Former NBA Center Talks About Fighting Antisemitism

Former Celtic and Trail Blazer star Enes Kanter Freedom explains why he decided to speak out against antisemitism and speak up for civil rights.
December 20, 2023
Enes Kanter Freedom (Photo by Julia Nikhinson/Getty Images)

Collect your millions of dollars and keep quiet. That’s what many famous people are advised as there can be a price for speaking out about issues. Enes Kanter Freedom, a center who played in the NBA for 13 seasons, said it was important to speak about the dangers of antisemitism and the plight of the Uyghur Muslims in China because he thought it was the right thing to do.

The Turkish native told the Journal “If you’re a politician and wanted to be elected again, the first thing you do is attack America and attack Israel. The base is so uneducated. People are like, ‘wow look at our leader. He’s standing tall against America. He’s standing tall against Israel. Let’s vote for him.’”

He said when he was a child, his friends would burn American and Israeli flags.

“I asked them what they were doing,” he recalled. “They said ‘we should hate America. We should hate Israel. We should hate Jews. They gave me an American flag and a lighter, then said ‘burn it.’”

He ran upstairs and told his mother, who said not to hate anyone unless you meet them and they do something terrible.

Freedom, who appeared at StandWithUs’ Festival of Lights gals on December 17th, said that when he first came to America, he was on the phone with a woman. When she told him he was Jewish, he hung up the phone in fear. He called her back, and she invited him for a Shabbat dinner. He went, but called a Turkish friend before going and said if he didn’t hear from him in the next two hours, he should call the police.

“It was one of the greatest nights,” he said, adding that the family gave him grape juice instead of wine, knowing that as a Muslim, he would not drink alcohol, which is forbidden. “I realized this is not what I was taught growing up in Turkey, so I have to change that.”

Freedom said he was the first athlete and likely the first celebrity to condemn Hamas and speak out about the horrific attack of October 7. He said there was a lot of backlash for his stance.

“I know my religion better than anyone,” Freedom said. “In our religion, it says killing someone is equal to killing humanity. I said what Hamas did on October 7 is not for Islam.”

His stands have affected his family. After speaking out against the civil rights abuses of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, his father was arrested, a warrant for his arrest was issued in Turkey and a bounty was placed on his head.

Freedom warned that Erdogan would “backstab” Israel — Erdogan met with Israeli prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in September but was the first leader to publicly say that Hamas was not a terrorist organization; he also called Netanyahu a terrorist.

“This is a NATO ally,” Freedom said. “I don’t understand how some in the Israeli government were meeting with him. He raises money for Hamas and Hezbollah. He gives terrorists a Turkish passport. You can’t trust him. Seventy-two days before Oct. 7, he met with a Hamas leader in his house and there is a picture of it.”

Muslim leaders urged him to protest against Israel in a manner he said would achieve nothing.

“Me going in front of a kosher restaurant and putting a Palestinian flag there will not end the war or the conflict,” he said, adding that while many are calling for a ceasefire to end the fighting, a solution is “tricky, because if Hamas is left in power they  can attempt another attack.”

Freedom said he prays for the safety of the hostages taken by Hamas, for Israelis and Palestinians and all innocent people who are suffering. He worries about rising antisemitism and thinks it is important for him to speak out against it in an effort to prevent violence. He is also concerned about Islamophobia, and works against that as well. He said leaders who promote peace are needed and he will defend anyone who is oppressed.

Freedom said speaking out against China’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims cost him millions of dollars and his career. While a member of the Boston Celtics, in October 2021, he railed against the torture of Uyghurs, posted that the genocide should be stopped.

Freedom said numerous NBA players have privately told him they support the fact that he has stood up for justice, “but they can’t say things in public because a lot of money is on the line.”

Freedom, who averaged 11.2 points and 7.8 rebounds over his career, is hoping to open a school/basketball camp in either Los Angeles or New Jersey that will include Palestinian, Israeli, Muslim, Jewish and Christian youths of all races and he will take them to Israel, the United Arab Emirates and other countries. Last year, he went to Israel and organized a basketball camp for Israelis and Palestinians. Rabbi Erez Sherman of Sinai Temple helped run a basketball clinic with Freedom and Ryan Turell for youths of all faiths, and had Freedom as a guest on his podcast that combines faith and sports called “Rabbi On The Sidelines.”

Ryan Turrell with Rabbi Erez Sherman and Enes Kanter Freedom

“Using basketball to bring people together is not new to Enes Freedom,” Sherman said.” That is what he started years ago, and this formula is necessary. Coming together must begin with our youth, and the court is a gathering space that strips away differences and bring out the good in humanity. Especially now in the most difficult times, his work is ever more crucial.”

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