I do something odd when a famous person passes away. I search Google for their name and “Israel” or “Jew.” Most of the time my search yields no meaningful results. Most people don’t consider Jews or Israel priorities so they rarely talk about them. Given that most people aren’t anti-Semitic, and for those that are, the possible blow ups that can result from anti-Israel and anti-Semitic comments make it inadvisable to say anything negative about Israel or Jews.
Imagine my surprise this week upon hearing of Muhammad Ali’s passing and finding the horrible statements that he had made about Jews and Israel. I was astonished at the visceral hatred that I read. It was hard to believe that someone who led such a public life and was adored by so many could be filled with baseless hatred. Ali wasn’t known for his intellect, but surely someone along the way could’ve informed him of the error in his judgement. Ali was a declared anti-Semite and in addition to that was anti-Israel. He hoped that the Jewish State would disappear and be replaced by a Palestinian one.
In the days following Ali’s death, a number of my past and present students lauded Ali’s accomplishments in the ring. He was the greatest fighter and an incredible entertainer. When I brought up his history of anti-Semitism and hatred of the State of Israel my students objected. They felt that Jews should compartmentalize the different aspects of public people. They argued that we can enjoy their public persona and reject their personal opinions.
I countered that as Jews we can’t cheer, support and put on a pedestal, even if it’s just the pedestal that our entertainment system rests on, anyone who advocates our demise. We countered each other’s arguments for a day or two, but then I found something remarkable. Towards the latter part of his life, Ali repented and took a more favorable approach to Jews. Gone was Ali’s vindictiveness and hopes that the Jewish state would disappear. No longer did he make hateful comments about Jews.
My students and I examined the notion of the anti-Semitic repentant. Does such a thing exist? Could we trust a hateful gentile who changed his mind and professed love towards the Jews? Is there a difference between the individual and a group of people? From the Bible’s Avimelech, who repented and returned Sarah, to Arafat’s supposed Oslo fueled repentance from terror, how much can we trust a Gentile’s change of heart? We didn’t reach any conclusions, and I’m not sure we need to, but I drew a much more important lesson from Muhammad Ali’s rocky relationship with the Jewish people.
In his youth Ali chose to hate. For whatever reason, he threw his hat in the ring of anti-Semitism. His statements from those days are ugly, hurtful and dangerous. Hate isn’t an emotion like any other. The Torah forbids hate, offering options, rebuke and forgiveness that are mitzvot themselves to avoid hate and extricate yourself from its ugly grasp. One can object to another without hating them. They can express their disagreement in a refined manner, not allowing their argument to become personal. Hate is the transformation of objection to personal animosity. It is an unhealthy and regrettable decision.
Due to Ali’s fame his hateful speeches didn’t fade away forever to be forgotten and replaced with new statements. On the internet nothing relevant disappears, and in today’s fame starved culture, every celebrity’s statement is forever relevant. Regret and change of heart, even repentance, doesn’t erase the web page that carries the hate filled quotes said in one’s youth.
Ali regretted his hate; he turned a corner and changed his ways. Yet, because of the combination of fame and his hateful comments of early days, his hate lives eternally. There are thousands of statements that Mohammed Ali made in his lifetime that have long been deleted, but among those that will never be forgotten are his anti-Semitic statements. The lesson I draw from Mohammed Ali is that if you are going to choose to hate, be sure of your choice, for your hate will not be forgotten. A more refined approach is to disagree with respect, not allowing our disagreements, no matter how strong, to become personal.