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Zach Banner Tackles Anti-Semitism and Racism

How a half-Black, half-Chamorro football player discovered the Jewish community—and what it can learn from him

Yair Rosenberg
July 16, 2020
Courtesy Zach Banner
Zach Banner of the Pittsburgh SteelersCourtesy Zach Banner
Courtesy Zach Banner
Zach Banner of the Pittsburgh SteelersCourtesy Zach Banner

Zach Banner didn’t know what the term “anti-Semitism” was, but he knew it was wrong when he saw it.

The story for the Pittsburgh Steelers’ offensive tackle began on the morning of July 8, when he woke up early at 5 a.m. and made the classic error of checking his phone instead of going back to bed. “I realized, man, I don’t have to be up for my workout for about an hour or two,” he recalled. “So, I just checked my phone real quick as I was trying to fall back asleep.” A tweet from an ESPN sportswriter led Banner to the Instagram page of fellow NFL player DeSean Jackson, who had posted an anti-Semitic quote to his 1.4 million followers two days prior accusing Jews of extorting America, wrongly attributing the quoted passage to Adolf Hitler.

Banner was shocked—not just by the content of the message, which Jackson was in the process of walking back, but by the fact that he hadn’t even heard about this egregious incident. “I just sat there and I kinda questioned myself, like, man, how did I not see that?” said Banner. “It just ate at me ... It wrenched my heart.”

“I was so upset by DeSean’s comment, but on top of that, just like: How didn’t I hear about this and why didn’t we hear about this? And the reason why is because no one was speaking out about it.” Instead of going back to sleep, Banner decided to change that. He posted an emotional video to his social media feeds in response:

There’s a common misbelief that among Black and Brown people—and I know this from growing up and I’ve heard it and I’ve listened to it—that Jewish people are just like any other white race. You know, you mix them up with the rest of the majority and you don’t understand that they are a minority as well...

We need to understand that Jewish people deal with the same amount of hate and similar hardships and hard times. I’m not trying to get emotional right now but I want to preach to the Black and Brown community that we need to uplift them and put our arms around them just as much. When we talk about Black Lives Matter and talk about elevating ourselves, we can’t do that while stepping on the back of other people to elevate ourselves...

Change your heart, put your arm around people, and let’s all uplift each other.

One of the many remarkable things about this story is that Banner didn’t actually know what the term “anti-Semitism” even meant before that morning. “I’m just gonna be honest with you man, before this ... When I was reading that article from ESPN, I had to Google what ‘anti-Semitic’ was,” he told me. For Banner, like many people, the terminology surrounding Jews and Judaism was confusing, even as he had the best of intentions toward Jewish people. “You use the term ‘Jew,’” he asked me during our conversation. “Is that, I mean, me being of African American descent, is that similar to us using the N-word? Like, only [for] Jewish people? Would you suggest me never to use the word ‘Jew’?” As it turned out, this was why he had been careful to refer only to “the Jewish community” in his videos. I reassured him on this front, but was also reminded that in our era of microaggressions and hyperattention to language surrounding minority groups, sometimes it’s important to take a step back and focus on a person’s intentions rather than their packaging.

So if he didn’t know the technical term for anti-Semitism, how did Banner know so much about the Jewish experience? His education began at the University of Southern California. “My first encounter with a Jewish person was at USC,” he said. He remembers being flummoxed when learning for the first time about anti-Jewish prejudice in his classes. “When I got there, they’re teaching me about the quote-unquote ‘racial characteristics’ that people try to identify like the big nose and, you know, things like that, and I still to this day don’t get it.”

Campus was also where he found the people he calls his “Jewish family members”—his brothers at the historically Jewish fraternity Zeta Beta Tau. When one of them first invited him to join, he was naturally a little confused. “I was like, ‘Hey man, isn’t that like a white fraternity?’” he recalled. “And he said, ‘Well, no, nationally it’s Jewish, but you know we have definitely a lot more ... We have a broad range of different ethnicities, racial groups, cultures, within the fraternity. I’d like you to see that.’ And it was very true. We had some Black guys. I wasn’t the only one of African American descent there. We also had—one of my pledge brothers is Muslim. We had a couple dudes from Asia. So it was really a brotherhood. But there was a good portion of Jewish people in it, Jewish bros in it.”

Banner learned a lot about the backgrounds of his brothers, in part because he preferred to have conversations about personal matters, rather than everything reverting back to football. “I personally like picking and asking questions about people’s upbringing,” he said, “because I’m probably the only athlete in the room, more than likely, and I hate talking about myself.”

