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We can all learn from Muhammad Ali’s solidarity with Palestine
Muhammad Ali opposed Israel's occupation of Palestinian territories. He also loved and respected his Jewish friends and family. We can all learn from his activism and humanity.
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On a brisk evening in March 1967, Muhammad Ali stepped into a press conference surrounded by oversized cameras, blinding flashes, and bespectacled reporters. He had just retained his heavyweight titles following a seventh round KO of Korean War veteran Zora Folley. While Ali's violent victory would have been the headline news on any other day, the undefeated 25-year-old was about to eclipse his own mastery.
Speaking to the room of reporters in Louisville, Kentucky, Ali explained that he had no intention of fighting in Vietnam.
“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam after so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?” Ali, who had been drafted by the United States military in 1966 and called up for induction in 1967, said at the time.
And so, on April 27, 1967, Ali attended the induction but refused to answer his name or take the oath. He was arrested and unanimously convicted on draft evasion by an all-white jury in June 1967. The boxer was sentenced to five years in prison (which he avoided on appeal), fined $10,000 and was stripped of his heavyweight titles.
On June 28, 1971, the Supreme Court overturned Ali’s conviction and he resumed his boxing career, handicapped by more than three years in exile from his profession.
Although Ali successfully regained his titles, reaffirming his position as the world's premier boxer, it was his choice to protest the Vietnam War and his vocal advocacy for marginalized communities, including African Americans, that elevated him beyond his exceptional athletic feats. In short: it was his courageous activism that solidified his legacy as "the greatest."
Among Ali’s lesser known activism was his outspoken support for the Palestinian cause. In 1974—three years after his draft dodging conviction was overturned—Ali visited Beirut during a tour of the Middle East, where he declared that the “United States is the stronghold of Zionism and imperialism.”
The details of Ali’s trip were chronologized in an article for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency titled “Ali Belts Zionism.”
Muhammad Ali, who says he is retiring from the ring to spread the faith of Islam, is losing no time throwing right hooks at Zionism. He told a press conference in Beirut, at the start of a tour of the Middle East, that “the United States is the stronghold of Zionism and imperialism.” On a visit later to two Palestinian refugee camps in southern Lebanon, the former heavy-weight boxing champion was quoted by a guerrilla news agency as saying: “In my name and the name of all Muslims in America, I declare support for the Palestinian struggle to liberate their homeland and oust the Zionist invaders.”
During the Israeli occupation of Southern Lebanon in 1985, Muhammad Ali traveled to Israel in an attempt to negotiate the release of approximately 700 Shiite Muslim prisoners who had been transferred to the Atlit detention camp in Israel. Ali told the press that he was there “to arrange for the freeing of the Muslim brothers imprisoned by Israel” and that he would be discussing the release of “all 700 brothers” with the “very highest level in the country.”
While Israel declined Ali’s offer, he met with several Israeli officials, including Deputy Foreign Minister Ronnie Milo, a member of the right-wing Likud party that is currently chaired by Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
In January 1988, Ali was pictured participating in a pro-Palestine rally in Chicago during the First Intifada, a six-year uprising that lasted until the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993.
Ali’s vehement criticism of Israel’s occupation, coupled with his outward support for the Palestinian cause drew ire from segments of the Jewish community. Israeli newspaper Haaretz ran an obituary of Ali in 2016 that accused him of having “frequently clash with the Jewish people.” However, his criticism of the Israeli state should not be conflated with antisemitism.
When Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was kidnapped by Islamic extremists in January 2002, Ali pleaded publicly for the Jewish journalist’s release.
“I appeal to you to show Daniel Pearl compassion and kindness,” said Ali. “Treat him as you would wish all Muslims to be treated by others. Daniel should not become another victim of the ongoing conflict. It is my most sincere prayer that Daniel Pearl be permitted to return safely to his family. May Allah have mercy on us all.”
Pearl was beheaded by his abductors following nine days of captivity. Ali would go on to attend the memorial service two months later.
As Ali continued to mature, so did his perspective on religion. In his 2004 memoir, Ali summed up this change succinctly: “We all have the same God, we just serve him differently…It doesn’t matter whether you’re a Muslim, a Christian, or a Jew. When you believe in God, you should believe that all people are part of one family. If you love God, you can’t love only some of his children.”
Ali stayed true to his Abrahamic tolerance. In 2012, Ali attended the bar mitzvah of his grandson Jacob Wertheimer, who was born to his daughter Khaliah Ali and her husband Spencer Wertheimer. Jacob had opted to identify with his father’s Jewish religion and culture, which Ali was extremely supportive of.
"My father was supportive in every way. He followed everything and looked at the Torah very closely. It meant a lot to Jacob that he was there,” Khaliah Ali said.
Ali's activism and humanity provide a valuable lesson for our times. While vehemently opposing Israel's occupation of Palestinian territories, the legendary boxer's critique remained rooted in political disagreement, steering clear of antisemitic sentiments. His unwavering support for Jewish friends and family, coupled with profound respect for the Jewish religion, underscores that crucial distinction.
May we all learn to champion causes without succumbing to prejudice.
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