(Photo courtesy of Reuters)
After 9/11 and the shock that came with it for many Americans (that it could happen here, that there were radical Muslims in the world that harbor antipathy toward the U.S. and the question, Why do they hate us?), a team of advertising executives and Hollywood film makers developed a group called Hollywood 9/11. Devised and assembled by Karl Rove, they were called on to figure out a way to reach across the cultural and religious divide that existed between the West and the East.
One idea put forth was using American boxing legend Muhammad Ali, to do a one-minute PSA to be broadcast on Arab media including Al Jazeera and across the Middle East in order to create a bridge between the disparate worlds. According to Advertising Age they wanted him “to tout the virtues of religious freedom that Muslims enjoy in the U.S. “ However, that version of the ad campaign never happened. The planning took longer than anticipated, was surrounded with controversy and Mr. Ali was never in any of them.
Fast forward a decade and today we have another American Olympic champion, this time a Jew, who won gold in London. Gymnast Aly Raisman will surely be offered endorsement deals from many of the top advertisers in the world due to her amazing accomplishments, poise and good looks. That personal trifecta will make them see, yes, gold.
But if her floor routine set to Hava Nagila and her comment that it was a tribute to the Israeli athletes who became victims of terror in Munich in 1972 are any indication, there’s a lot more to Aly than sheer athleticism and a desire to cash in on it.
Indeed, when the IOC and its president Jacques Rogge ruled out a minute of silence in the opening ceremonies for the slain athletes, there was a palpable sense of outrage over the decision. A wrong had been committed and groups were formed to right it. Yet even with morality on their side, they were unsuccessful. Bowing to pressure from Arab countries, the IOC caved in and disgracefully refused a one-minute remembrance.
Out of this disappointment and quite bravely, Aly displayed courage by lifting the spirits of righteous individuals and Jews across the world when she dedicated her win to their memory. As Jonathan Tobin wrote, “Raisman gave us a genuine moment of Jewish pride that places the IOC’s shameful stand in perspective.”
By making such an “in-your-face IOC” statement Aly also provided us all with more than just athleticism, but portrayed a higher purpose behind her efforts and abilities. When asked why she chose to perform “Hava Nagila” she said she was proud to be Jewish and wanted to represent her heritage at the Olympics.” She also claimed that if there had been a moment’s silence “I would have supported and respected it.” Because of her words she touched a chord. She and her family have been invited to make their first visit to Israel by Yuli Edelstein, Diaspora Affairs Minister.
Here’s a thought. While meeting and touring Israel and while fielding offers from marketers willing to shower millions upon her, Israel and Jewish organizations should also consider the larger implications of having someone like Aly as an inspiration to help bridge a divide that American youth have toward their Jewish identities as well as their feelings about Israel. Moreover, Aly could be a symbol and an embodiment of Jewish values to youth of all races and backgrounds. As she''s stated, being Jewish was a large part her upbringing and I''m sure it contributed to her moral stance.
Raisman had helped Team USA take the women’s team gold -- the first Olympic gold medal for the U.S. gymnastics squad since the 1996 Games in Atlanta and won the floor exercise in team competition. That that wasn’t inspiration enough, her words rose to take on a higher purpose and for that she’s become an even greater hero.
Having taught 11 and 12-year-old children about Jewish heroes for several years now, I am quite sure Aly will now join the ranks of Hank Greenberg, Sandy Kofax and even Albert Einstein when selecting one to write about.
The effort to leverage that other super Ali fizzled out because the events of that time caught us off guard and we felt the need to do something quickly in response. It became politicized and fraught with controversy. In this case, we have a proud American Jewish athlete who, if interested, could use her newfound celebrity for a cause she obviously cares about and one that could use a youthful boost to lift it up.