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Interview

Activist NBA player: Israelis should build trust with Palestinians, but not Erdogan

Months after China brouhaha that cost him his job, Turkish-raised Enes Kanter Freedom lends his celebrity to teaching coexistence in Israeli basketball camps

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

Enes Kanter Freedom leads at a basketball camp in Jerusalem's YMCA, July 31, 2022. (SoulShop Studios)
Enes Kanter Freedom leads at a basketball camp in Jerusalem's YMCA, July 31, 2022. (SoulShop Studios)

Enes Kanter Freedom isn’t one to set small goals. In Israel to lead interfaith children’s basketball camps across the country, the Muslim former NBA player says he is really here to “bring peace.”

It’s a tall order — taller even than the 6’10” (2.08 m) center — but one that does not appear to faze the Turkish-raised Freedom, who for the past decade has defined himself as both a professional basketball player and a human rights activist.

“I’m here to bring peace in the Middle East,” Freedom, 30, told The Times of Israel this week from Jerusalem, sporting a co-existence t-shirt. “I know it’s something large and big, but you have to believe it first.”

The player is in the country for a week leading a co-existence basketball camp initiative for Israeli and Palestinian kids.

Drafted third overall in 2011 by the National Basketball Association’s Utah Jazz, Freedom has spent the last 11 years playing for five different teams, though his advocacy and political comments off the court have often garnered more attention than his playing.

In February, his career screeched to a halt, contemporaneously with his lambasting of China for human rights abuses. He was let go by his team shortly thereafter, and believes this was directly tied to speaking out against the country that is an important source of revenue for the league.

He is now a free agent, and has yet to receive an offer from another team.

Freedom’s opinions on Israeli-Palestinian relations are less personal and less forceful than those related to Turkey, China or the US. Rather, he said he was hoping to use his platform and his sport to encourage coexistence. He did not share a political stance on the Israeli-Palestinian relationship, which he said he was still learning about, beyond hoping that the conflict ends.

“Obviously there are so many conflicts going on, so many political issues going on. But what breaks my heart is that, in the end, on both sides, the Palestinian side and the Israeli side, innocent people are getting hurt… That’s what I care about,” Freedom said.

On his third day in the country, the basketball player spoke to The Times of Israel about expanding his human rights work to Israel, warned Israel’s leaders to be wary about their warming ties to Turkey, and spoke out about the NBA’s continued ties to China.

Like other athletes who visit Israel to push youth co-existence programs, Freedom has been careful to steer clear of the political minefield surrounding the conflict, far from a given for someone who lost his citizenship — and allegedly his job as well — for his activism.

“Whatever I say, I don’t know if it’s going to change any of the leaders’ mindset,” he noted.

Instead, he is trying to reach the 10-to-15-year-old Jewish, Muslim, and Christian kids who are participating in his two-week basketball camps, which started last week in Jerusalem, Haifa, and central Israel.

“I was like, you know what? I’m just going to plan a basketball camp where Jewish people and Palestinian people will come to it together. We’ll pass to each other, we’ll score, we’ll learn how to share the ball, how to win together, how to fight as one,” Freedom said of his approach, which he hopes to continue replicating through his newly formed eponymous foundation, the Enes Kanter Freedom Foundation. For now, American Jewish organization Bnai Zion has helped make his camp vision a reality.

Enes Kanter Freedom leads at a basketball camp in Jerusalem’s YMCA, July 31, 2022. (SoulShop Studios)

Earlier that day, he said he saw a Palestinian camper who was reticent to come to camp “because of obvious reasons” — the conflict — end up reaching out to high-five her Jewish teammate after scoring off of his pass.

“She scored and they high-fived as she was going back. And I was like, ‘This is it, this is going to change the whole future,’” Freedom said.

Hyped by his experience, Freedom said he spoke to a Jerusalem deputy mayor about expanding the camps to be year-round, though the idea is in its infancy.

Wary about warming Israel-Turkey relations

Freedom is a practicing Muslim and was raised in Turkey, going to schools tied to exiled Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen. The athlete drew closer to Gülen since meeting in 2013, and has joined his spiritual mentor in making an enemy of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who Freedom calls a “dictator.”

Following years of tension between Freedom and Erdogan, Turkey pulled Freedom’s passport in 2017, leaving him effectively stateless until he was able to obtain US citizenship in 2021. He has said he added “Freedom” as his surname in homage to becoming a citizen of a country that expresses that value.