“People [are] usually just, like, ‘How’s football?’” But “no one wants to talk about work. You know what I mean? I don’t wanna talk about work. You don’t wanna talk about work.”

I made the video to defend my friends. I didn’t expect the whole Jewish community to have my back.

This was how Banner, a star football player of African American and Chamorro descent, got his crash course on the Jewish experience. “I’m picking their brains about this,” he said. “I have a baseline knowledge of the Holocaust, I have a baseline knowledge of World War II. I know about, you know, the Nazi movement and things like that, genocide and that, but when I hear these stories, from a Jewish person, it’s very very passionate. I learned so many different things.”

He also saw his friends experience anti-Jewish prejudice firsthand, like being called kikes on the basketball court. “We would be doing things like any other fraternity, like intramural basketball [and] ... When you hear these things, you feel for them.”

“That’s something that is very similar to this situation,” Banner noted. “It’s just a little bit different because it’s more of a professional level and we are in the NFL.” Back in college, Banner’s teammates had restrained him from responding to anti-Jewish invective, out of concern that he could potentially jeopardize his position at USC. In 2020, he didn’t have to worry about that anymore.

The response from the Jewish community to Banner’s video was overwhelming. In 48 hours, his personal B3 Foundation—which provides resources, mentorship, and leadership opportunities to underprivileged Black and Brown students in Tacoma, Los Angeles, and Guam—raised $38,000. By the time we spoke, it was $60,000—most coming in $18 donations. At first, this confused Banner, who asked his foundation manager about it. “I said, ‘Why is everyone donating in increments of 18? Like what is this?’” She explained the significance of the number, which represents “life” in Jewish tradition, or “chai.” Others donated $36 or $72—which besides being a multiple of 18 also happens to be Banner’s jersey number. Jews across the country invited him to Shabbat dinners—“Somebody told me how to pronounce that, I thought it was ‘Shah-bit,’” he laughed—and someone even sent him fresh baked challah bread in the mail.

“It’s just one of those things where I feel honored,” he said. “I made the video to defend my friends. I didn’t expect the whole Jewish community to have my back.”

Following this outpouring of support, Banner posted another video calling on the NFL to confront anti-Semitism in its ranks, and thanked the Jewish community for its response. Then he made a request of them: “I ask you to keep that same energy ... Keep that same energy moving forward.”

In other words, more than appreciation or even attention to his foundation, what Banner wants is for this moment to be an invitation to a lasting relationship. Toward this end, I asked Banner how the Jewish community could stand with him and his community the way he had stood with theirs. His advice mirrored his own experience in learning about Jews: Listen to our stories.

“As the Jewish community, just listen to those voices, understand and sympathize—as somebody who has literally been massacred because of what they are and [the] history of its people—feel for us because it’s real time, real life, right now,” he said. “There’s a fear that cops have for Black people and that fear is causing them to pull out their guns and shoot them. There are other things, and that’s one of the bigger ones, but there’s also like other systemic legislation that’s needed to be overturned and changed and rewritten.”

Banner illustrated this by reference to his own personal experience: “When I get pulled over by police, as someone in the top percent tax bracket [who] has earned his way up here, I roll all my windows down, I take my wallet, my license, my insurance card, and my registration, I put it on the dash and I put my hands on the steering wheel, and I’m so nervous—trying to stay calm, trying to stay collected, but I’m nervous. I’m scared. For my life.

“I’m the top of the top. I’m in the NFL. I’ve been dreaming about here my whole life, and I’m scared like that. I have felt that way since the first time I got pulled over by a cop when I was 16 years old. And I’ve been pulled over maybe like eight times. Now, don’t get me wrong, sometimes I was speeding. But I see videos, man, I see videos of other races and other people and how casual they are when they get pulled over and sometimes they have the nerve to yell back ... Like I’ve seen some crazy stuff, man. That’s what I would like for your people to help mine with.”

Meanwhile, as he continues to fight for justice for his community, Banner plans to continue to deepen his relationship with the Jewish one. “The West Coast has a huge Jewish community, all the way up and down it. That’s where I’m from, so I’m excited to get back over there and show love to the Jewish community out here in Pittsburgh,” he said. “I’m talking to rabbis and going downtown to the Tree of Life synagogue that had the shooting, to look at the kids and say, ‘Hey, I got your back.’ That’s my job, as Zach Banner, moving forward.”

Yair Rosenberg is a senior writer at Tablet. Subscribe to his newsletter, listen to his music, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.