NBA star Enes Kanter Freedom brings Holocaust education to an Islamic school in Brooklyn

New York Jewish Week – At Brooklyn Amity School, a private, Muslim-majority school in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, high school students participate in a new Holocaust education initiative with an unexpected ambassador: the NBA Center and free agent Enes Kanter Freedom.

Kanter Freedom, who is Muslim, grew up in Turkey and played for five different NBA teams between 2011 and 2022. Over the past two years, he has become vocal about human rights abuses in Turkey and other parts of the world, including China, which the State Department has described The United States treats Uyghur Muslims as genocide.

The Holocaust Awareness Program taught at Amity is covered by The Blue Card, a non-profit organization that helps Holocaust survivors, and the Turkish Cultural Center in New York. The curriculum was created by Mahnaz Afridi, a professor at Manhattan College who directs the Center for Holocaust Education, Genocide and Interfaith Dialogue.

Afridi, a Muslim, teaches students about the Holocaust, ranging from the roots of anti-Semitism in Europe to the horrors of death camps to modern-day parallels, including Islamophobia.

Unfortunately, there is very little education [about] Afridi told New York Jewish Week. “Our students’ memory is only from Israel and Palestine. I really wanted to change that, to show that Jews and Muslims are very much the same.”

Suleyman Aydogan, a board member of the Turkish Cultural Center in New York, said he had noticed anti-Semitism by Muslim citizens and immigrants who came to the United States from Pakistan, Afghanistan and other Muslim countries.

“Some Muslim students in Europe refuse even to teach about the Holocaust,” Aydogan said at Jewish Week in New York. “If there were stereotypes, I felt it was my responsibility to do something and take action.”

Aydogan said he and the TCC teamed up with the Blue Card to “create a team” of experts, rabbis and imams to arrange the curriculum. Then Aydogan told Kanter’s friend Freedom about the blue card and the programme.

“He immediately liked it,” Aydogan said.

Born in Switzerland and raised in Turkey, Kanter Freedom, 30, has allied himself with Turkish dissident Fethullah Gulen, a dissident who has been highly critical of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Brooklyn Amity School is one of more than 100 Gülen-aligned private schools funded by his followers.

Turkish Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen at his home in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania, September 24, 2013 (AP Photo/Selahattin Sevi, File)

Kanter Freedom, now a free agent, used his NBA platform to speak out against Erdogan, which led to the Turkish government issuing an arrest warrant for him in 2017. He is now unable to return to his country or even contact his family and friends there for fear they might be arrested or harm by the government.

In an interview, he spoke to New York Jewish Week about the Holocaust, his relationship with American politicians and of course the NBA.

This interview has been slightly edited and condensed.

New York Jewish Week: Why is it so important for you to attend Holocaust education at this high school?

Freedom Anas Canter: When I was 8 or 9 years old, I went out to play with my friends and they were burning Israeli flags. They told me, “Israel is bad. Israel is evil. The Jewish people are terrible. We should burn their flags. We do not respect them.” I remember feeling very scared. I ran upstairs to my mom, and said, “Mom, all my friends are burning Israeli flags, they hate the Jewish people, and they tell me they’re evil. What should I do?”

Mom said, “I won’t tell you what to do, but don’t hate anyone before you meet them.” I promised myself that day that I would not hate any person, any group, any religion or any culture before I met these people.

Then I remember coming to America for the first time. I met a Jewish friend for the first time. He was one of the nicest guys who took me to this kosher restaurant and we had one of the most delicious meals of the day. And because it is kosher, we Muslims can eat it too. I was very comfortable, and I realized that food, music, culture and religion are very close to each other. So in my head, I was talking to myself like, “Why all this hate?”

When I played for the Boston Celtics, the Israeli Consul General invited me to Holocaust Remembrance Day. I remember there were a lot of people, but I was the only non-Jew, the only Muslim. A 90-year-old woman came to me. She was a Holocaust survivor. She said, “I’ve never seen a Jew this tall before.” I was like, “Ma’am, you’re very nice, but I’m not Jewish. I’m a Muslim.” She said, “What are you doing here?”

Anis Kanter Freedom meets students at Brooklyn Amity School on Monday, June 13, 2022 (Courtesy/via JTA)

I said, “Well, I’m here to learn, educate myself so I can educate the people around me.” And it began to rupture. The things I learned that day. I don’t care who you are – Muslims, Christians, Jews, Catholics. Whether you believe in God or not believe in God. I promised myself, I want everyone to know, learn and educate themselves about what happened,

I will teach our children so that they can have some empathy, they can have some empathy, so that they can put themselves in the shoes of others so that they can understand them better. If you understand other religions or cultures, and if you get to know them better, you better respect and love them.

