Muhammad Ali, who died on June 3 at 74, spoke out against Jewish promoters and commented on Zionist “control” of the world, but he also attended his grandson’s bar mitzvah and appealed to Muslim extremists to release Jewish journalist Daniel Pearl.
Ali, who was raised a Baptist named Cassius Clay, converted to Islam in the 1960s and changed his name.
He was esteemed by several prominent Jewish figures, including comedian-actor Billy Crystal and sportscaster Howard Cosell. Crystal was scheduled to speak at his June 10 funeral in Louisville, Kentucky, along with Berkeley Rabbi Michael Lerner, who worked with Ali in the anti-Vietnam War movement.
The bombastic Cosell (born Howard Cohen) was among the first to call the boxer by his conversion name and defended Ali when he was stripped of his title in the late 1960s for refusing to enter the Army because of his Muslim faith.
Ali called out Jewish promoters in 1970 when he returned to the ring after 3½ years away because of the draft-evasion charges.
Asked by a New York Times reporter after the fight about a subsequent contest with heavyweight champion Joe Frazier, Ali replied: “To those who might want it, the fight will come. All those Jewish promoters — they’ll see that it comes off.”
In 1985, Ali visited Israel to arrange for the freeing of some 700 Shiite Muslim prisoners in the Atlit detention camp.
Five years earlier, during a visit to India, Ali charged that Zionists “control” America and the world, according to an interview reported in a leading publication in India.
In the biweekly India Today dated Feb. 1-15, 1980, Ali spoke of Zionists when asked about the “militant revival” of Islam in Iran and the holding of “your countrymen hostage.” Ali, saying that “those people in Iran are fanatics” and that “the other Muslims in the world have condemned their action,” declared “religion ain’t bad; it’s people who are bad.”
“You know the entire power structure is Zionist. They control America; they control the world,” said Ali. “They are really against the Islam religion. So whenever a Muslim does something wrong, they blames the religion.”
But in January 2002, when Daniel Pearl of the Wall Street Journal was kidnapped by Islamic extremists, Ali pleaded publicly for the Jewish journalist’s release and life.
“I appeal to you to show Daniel Pearl compassion and kindness,” Ali told Pearl’s abductors, who would behead the journalist in Pakistan after nine days of captivity, although his fate would not be known for another three weeks.
“Treat him as you would wish all Muslims to be treated by others,” he implored, according to Pearl’s parents. “Daniel should not become another victim of the ongoing conflict. It is my most sincere prayer that Daniel Pearl be permitted to return safely to his family. May Allah have mercy on us all.”
Pearl’s parents, Judea and Ruth, unsuccessfully asked Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam, to intercede with the abductors. By contrast, Judea Pearl noted, “Ali did not hesitate a minute and issued a plea that only Satan could resist; it was published next day in Pakistan. Ali further called me by phone and insisted on being invited to the party once Danny was released.”
Instead of the anticipated celebration, Ali and his wife were invited to attend the private memorial service for Daniel Pearl on March 10, 2002, at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles.
At the service, Ali walked in slowly, showing clear signs of the degenerative Parkinson’s disease that eventually contributed to his death.
But he brightened as Judea Pearl, a UCLA professor, mentioned Ali’s intercession for his son and lauded the legendary boxing champion and social activist as “a champion of humanity.”
Ali’s grandson became a bar mitzvah at a Philadelphia synagogue in 2012.
Jacob Wertheimer, the son of Khaliah Ali-Wertheimer and Spencer Wertheimer, was called to the Torah at the historic Congregation Rodeph Shalom in front of 150 people, including the former heavyweight champion.
JTA correspondent Tom Tugend contributed to this report.