Screenshot from the Z3 panel "Athletes, Allyship and Actions to Repair the World"
Screenshot from the Z3 panel "Athletes, Allyship and Actions to Repair the World"

Star athletes at Z3 address racial justice, antisemitism and ‘what pulls at your heart’

Fresh off of an eventful summer in which they won a WNBA championship and agitated for racial justice on and off the court, Seattle Storm teammates Sue Bird and Alysha Clark helped open this year’s Oshman Family JCC Z3 conference, which is taking place online due to the pandemic.

Bird and Clark joined Pittsburgh Steelers player Zach Banner for the conference’s first virtual panel, a conversation about social activism and tikkun olam, on Dec. 10.

Bird, a four-time WNBA champion, and Clark, a two-time champion who played for the Israeli women’s national team from 2015 to 2017, have Jewish heritage and hold Israeli citizenship.

Banner is not Jewish, but at USC he pledged Zeta Beta Tau, a historically Jewish fraternity. He endeared himself to American Jews in July when he expressed heartfelt support for the community after fellow NFL player DeSean Jackson posted an antisemitic quote on social media.

During the 2020 WNBA season, held in a bubble environment in Florida, Bird and her teammates took various actions to demonstrate their support for the Black Lives Matter and #SayHerName movements. For instance, they walked off the court during the playing of the national anthem and wore warmup shirts with the message “Arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor,” the 26-year-old emergency room technician killed by police in Louisville last March.

“I firmly think the things we stood for this summer in the WNBA have nothing to do with opinion” but facts, Bird said during the pre-recorded event. “It’s human life, it’s equal rights, it’s treating people the same. These are facts.”

Clark, who is Black and was raised in the Christian church, said she has become more confident taking a public stand on social issues. After the Storm swept the Las Vegas Aces in the finals, she dedicated the victory to “little Black girls and Black women across this country.”

On the panel, which was titled “Athletes, Allyship and Actions to Repair the World,” Clark said, “I’m not really the type that likes to ruffle feathers, or talk about things that make people uncomfortable because I want everybody to get along. But this summer was important for me because I found my voice.

“For me, it’s about trusting what pulls at your heart, and when you know that something is tugging at your heart, you should listen to it and follow it.”

Banner reflected on the 2018 rampage at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh (before that, he said, “I didn’t even know what antisemitism was”), the Jackson incident and the work he does through his foundation to support students in Tacoma, Los Angeles and Guam. He also spoke about his newfound love for challah, which he tried for the first time in July and posted a 4½-minute video on Twitter about it.

“I wish there were some more white guys in my sport that spoke up a lot more” about racial justice issues, he said. “This speaking up thing is new. That’s why people who have played in the league for 10-plus years, 20-plus years, they don’t understand it right now because it’s individualized voices. We’re still learning.” (Banner suffered a knee injury in the first game of the 2020 season and is out for the year.)

Asked by moderator and author Ben Orbach how to be effective allies to Black people in the struggle for racial equality, Clark said the key is to be “open to listening, open to learning.” Bird said she has learned that there are appropriate times for white people like her to speak out, and other times when they should “take that back seat and allow the Black voices to be uplifted.”

In introductory remarks, Zack Bodner, the CEO of the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto, referred to the three athletes as “tikkun olam champions.”

“They know what it means to have the courage to stand up for what’s right in a very difficult time,” he said.

Jamie Shadian, who played basketball at the University of San Francisco and then professionally in Israel, said she watched the program at home in Arizona and found it inspiring.

“As a former women’s basketball player, I was thrilled to be listening to Sue and Alysha speak about their power to make the world a better place,” Shadian said. “WNBA athletes have been role models in social justice, and their actions will inspire and educate generations of women.”

This is the sixth year of Z3, which stands for Zionism 3.0, a reference to a new era in relations between Israel and the diaspora. The conference kicked off with a welcome message from Jason Alexander of “Seinfeld” fame and a performance of “Maoz Tzur” by Broadway star Shoshana Bean. Programming continues through Thursday, Dec. 17.

Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten

Andrew Esensten is a freelance journalist in San Francisco. Previously, he was a staff writer for the English-language edition of Haaretz based in Tel Aviv.