou know, there’s Jews for Jesus, man."

Even before the article hit the Sunday breakfast table, the stories started flying. On Saturday, the New York Times scooped itself with sportswriter Chris Broussard’s report on the (impending) controversy—the result of the Anti-Defamation Leagues’s having gotten hold of the magazine piece earlier in the week.

Broussard quoted the ADL’s prepared statement, which read in part, "We were shocked to read the comments of New York Knicks players Charlie Ward and Allan Houston….Sadly, he [Ward] doesn’t understand the impact of his comments and that they constitute anti-Semitism and religious bigotry." Ward’s response was: "I didn’t mean to offend any one group because that’s not what I’m about. I have friends that are Jewish. Actually, my friend is a Jewish guy, and his name is Jesus Christ." And then there was this, from Madison Square Garden president Dave Checketts: "The views expressed by our players in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine do not reflect the view of the New York Knicks or Madison Square Garden….We find their comments as quoted objectionable."

The same day, the AP news wire quoted the Congress’s executive director Phil Baum saying, "The comments by Charlie Ward…reflect extreme ignorance of Judaism and the Jewish people. Ward and Houston should stick to basketball, and leave theology to those who know at least something about it."

In its own April 21 article, Newsday quoted Ward as saying, "[Konigsberg] took it out of context and I didn’t mean to offend any one group because that’s not what I’m about." To that, ADL executive Abraham Foxman responded, "[I]n an attempt to clarify his comments, it is clear that Mr. Ward just doesn’t get it…This incident underscores the need for much more work to be done in interfaith dialogue to achieve greater understanding, tolerance, and respect."

Sports writers and columnists followed the pattern, quoting in turn Ward, the ADL or the Congress, and then either Checketts or NBA Commissioner David Stern. The harshest words came from the columnists’.

"Mazel tov, Charlie Ward, you’ve just become the poster boy for dumb, insensitive jocks," wrote the Daily News’ Vic Ziegel April 22. "I thought I knew who you were—a winning college quarterback, a mediocre point guard—but it seems there’s one more thing to know, Charlie. You turn out to be a classic anti-Semite." Ziegel went on to declare that listening to Ward "on this subject is like reading an editorial in an Alabama paper 150 years ago on the merits of slavery."

In his April 24 column, the Times’ Ira Berkow turned to Dr. Marcel Tuchman, an Auschwitz survivor, who said, "Anything expressed in those terms are not only terribly offensive, they are menacing. They are terms of hatred and bigotry. They are terms that have been used for centuries to instigate pogroms and massacres…they should always be taken seriously, and denounced."

To be sure, there were columnists, including several Jewish ones, who took a less combative approach. In his April 22 column in the Hartford Courant, Jeff Goldberg described standing outside the Knicks’ practice facility and offering Ward his hand. "I told him that I am Jewish and said I was not offended by his words because as far as I know from interacting with him over the past 15 months, he does not have any hate in his heart." He just has "Jesus on his cap and his foot in his mouth."

The turning point came April 23. The American Jewish Congress petitioned the State of Florida to remove Ward as its spokesman for the "Born to Read" program. Commissioner Stern released a statement saying, "Ward would have been better off not to have uttered his uninformed and ill-founded statements."

And Ward bit the bullet. In a statement released by the Knicks, he said: "I want to truly apologize to everyone who was offended by the New York Times Magazine story. I will say again that I would never criticize and group or religion." He also agreed to meet with Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews to learn more about Judaism.

On April 24, the ADL and the Congress professed satisfaction that Ward would get the education he needed. "Ward Apology Applauded," announced the New York Post April 25.

In the aftermath, columnists began to give Ward the benefit of the doubt.

The ADL and the Congress "had good cause to bellow," wrote Washington Post editorial columnist Richard Cohen April 26. But Ward was no anti-Semite, just "a sincerely religious man who is nearly terminally naïve." New York Post sports columnist Marc Berman wrote, "Just as Ward does not have a firm grasp of the big picture, those who immediately assume he is anti-Semitic also don’t have a grasp either."

Taking similar aim at what he called the "anti-Semitic police," freelance writer Josh Ozersky, in an April 30 Newday column, testified, "As a Jew, I was neither offended nor threatened when I read Erik Konigsberg’s article….Language such as Ward used naturally gives Jewish people the willies, conjuring as it does historical memories of pogroms and massacres…But how many Jews can say that they really understand evangelical Christians?

"Just Pay ‘Em No Mind: Stupidity Isn’t A Crime," went the head on Boston Globe sports columnist Bob Ryan’s April 27 column. Ward, wrote Baltimore Sun columnist Gregory Zane May 9, "blew the needle off the Idiots’ Richter Scale."

Perhaps the most balanced reaction came from the Knicks fans themselves. On April 22, the Madison Square Garden crowd, Jew and Gentile alike, greeted Ward with a Bronx cheer. Then they settled down to rooting him and his teammates on to victory. The Knicks, however, lost the series 3-2.

Related Articles:

The Minister, the Rabbi, and the Baccalaureate, Religion in the News, Summer 2001

Superceding the Jews, Religion in the News, Summer 2001

Spiritual Victimology, Religion in the News, Fall 1999


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