Enes Kanter Freedom in Jerusalem, July 31, 2022. (Carrie Keller-Lynn/The Times of Israel)

His trip to Israel comes as Israel has made strides in warming its frosty relationship with Turkey. Freedom said Israel should be wary of Erdogan, who has personally targeted him and his now estranged family.

“Listen, you cannot trust a dictator. And now I’m telling the Israeli government, do not trust a dictator,” Freedom said.

Erdogan has consolidated power into his role as president, which he’s held since 2014. Before transitioning to the presidency, he led the country as prime minister for 11 years. Freedom is an activist for Turkish democracy, and while he thinks Israel and Turkey should restore their relationship, he is doubtful that the current effort is genuine on Turkey’s part.

President Isaac Herzog (left) and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the presidential complex in Ankara, on March 9, 2022. (Haim Zach/GPO)

“I believe they should [improve relations], but it’s impossible while the Erdogan regime is in power,” Freedom said.

He postulated that Erdogan’s closeness with Israel is a fickle political ploy in the lead-up to Turkey’s 2023 general.

“He’s just going to use this friendship to pass the elections, and as soon as he wins the election, he’s going to stab Israel and America in the back,” Freedom said, alternatively hypothesizing that anti-Israel and anti-America rhetoric will skyrocket as Turkish campaigning intensifies.

Erdogan has long stoked anti-Israel and anti-American sentiment when politically expedient, and Freedom blames the longtime politician for exacerbating antisemitism in Turkey.

“It’s sad to me how there are so many kids growing up in Turkey that are antisemitic, anti-West, and anti-America because of Erdogan,” he said, adding that in the Muslim world, anti-Israel sentiment helps politicians “look strong” for their base.

“I remember when I was 8 years old, I went downstairs to play with my friends, and my friends were burning Israeli flags, and American flags, just because of his rallies,” Freedom said.

The activist athlete — who has helped expand Holocaust education to Muslim students in New York — credited his education at Gülen-movement schools for teaching him tolerance.

“The reason that I’m not antisemitic or anti-American or anti-Israel is, like my friends, because of [Gülen’s] schools,” he said.

However, his relationship with, and outspoken support for, Gülen is also part of his estrangement from Turkey, which revoked his passport, jailed his father, raided his childhood home, and put him on an Interpol red list. As a result, he hasn’t spoken with immediate family since 2015 and travels with extensive security.

“Erdogan’s long arms are everywhere,” he said.

Freedom follows Gülen’s approach to Islam, and credits its focus on coexistence as the root of his human rights activism.

Turkish Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen sits at his residence in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania in 2014. (AP Photo/Selahattin Sevi, File)

“He [Gülen] taught me that it doesn’t matter what your religion is, your culture, your skin color or background, the most important thing in life is to leave your differences on the table and try to find what we have in common,” Freedom said.

At Jerusalem’s Al Aqsa Mosque – the site of recent Muslim world attention during April’s Ramadan clashes between Israeli police and Palestinian protesters — Freedom recorded video messages in Turkish and English urging unity and calling on fellow Muslims to “to open our arms to everyone.”

Ecumenical in spiritual outreach, he also placed a note in the Western Wall and visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, including the church’s Armenian chapel. Turkey, where Freedom grew up, is yet to acknowledge the 1915 Armenian genocide and remains diplomatically touchy on the subject.

Palestine gets play, but Muslim countries silent on Uyghurs

In February, Freedom paid a hefty, and what he describes as surprising, price for his activism when the journeyman center was released from his last NBA team after criticizing goldmine market China.

“China is the biggest dictatorship out there and biggest human rights abuser out there, and they need to be called out,” he said, adding that: “I knew it was going to be big, I didn’t know the NBA was going to fire me.”

While acknowledging the tremendous pressure on fellow players to avoid criticizing China in order to avoid injuring their or the NBA’s financial interests – the NBA and many endorsers have substantial business in China – Freedom said “shame on them” for not acknowledging human rights abuses.

However, his strongest words were reserved for the broader Muslim community, which has not rallied in support for the Uyghurs, a Muslim Turkic Chinese minority currently persecuted by Beijing.

“There are so many Muslim countries out there in the world that talk about the Palestinians. I have not seen one Muslim leader that talks about the problems that are happening in Xinjiang [Chinese province] towards Uyghurs. Why? The economy,” he said, adding “shame on all the Muslim leaders.”

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