By Chris Modica
Boston University News Service
It’s been two years since center Meyers Leonard’s last NBA appearance due to the use of an anti-Jewish slur during a gaming live-stream. As of March 14, and after two 10-day contracts with the Milwaukee Bucks, Leonard has been signed for the rest of the season.
The particular slur that Leonard used has origins that stem from the Yiddish word for circle. The slur originated from Ellis Island, where illiterate Jewish migrants used the shape to sign documents instead of an ‘x,’ shape due to its resemblance to the cross.
Leonard’s comment was not directed toward a particular individual but instead used as an exclamation of frustration during a live gaming session on the popular streaming platform, Twitch.
All the while, Leonard, talking to Bucks’ reporters at the time of his signing, claimed to be on an educational journey, trying to quiet the impulses that caused the problem while learning about the Jewish faith.
The backlash to the incident would cost Leonard parts of three NBA seasons and a total of over two years away from the court.
“You have to look carefully at all of the details that surround the event,” said Dr. Steven Katz of BU’s Elie Wiesel Center for Jewish Studies. “This has not been done in any of these instances.”
Katz believes that Jewish people have found themselves in a circular situation.
“When people are punished [for antisemitism], the response is ‘Look how powerful the Jews are,’” he said, adding that he believes Jewish people have been used as scapegoats for racial inequities in the United States since the early 19th century.
“The term Meyers Leonard used is extremely offensive, but I think you have to take into consideration the context it was used in,” said Sam Kalis, a Jewish junior at Boston University and active member of the Jewish community. “The term should never be used, but as long as he understands his own act of ignorance, feels genuine remorse, and makes a real effort to change, he should be able to play.”
Leonard has career averages of six points, four rebounds, and one assist in over 15 minutes per game, stretching the floor with his 39% three-point field goal percentage.
Although other harmful instances of antisemitism have resulted in suspensions for star players such as Kyrie Irving, Irving was sidelined for about two weeks completing the reparations asked of him by Nets ownership. Leonard, a role player, sat for over two calendar years.
“It is important to educate and allow those who have made mistakes to be forgiven if they better themselves,” Kalis added.
Katz said that, given the opportunity to speak to players who have spoken out in an antisemitic manner, he would assure them that anti-Jewish tropes are based entirely upon falsehoods regarding Jewish faith and culture. He added that antisemitism has no place in our society, much like cases of racism against other marginalized groups.
“There should be a zero-tolerance policy [in society] regarding antisemitism. Sports owners care more about winning games than in defending the Jewish people. Jewish leadership has not promoted appropriate responses to these offenses,” Katz said.