The men’s basketball team from Alabama’s Auburn University is in Israel – and occupied Palestinian territory – from 31 July to 10 August for a series of exhibition games and to see local historical sites.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations called on the team to cancel the “Birthright for College Basketball” tour or, “failing that, to at least meet with ordinary Palestinians and learn about Israel’s system of apartheid without the presence of Israeli handlers.”
Auburn’s basketball coach, Bruce Pearl, organized the trip. He was dismissive of CAIR’s concerns in a recent interview.
Pearl has been outspoken in support of Israel throughout his career and had even planned as a young man to join Israel’s occupation army, the website Sports Rabbi has reported.
“I had every intention in 1982 to go to Israel and live there long enough to join the army and do service,” he has said. “But I didn’t do it because I had other job offers and basketball offers that got in the way.”
Pearl displays the virulence of his anti-Palestinian racism by objecting to their right of return to homes and lands Israel expelled them from during the 1948 Nakba, the catastrophic ethnic cleansing that resulted in some 800,000 Palestinian refugees at the time.In the numerous articles I’ve seen on the trip with quotes from Pearl, I have not seen him mention Israeli apartheid once, though Palestinian, Israeli and international human rights organizations have addressed the subject in recent years.
He appears to be more intent on empty religious propagandizing of his players, devoid of any modern-day semblance of social justice and discussion of what Palestinian Muslims and Christians face.
“My players are going to see their Judeo-Christian roots, and for those who want to get baptized in the river Jordan, they will. They’ll walk in the garden where Jesus walked and they’ll pray at the Western Wall. And they’ll experience firsthand God’s presence in the Holy Land. Just come and see it, you’ll be changed forever.”
Pearl hopes that other college teams will play in Israel in future.
He intends to meet with the coach of the Palestinian national team during his time there.
Overlooking the discriminatory reality, Pearl is keen to normalize apartheid Israel and the status quo faced by Palestinians.
“We want, if at all possible, that to be normal – a Jewish basketball coach from Auburn taking his team over to Israel, having lunch with the Palestinian national basketball coach,” Pearl has said.
Pearl added, “I don’t know how it’s gonna work out, but I hope it’s just wonderful, and normal, and something that people can look at and go ‘okay, this is possible.’”
The religious aspect of the trip and Pearl’s appreciation for those squarely on the conservative – and Trumpist – right is clear.Pearl has been quoted by a blogger with The Times of Israel as saying “I am very close to the Evangelical Christian community” in Alabama. “And I thank God for their support of the state of Israel. I’m so glad they read their Bibles because it’s all right there.”
Yet he has also said, according to local media in Alabama: “This is a sports trip, not a political trip. We aren’t going to let a political action group define what we’re doing.”Pearl added to the blogger, who is keen to change the campus narrative about apartheid Israel, “About 90-95 percent of the student athletes and coaches I coach with and the families I work with are African American. The Jewish community and the Black community share so much in common as it relates to slavery and profiling and the struggle to overcome those obstacles. Israel and the Jewish people are a great example of overcoming obstacles and surviving and succeeding.”
But this intentionally obscures Israel’s promotion of apartheid and strong Black rejection of such discrimination from South Africa to the American South. He clearly wants his players to walk away from the fight against apartheid and become complicit in Israel’s practice of it.
In this format, hosting a basketball clinic for Israeli and Palestinian children – as Pearl plans to do – serves simply to cover up the reality that those children live with a different set of rights.
Pearl ignores the fact that peace and Palestinian freedom cannot be established on a foundation of apartheid any more than justice could be formed on the Jim Crow reality at Auburn University in the southern state of Alabama in the 1950s.
So far in his interviews, Pearl hasn’t even broached the subject that Palestinians live under occupation and without freedom, nor has he noted majority support among Israeli Jews for segregation.
This isn’t education for Auburn’s basketball players. It’s propaganda.