Raptors dispute BDS claims over cancelled Israel trip

Kawhi Leonard shooting a free throw at Game 2 of the 2019 NBA Finals (Wikimedia Commons photo - Chensiyuan - https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en)

Last spring, during the Toronto Raptors championship run, team co-owner Larry Tanenbaum said he would take the team to Israel if they won the NBA championship.

The Raptors, of course, did win the NBA title, but the trip to Israel never materialized. Now, the Canadian BDS Coalition is claiming that its efforts played a significant role in preventing the Raptors from visiting the Holy Land.

The front page of its website displays the headline, #RaptorsDontGo Campaign Has Been Successful, and claims that its BDS campaign worked.

But, according to Tanenbaum, the anti-Israel activism of the pro-BDS group had nothing to do with the team’s decision to forgo a trip to Israel in 2019. Rather, it was more mundane considerations that scuttled the proposed trip.

“Following our NBA championship win, as an organization, our intention was to take the Raptors to Israel, but as you can imagine, managing a group of championship basketball players with increasingly demanding schedules, as well as having many of our players and coaches participating in the FIBA World Cup in China during August, made it simply impossible to find dates that worked for the whole team in this shortened off-season,” Tanenbaum wrote in an email to The CJN.

“I find it curious that anti-Israel activists, about whom I have little knowledge, are taking credit for our scheduling challenges. I think legitimate questions can be raised about the intentions of a group that is attempting to sow division through sport. It seems to me that sport should be used as a vehicle to bring people together. Look at the Raptors. Our approach to diversity, in part, won us a championship.”

The Canadian BDS Coalition, for its part, credited its #RaptorsDontGo campaign with pressuring the team’s ownership – which includes BCE, Rogers Communications, along with Tanenbaum’s Kilmer Sports – into cancelling the trip.

“Our campaign was launched in June 2019 (and) seemed to strike a chord with many people, both in Canada and globally. Although the Israeli lobby has engaged in other sportswashing events, this particular attempt struck many as an incredibly blatant and crude exploitation of a popular victory for an overt political agenda.”

The BDS group claimed its petition against the trip garnered more than 6,500 signatures, while a petition organized in the United States by Code Pink attracted another 2,700 supporters.

“Why exactly the Raptors team never went on the ‘promised trip’ may have been the result of several factors, not the least of which was the quick and overwhelmingly negative response by so many basketball fans,” the BDS group stated.

“The Canadian BDS Coalition is grateful that this visit did not materialize, as it would have given legitimacy to Israel’s war crimes.”

Galit Baram, Israel’s consul general for Toronto and Western Canada, criticized the campaign, saying that, “This is not the first time the BDS movement has framed issues in a selective manner to suit its anti-Israel political agenda. Sports are a unifying element in society, which celebrates human possibility and should not be abused to achieve political ends.”

Tanenbaum noted that “Israelis love basketball and the NBA is very proud of its connection to Israel. In 2017, we brought the Basketball Without Borders program to Israel to great success. We were also delighted when, last year, the NBA partnered with the Sylvan Adams Sports Center at the Jerusalem YMCA to create the first Junior NBA Basketball League, a league that regularly brings Jewish and Arab youth together through the great game of basketball.”

The Raptors would not have been the first championship team to tour the Holy Land. Last June, Robert Kraft, owner of the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots, took eight current and seven former players to Israel.

A previous trip to Israel sponsored by Kraft included running back Jim Brown, linebacker Mike Singletary, quarterbacks Joe Montana and Roger Staubach, and defensive backs Aeneas Williams and Lem Barney.