Saturday, June 04, 2016

The Secret Jewish History of Muhammad Ali 

The boxer Muhammad Ali, who died on June 3 at the age of 74, has been accused of having “frequently clashed with the Jewish people.” The truth is more complex. The Louisville-born heavyweight champ was raised a Baptist, but joined the Nation of Islam in 1964, abandoning his birth name of Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. This discarded name was a noble one, previously belonging to a 19th century Kentucky planter who fought for slavery’s abolition. Ali’s decade-long adhesion to the radical Nation of Islam produced rote anti-Israel declarations. These parroted views did not just distress Jewish fans. Fellow boxing greats Joe Louis and Floyd Patterson disapproved as well.

Patterson wrote in “Sports Illustrated” in 1964 that Ali had been “misled by the wrong people… He might as well have joined the Ku Klux Klan.” In 2013, his boxing promoter Bob Arum told “The Jewish Telegraph that he had to confer with Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam, before signing the boxer. Arum claimed that Elijah Muhammad was “never anti-Semitic towards me. He was anti-white for sure, but never anti-Semitic.” Ali himself eventually converted to a somewhat less extreme Sunni branch of Islam and later adopted a decidedly milder Sufism.

By the time of his 2004 memoir “The Soul of a Butterfly: Reflections on Life’s Journey” , Ali’s viewpoint was overtly ecumenical:

“Over the years my religion has changed and my spirituality has evolved. Religion and spirituality are very different, but people often confuse the two. Some things cannot be taught, but they can be awakened in the heart. Spirituality is recognizing the divine light that is within us all. It doesn’t belong to any particular religion; it belongs to everyone. 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.”

Crowning this new-won mellowness was Ali’s attendance in 2012 at his grandson Jacob Wertheimer’s bar mitzvah at Philadelphia’s Congregation Rodeph Shalom. At Rodeph Shalom, the oldest Ashkenazic synagogue in the Western Hemisphere, Ali “followed everything and looked at the Torah very closely,” his daughter Khaliah Ali-Wertheimer told Ali’s biographer Thomas Hauser. The bar mitzvah boy’s father Spencer Wertheimer is Jewish, and identifying with that religion and culture, Jacob elected to participate in the ceremony. Of his grandson’s choice, Ali was “supportive in every way,” according to the boy’s mother.


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