Two years ago, during the Winter Olympic games in Vancouver, the International Olympic Committee (IOC), observed a moment of silence – appropriately enough – in memory of the Georgian athlete, Nodar Kumaritashvili, who died tragically in a training accident. Ten years ago, in 2002, the IOC memorialized the victims of 9/11, though that terrorist atrocity neither occurred during the Olympic games nor had any connection to them. The duty of remembrance – le devoir de memoir – was justification enough.
The refusal of the IOC, therefore, to observe a moment of silence on the 40th anniversary of the Munich massacre – the slaughter of 11 Israeli athletes for no other reason than that they were Israelis and Jews – is as offensive as it is incomprehensible. As Ankie Spitzer, wife of slain Israeli athlete Andre Spitzer put it, “The IOC says it’s not in the protocol of the Opening Ceremony to have a commemoration. Well, my husband coming home in a coffin was not in the protocol either. This was the blackest page in Olympic history. These eleven athletes were part of the Olympic family, they were not accidental tourists – they should be remembered as part of the Olympic framework”.
Indeed, the explanation proffered by IOC President Jacques Rogge that such memorial would be “inappropriate” is shameful.
This steadfast reluctance not only ignores – but mocks – the calls for a moment of silence by Government leaders, including US President Barack Obama, Australian PM Julia Gillard, and Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird; by various Parliaments including resolutions by the US Congress as well as the Canadian, Australian, German and Italian Parliaments; and the sustained international public campaign and anguished civil societies appeals.
As well, the IOC decision ignores that the Munich massacre occurred at the Olympic games not par hasard, but precisely because the Olympic games provided a venue of international resonance for such an attack; ignores that, as the German Der Spiegel put it, the killings were facilitated by the criminal negligence and indifference of Olympic security officials themselves; Finally, it ignores and mocks the plaintive pleas – and pain and suffering – of the families and loved ones, for whom the remembrance – zachor – of these last forty years is an over-riding personal and moral imperative.
Accordingly, it is not hard to infer that not only were the athletes killed because they were Israeli and Jewish, but that the moment of silence is being denied them also because they are Israeli and Jewish. Professor Deborah Lipstadt – normally understated in her attribution of an anti-Jewish or anti-Israeli motifs – makes the connection. In her words:
“The IOC’s explanation is nothing more than a pathetic excuse. The athletes who were murdered were from Israel and were Jews—that is why they aren’t being remembered. … This was the greatest tragedy to ever occur during the Olympic Games. Yet the IOC has made it quite clear that these victims are not worth 60 seconds. Imagine for a moment that these athletes had been from the United States, Canada, Australia, or even Germany No one would think twice about commemorating them. But these athletes came from a country and a people who somehow deserve to be victims. Their lost lives are apparently not worth a minute.”
Again to quote Ankie Spitzer, “I can only come to one conclusion or explanation: This is discrimination. I have never used that word in 40 years, but the victims had the wrong religions, they came from the wrong country.”
This Friday, when the Olympic games begin, let us pause to remember and recall each of the murdered athletes. Each had a name, an identity, a family – each person was a universe. And so, on the eve of the Tisha B’av, the ninth day of the month of Av, which begins Saturday evening, let us join with the families and associated private commemorative gatherings in remembering them:
May their memory be a blessing for us all. Let us hope the IOC may heed the collective call to conscience.
Irwin Cotler is a Canadian Member of Parliament and the Former Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada. He is a Professor of Law (Emeritus) at McGill University. He moved the motion – adopted unanimously – in the Canadian Parliament calling for a moment of remembrance at the London games.