Cricket world in new row after ‘Zionist lobby’ tweet

Essex County Cricket hit by fresh race scandal as chair appointed to clean up the club faces accusations himself


CHELMSFORD, ENGLAND - MAY 27: A general view of play during Day Two of the Tour match between First Class Counties XI and New Zealand at Cloudfm County Ground on May 27, 2022 in Chelmsford, England. (Photo by Jacques Feeney/Getty Images)

The new chairman of a top cricket club endorsed comments that the “Zionist lobby” has “oversized” control of the media and a string of other inflammatory social media posts, the JC can reveal.

Azeem Akhtar, the former board member of Sport England who was announced as chair of first-class Essex County Cricket Club on Monday, also “liked” on Twitter a defence of comparisons between Israel and Nazi Germany, and another post that celebrated athletes boycotting the Jewish state.

Mr Akhtar is the club’s first ethnic minority chairman and was appointed 12 months after a racism scandal led to the ousting of his predecessor.

His appointment was intended to “signal the beginning of a new era for the club” following the row.

Anti-racism group Campaign Against Antisemitism (CAA) attacked the Israel-Nazi comparison and the comments about the “Zionist lobby” as “indefensible”.

“Several of the tweets ‘liked’ by Azeem Akhtar breach the International Definition of Antisemitism,” a CAA spokesperson said.

“Essex County Cricket Club must investigate Mr Akhtar’s social media activity immediately, lest cricket start to become a breeding ground for antisemitism denial.”

Mr Akhtar’s social media activity draws the world of cricket into yet another antisemitism storm a year after former Yorkshire players Azeem Rafiq and Andrew Gale were revealed to have made offensive comments about Jews.

As hostilities escalated between Israel and Palestinians throughout spring and summer last year, Mr Akhtar approved of a series of provocative statements on Twitter.

A tweet posted on May 23 2021 and liked by Mr Akhtar declared: “It is not offensive to say that the Pro–Israel and Zionist lobby have deep pockets and oversized influence/control over the media.

“What happened to Emily Wilder, the Hadids, Dua Lipa and others proves this.”

A photo posted in December 2021 of Jewish anti-racism campaigner Rachel Riley and liked by Mr Akhtar had the caption “#ShameOnRachelRileyForever”. The accompanying picture showed the television star wearing a T-shirt that read: “Jeremy Corbyn is a racist endeavour.”

The cricket boss also liked a tweet posted in May that claimed: “Comparing Israel with Nazis is not antisemitic. In fact, many Jewish people have done so themselves.”

Mr Akhtar also signalled his approval of Algerian athlete Fathi Nurin withdrawing from the Olympics to avoid competing against an Israeli athlete in a “like” posted in July 2021.

Another tweet liked by Mr Akhtar said: “Zionism has very little connection with Judaism but very close relationship with fascism and white supremacy (sic).”

Mr Akhtar has also repeatedly approved of tweets posted by controversial anti-Zionist rapper Lowkey.

The musician, whose real name is Kareem Dennis, sparked furious protests from the Union of Jewish Students when he was scheduled to perform at a National Union of Students concert before withdrawing.

Lowkey “spread conspiracies about Jewish students, 9/11 and the war in Ukraine,” UJS President Nina Freeman said at the time.

A tweet posted by the rapper in May last year and liked by Mr Akhtar said: “When falsely depicting anti-Zionism as antisemitism you not only unpeople 12.5 million Palestinians, you also invisibilise an anti-Zionist tradition among Jewish people which includes even the person credited with coining the phrase Zionism, Nathan Birnbaum.”

Another tweet posted by the incendiary musician and liked by Mr Akhtar claimed children in British schools were being “bullied” by teachers for “empathising with Palestinians”.

“They are being taught to crush their instinctive aversion to seeing people suffer,” Lowkey added.

A tweet posted by controversial former academic Steven Salaita in May 2021 and liked by Mr Akhtar said: “The fact that ‘from the river to the sea’ unsettles Zionists is all the more reason to keep saying it.

“Our language shouldn’t be designed to appease the oppressor.”

Speaking to the JC, Mr Akhtar said he was “vehemently” not antisemitic and had liked the tweets because he was upset about killings in Israel and Palestine.

He claimed that he had never seen groups of Jewish children attending cricket matches and wanted to change the culture of the sport so Jews felt that Essex was “their club”.

“As chairman here I would want the Jewish community to feel they had the most Jewish friendly chairman of Essex County Cricket Club they’ve ever had,” he added.

Embarrassingly for the club, Mr Akhtar’s predecessor was forced to resign over allegations that he used racist language. Essex was hit with a £50,000 fine earlier this year after John Faragher allegedly used the N-word during a 2017 board meeting, a claim he continues to deny.

A spokesperson for Essex County Cricket Club said: “It is important to recognise that neither Essex County Cricket Club nor Chair, Azeem Akhtar tolerate or condone discrimination of any sort.

“This is a matter of public record and also underlined by the ongoing work carried out by the club and game-wide, which is outlined by Essex Cricket’s Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan commissioned to address all forms of discrimination from the club, cricket and our community.

“The Israel/Palestine debate is complex and generates strong and passionate opinions on both sides of the argument, something that should not be mistaken for antisemitic views.

“Twitter is a simplistic platform on which to conduct such a complicated discussion on humanitarian issues.”

This is the second such storm that has engulfed the world of cricket in two years.

Last November, it emerged that Yorkshire spin bowler Azeem Rafiq had claimed “only Jews” avoided paying restaurant bills in messages to another cricketer in 2011 when he was 19.

Andrew Gale, also a former Yorkshire player, was suspended over a tweet in which he told a rival football fan, “button it up Yid”. Mr Rafiq apologised unreservedly after the comments came to light, while Mr Gale insisted he would not have used the slur were he aware of its “offensive meaning”.

The JC arranged for Mr Rafiq to meet a Holocaust survivor at the time.

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