Jews’ role in opposing racist NFL mascot


Two leading D.C.-area rabbis recently penned an article for CNN in which they called on fellow clergy to help put an end to the use of a word they called derogatory and representative of “a brutal history of genocide and torture.” Rabbis Aaron Frank and Shmuel Herzfeld were not rallying to support other members of the Jewish community, but were adding their voices to a growing chorus demanding an end to the continued use of a racial slur by Washington’s NFL football team.
The team’s “R-word” name is highly offensive to Native Americans. It conjures images of bigotry, pain, and suffering from days gone by. The Washington team was given its inglorious name by its original owner, an avowed segregationist who made sure that his team was the very last to integrate African American players.
A growing body of evidence indicates that the Washington team’s continued use of a racial slur as its name and mascot has very serious cultural and public health consequences for Native peoples.   Unfortunately, the use of this word turns what should be a unifying force in our country — sports — into a divisive one. The use of a racist epithet for any team name is objectionable, but the fact that one is being used for the franchise representing our nation’s capital city is unconscionable. Such sentiment is shared by the members of the D.C. Council, who in a remarkable rebuke, have unanimously passed a resolution condemning the name of their hometown football team.
Since the Oneida Indian Nation launched our national Change the Mascot campaign in recent months, opposition to the use of the “R-word” has reached an all-time high.
The continued use of a derogatory slur by this NFL team is a moral and a civil rights issue. We are all children of the same creator, and people of all faiths in this country are recognizing the inherent problems created by using hurtful, racist language targeting members of a minority based upon the alleged color of their skin.
Dozens of religious leaders have spoken out from the pulpit in opposition to the continued use of this slur, and 61 clergy members, mostly from the Washington area, recently sent letters to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and Washington team owner Dan Snyder calling upon them to change the name.
Not surprisingly, an increasing number of Jewish organizations and religious leaders are lending their assistance to our cause as well. I hope that the Jewish community’s support will continue to grow.
Like Native Americans, the Jewish people are a small minority that has managed to persevere in the face of intolerance, and to overcome a deeply painful history of discrimination, violence, degradation, and even mass murder. In this country, the Jewish community has a long and proud history of fighting racial and ethnic discrimination dating back even before the struggle for civil rights in which it played a leading role.
That is precisely why it meant so much when the Anti-Defamation League recently stated that “the time has come for responsible sports enterprises to seriously consider moving away from the use of hurtful and offensive names, mascots and logos.” The ADL is a venerable institution that has never been afraid to speak out against bigotry in all its forms.
Reporting on this issue by national media outlets have kept the public informed, and challenged Americans to consider the topic of Washington’s team name and the impact of its continued use.
Moving forward, I believe that strong backing from the Jewish community will buoy our cause even more. The Change the Mascot campaign has only just begun and this issue is not going away. As long as the NFL and Washington’s team persist in employing a racial slur that demeans and denigrates Native peoples, we will insist upon calling attention to this injustice and opposing it.
Our cause has attracted support from a remarkable cross-section of America. Senior members of Congress from both parties, civil rights leaders, public health organizations, Native American tribes, former NFL players, religious leaders, mayors, city council members, governors and even President Obama have spoken out against the derogatory name.
The Change the Mascot movement deeply appreciates the backing it has received thus far from the Jewish community, and looks forward to even more support moving forward. As this country’s first people we don’t deserve to be the target of a racial slur. We want to be treated as what we are: Americans.
Ray Halbritter is representative of the Oneida Indian Nation of New York and CEO of Oneida Nation Enterprises.

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