Kyrie Irving’s Links to Antisemitism Horrify His Many Jewish Fans

In New York City, the second-largest Jewish population center in the world, Nets fans are appalled and frightened.

Jordana Levine and her family of longtime Nets fans were captivated at a game on Saturday night, as guard Kyrie Irving scored basket after basket on an explosive night.

Ms. Levine turned to her 9-year-old daughter. “Boy, is he a really good player. But he really is a terrible human being,” she recalled saying of the star, who days earlier had posted a tweet linking to an antisemitic documentary that claims the Holocaust never happened.

Four years into his tenure on the team, Mr. Irving has become a high-powered magnet for controversy, making basketball fans in this liberal bastion squirm. He has, for instance, refused to get a Covid-19 vaccine, and once suggested that the Earth might be flat, though he later apologized.

But now he has prompted another level of shock and disappointment because of the unique backdrop of his team’s home turf: Brooklyn and the other four boroughs of New York City together hold the world’s largest Jewish population outside of Israel.

Mr. Irving was indefinitely suspended, a move intended to assuage fans. But the tweet — and the perception by some that the team was slow to react — has left New York City residents angry and shaken.

Jewish Nets fans across New York have wrestled with many emotions during the last week. Many said they viewed Mr. Irving’s behavior as abhorrent. But a number said their love for the team was not linked to any one player, and extended beyond the guard’s time in Brooklyn. After the team announced the star’s suspension, some fans said they still planned to attend Nets games, noting that many professional athletes had been accused of wrongdoing in their personal lives.

A number of fans attended the game wearing blue T-shirts that said “Fight antisemitism.” Others were unsure whether they could continue to support the team, whether or not Mr. Irving returns.

Ms. Levine, 41, whose grandparents survived the Holocaust, said she was appalled. Ms. Levine brought her family to the game this week because they had season tickets, but also because she felt it was an opportunity to educate her two children about the realities of being Jewish in the United States.

Antisemitism in America

Antisemitism is one of the longest-standing forms of prejudice, and those who monitor it say it is now on the rise across the country.

“You see more yarmulkes at Nets games than you will see at any other stadium,” said Joel Wertheimer, 39, who has lived in Brooklyn since the late 2000s.

For Mr. Wertheimer, the Nets were already a tough team to back — with their collection of polarizingplayers, including Mr. Irving, and recent internal strife. Still, he said, he has long been “used to not liking the views of the athletes that I root for.”

For most of Mr. Wertheimer’s life, antisemitism did not worry him. But amid a broader rise in episodes in the region and across the nation in recent years — from street harassment and assaults to vandalism at synagogues — Mr. Irving’s social media posts felt more disheartening.

“With growing right-wing antisemitism in particular, there’s just something that has felt particularly scary about it,” he said. “And so to have a prominent athlete on the team that I root for promote one of the most dangerous ideas of it, it just sucked.”

Mr. Irving, who was drafted in 2011 by the Cleveland Cavaliers and signed with the Nets in free agency in 2019, has long been seen as one of the league’s more mercurial characters. Years ago, he had to apologize to science teachers for questioning whether the Earth was actually round.

Before last season, the guard declined to be vaccinated against the coronavirus, and played in just 29 of 82 regular-season games, missing many because of a New York City mandate requiring the vaccination of all private sector employees in the city that made him ineligible to compete at Barclays Center.

But many fans said that his prowess as one of the league’s most talented guards eclipsed his off-the-court controversies: When he played his first home game in March after more than nine months away, the crowd broke a turnout record for a Nets game, and Mr. Irving received the loudest cheers when starting lineups were announced.

But patience for his behavior has faltered this week, after his comments and what many fans saw as a slow and halfhearted attempt to walk them back. After facing backlash for posting the link to the 2018 documentary “Hebrews to Negroes: Wake Up Black America,” which espouses several antisemitic tropes, Mr. Irving said in a statement six days later, “I am aware of the negative impact of my post towards the Jewish community and I take responsibility.”

But he did not directly apologize, disappointing many fans. The feeling intensified the following day, as he was questioned by reporters for six minutes after a Nets practice and asked to respond “yes” or “no” to whether he had any antisemitic beliefs. Mr. Irving said that he respected all walks of life, adding “I cannot be antisemitic if I know where I come from.”

Jeffrey S. Gurock, a professor of Jewish history and a former assistant basketball coach at Yeshiva University, said the incident had been especially upsetting because basketball was historically more acceptingof Jews than other sports. Mr. Irving’s comments represented “a bit of an invasion in what is a safe space for Jews in American culture,” he said.

On social media, many of Mr. Irving’s supporters have argued that the intense backlash against him and other Black celebrities who have made antisemitic comments recently is itself racist. “There’s this idea: Why are they ganging up on him?” said Maayan Zik, a Black Jewish organizer. “That, when there’s racism, no one speaks up like this.”

But Ms. Zik, 38, who focuses on racial equity within Brooklyn’s Orthodox communities, said that “it comes back to education.” For example, many people do not recognize antisemitism as well as they do signs of racism, she said.

Both antisemitic and racist incidents have been on the rise and an increasing part of political discourse in the last several months, adding to many fans’ concerns about Mr. Irving’s comments.

For some supporters of the team who have long given Mr. Irving the benefit of the doubt, the team’s and Mr. Irving’s efforts to respond this week have fallen short.

Hours after Mr. Irving’s comments at Thursday’s practice, the Nets took a position that offered a measure of relief to some Jewish fans: He would be suspended for a minimum of five games, and was called “unfit to be associated” with the team.

In a post on Instagram later that night, Mr. Irving offered an apology: “To All Jewish families and Communities that are hurt and affected from my post, I am deeply sorry to have caused you pain, and I apologize,” he wrote, adding that he “had no intentions to disrespect any Jewish cultural history regarding the Holocaust.”

“It’s an improvement,” said Ben Berke, 32, a longtime fan who lives in Astoria, Queens. “But I don’t want him on the team anymore.”

Derek Albin, 32, said that in the lead-up to Mr. Irving’s suspension, he grew increasingly disillusioned.

He was raised in New Jersey, where the team was based for 35 years, and has stuck with them since childhood, even during the seasons when they struggled to win more than 20 games. When he was in grade school, Mr. Albin often tagged along to Nets games with his best friend, whose father held season tickets. He has defended Mr. Irving in the past, assuming “he more or less meant well.”

“This year, it’s just been too much. This sealed the deal for me,” said Mr. Albin, who recalled having swastikas drawn on the door of his college dorm room. “It just brought all the memories back.”

At least for now, Mr. Albin no longer plans to watch games.

“Even if they turn it around and become contenders again, I’m not going to have that same feeling,” he said. “I’m just going to try to walk away — I can’t root for them right now.”

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