Former world heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali died Friday at age 74 after being hospitalized in Phoenix with a respiratory ailment. While the cause of death was not disclosed, Ali had been living with Parkinson’s disease for many years. As expressions of grief and support have poured in from all over the world in the wake of his death, so have stories of Ali’s complicated relationship with Zionism and the Jewish people.
Muhammad Ali was born in Louisville, Ky., as a Baptist. Originally named Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. after a 19th-century Kentucky planter who fought for slavery’s abolition, Ali is famously known for refusing the military draft during the Vietnam War as a political statement on civil rights.
"I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong. No Vietnamese ever called me a nigger,” he famously said following the controversial decision.
In 1964, Clay joined the Nation of Islam movement and changed his name to Muhammad Ali. From that point forward, Ali’s association with the Nation of Islam led him on a path toward a number of anti-Israel/anti-Jewish beliefs and statements.
Upon returning to the ring in 1970 following his absence for three years due to his refusal to join the army, Ali commented on the possibility of a new match with longtime rival Joe Frazier, saying, “To those who might want it, the fight will come. All those Jewish promoters—they’ll see that it comes off.”
In later years, after he retired, Ali made statements such as that “the United States is the stronghold of Zionism and imperialism,” and that Zionists control America and the world. He declared his support for “the Palestinian struggle to liberate their homeland and oust the Zionist invaders.”
Such statements greatly distressed many of his fans, Jewish and non-Jewish alike. Even fellow boxing champion Floyd Patterson wrote in Sports Illustrated in 1964 that Ali had been “misled by the wrong people…He might as well have joined the Ku Klux Klan,” according to the Forward.
Nevertheless, Ali continued to maintain a number of prominent Jewish friends. Among them was actor and comedian Billy Crystal, who is known for his 1977 comedy routine on the boxer converting to Judaism and changing his name to Izzy Yiskowitz. Crystal also performed at Ali’s 50th birthday party.
Ali eventually embraced a more moderate version of Islam, writing in his 2004 memoir “The Soul of a Butterfly: Reflections on Life’s Journey” that, “Over the years my religion has changed and my spirituality has evolved. Religion and spirituality are very different, but people often confuse the two. Some things cannot be taught, but they can be awakened in the heart. Spirituality is recognizing the divine light that is within us all. It doesn’t belong to any particular religion; it belongs to everyone. We all have the same God, we just serve him differently…It doesn’t matter whether you’re a Muslim, a Christian, or a Jew. When you believe in God, you should believe that all people are part of one family. If you love God, you can’t love only some of his children.”
When Ali’s daughter, Khaliah Ali-Wertheimer, married Spencer Wertheimer and gave birth to a son, Ali suddenly had a grandson with Jewish roots. He attended his grandson Jacob’s bar mitzvah at Philadelphia’s Congregation Rodeph Shalom in 2012.
"My father was supportive in every way. He followed everything and looked at the Torah very closely. It meant a lot to Jacob that he was there,” Khaliah Ali-Wertheimer said, according to Haaretz.