That’s why we want to start this initiative. I think it’s very important to me because that’s how we’re going to build our future. This is how we will begin to build bridges between Muslims and Jews.

I was raised a Muslim. Can you talk about the Holocaust education that you grew up in Turkey?

When you grow up in Turkey, you instantly grow up anti-Semitic and anti-Western and anti-Israel because of President Erdogan. Every time he organizes a gathering and goes live, he always attacks Israel, the Jewish people, and the West. This is what breaks my heart the most. Our young generation is growing up in Turkey as anti-Semitic. And that’s why I was like, “I’m going to break this.” I don’t care if you are the president of Turkey or the president of the world, and if you spread hatred, I will fight it.

Boston Celtics’ Enes Kanter Freedom shoes on the court during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Toronto Raptors, November 10, 2021, in Boston. (Photo by Associated Press/Michael Dwyer)

Let’s talk about the parallels between Muslims who face persecution now and Jews who live during the Holocaust. Can we compare the two groups and perhaps find common ground between the two religions?

If you look at what happened in the Xinjiang region of China, America said it was genocide [against the Uighurs]. During the Holocaust, not a large number of leaders or nations said anything that was happening was unacceptable.

At the moment, there are many Muslim leaders in many countries who cannot say anything about what happened in Xinjiang. It’s because of the economy, because of the business and because they have a lot of money tied up in China. this is unacceptable. They literally pick money over people’s lives.

So if we could educate our young generation about the Holocaust, they would immediately think, well, there’s another genocide happening in China right now in Xinjiang, which is unacceptable and we have to do something about it. That is why it is so important to educate people about the Holocaust so that it does not happen again, not only towards the Jewish people, but towards other cultures that exist in the world.

She has developed relationships with many politicians, liberals and conservatives. Are you concerned when you see some American politicians courting the far right, which includes groups with anti-Semitic views and support for authoritarian regimes? Do you hope that your relationship with them will change that?

Whenever I meet politicians — not just conservatives or Republicans, but Democrats as well — the more I have a conversation with them, I never really talk about politics. I always talk about human rights. I don’t care which side you encourage, you have to care about human rights.

If you’re at that level, where you represent America, you have to care about human life. So whenever I sit with a politician, we talk about Turkey, China, Uyghurs, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism, and I hope my words open their eyes and open their hearts to what is happening in the world.

Enes Kanter Freedom of the Portland Trail Blazers plays during an NBA basketball game against the Philadelphia 76ers, February 4, 2021, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

You have been speaking against China. The NBA does big business in China, which was threatened when some executives spoke out against Beijing’s human rights abuses. Did the NBA stop you for sharing your opinions?

Yes 100%. For the last 10 years I’ve been talking about the problems in Turkey and the NBA has been very helpful. [League Commissioner] Adam Silver texted me twice on my phone and said, “Anything you want, tell us. We got you a support. We are like your family.”

But then in the last six or seven months, when I started talking about the problems happening in China, unfortunately, 40 owners were tied up with about $10 billion for the Chinese government. The NBA makes billions of dollars every year. They have jersey sales, shoe sales, and endorsement deals, all coming from China. And unfortunately, when you talk about the problems that happen in China, they won’t like it.

I think they put a lot of pressure on the NBA to get me released. Look at my numbers. Just last year when I was playing for the Portland Trail Blazers, we played the playoffs. I started all the games and got on average a double. You’re telling me all of a sudden, after about seven or eight months, I forgot how to play basketball? People laugh at this.

I had a chat with one of my teammates. He was telling me, “Enes enjoy this year, because this is your last year. You won’t get another contract after that.” But that’s what it is because the things I’m talking about are bigger than me, bigger than basketball, bigger than the NBA.

[In a March 22 interview with the New York Times, Silver denied the league had blackballed Kanter Freedom. “We spoke directly about his activities this season,” Silver said. “I made it absolutely clear to him that it was completely within his right to speak out on issues that he was passionate about.”]

Are there any talks with any of the NBA teams?

Believe me. We try to talk to all 30 teams and they all give us the same answer, “No.” I’ve been in the league for 11 years. I know I have a place and I can start in most teams. But that’s what it is. They just show their true color.

Someone has to expose them because now we see hypocrisy firsthand. The National Basketball Association will do what is good for the NBA. The only thing we have to do is continue to lobby and expose these companies, organizations and players, while we fight hate and anti-Semitism around the world.

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