A Call to End Athletic Discrimination Against Israel
JNS.org – One of the most enduring images of last summer’s Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro was that of Islam El Shehaby, an Egyptian judo competitor, turning his back on the outstretched hand of his opponent, Or Sasson, after the Israeli athlete’s victory in a bout that earned him the bronze medal.
As El Shehaby stomped off to the locker room, the referee called him back for the customary bow to the opponent; El Shehaby refused. Loud booing emerged from the crowd, and El Shehaby was sent home from the games in disgrace.
Many Israel advocates regarded El Shehaby’s actions as emblematic of an Arab and Muslim loathing of Israel that manifests itself in all contexts. Quite a few of them took to social media to slam the Egyptian. In my view that was unfair.
True, El Shehaby hardly endeared himself to the spectators, and he may well share the hostile views toward Jews expressed by 75 percent or so of his countrymen, but I don’t think he had much of a choice. Before the fight with Sasson, he’d been warned on social media that competing against an Israeli was a violation of the Islamic faith, and so he did something to save face. Competing and then behaving in such a disgraceful fashion is marginally better than boycotting the contest outright, as was done by the Iranian judoka Arash Miresmaeili, who refused to fight the Israeli Ehud Vaks at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. This, of course, garnered him much praise from the regime in Tehran.
Iran and Egypt aren’t the only Muslim-majority countries to boycott Israel and its athletes. In 2009, the United Arab Emirates denied Israeli tennis star Shahar Pe’er an entry visa, forcing her to pull out of that year’s Tennis Championship in Dubai. Since then, Arab states have grudgingly granted visas to Israeli athletes, including Pe’er, but have discriminated against them in other ways. At an international swimming competition in Dubai and Qatar in 2013, Israeli competitors were excluded from broadcasts and endured protests from officials, who refused to say the word “Israel.” When Amit Ivry won the silver medal in the 100m Individual Medley, the Israeli flag was edited off in broadcasts of the award ceremony.
In the world’s most popular sport, soccer, Israel has regularly taken an off-the-field battering from the game’s international authorities (on the field, the national team has failed to qualify for every World Cup since 1970, but that’s for another column.) Last year, in the midst of an unprecedented corruption scandal that resulted in the exit of most of FIFA’s leadership, Israel’s soccer authorities fought a Palestinian challenge to have them expelled.
Now the Palestinians have shifted their campaign to a targeted boycott of six teams based in Jewish communities in the West Bank. None of these teams have a chance of making it in major competitions. But that doesn’t matter to the Palestinians, who — not satisfied with their own membership in FIFA, which was never opposed by Israel — are insisting that a body that governs soccer (very badly) should adjudicate Israel’s borders.
They’ve also turned to the UN, which has, unsurprisingly, indicated that it supports the move to force Israeli soccer clubs to move behind the Green Line. Meanwhile, FIFA’s president, Gianni Infantino, has said the issue must be resolved before his organization’s congress next year, which conveniently falls during the major anniversaries commemorating Israeli military victories in the 1947-48 and 1967 wars.
If FIFA does take action against Israel over these clubs, then it will have to get ready for a volley of accusations concerning double standards. After all, if Israel has to face consequences for national league teams, then why have a different rule for Iran, which bans women from attending matches. This is an act of gender discrimination that defies several international conventions.
FIFA is in an even weaker spot when it comes to Qatar, the tiny oil-and-gas emirate that is arguably its most powerful member, having secured the hosting rights to the 2022 World Cup following a corrupt bidding process. Qatar is politically close to Jibril Rajoub, the Fatah leader who heads the Palestine Football Association, and will therefore do whatever it can to boost him, even if that means tarring the sport with the sectarian hatreds of the Middle East.
More importantly, FIFA is facing legal action in Switzerland over the abysmal treatment of the migrant workers constructing soccer stadiums in Qatar; under the emirate’s kafala system of labor importation, these workers are little more than slaves, enduring medieval working conditions for mere pennies. And now a Dutch labor union is suing FIFA for complicity in these abuses, on behalf of Nadim Sharaful Alam, a Bangladeshi migrant worker. If FIFA, kowtowing to the Qataris, couldn’t demand the abolition of the kafala system as a condition of hosting the World Cup, then what legitimacy can be assigned to any future act of punishment directed against Israel?
Most soccer fans, and sports aficionados in general, detest the imposition of political conflicts on athletic competitions. Moreover, boycotts and acts of discrimination can backfire. When the UAE excluded Shahar Pe’er, Venus Williams issued a condemnation and Andy Roddick withdrew in solidarity before the Wall Street Journal pulled its sponsorship.
These are important precedents that need to be drawn upon in any situation in which Israeli athletes face discrimination. Come 2018, Israel will have been an independent state for 70 years (and a member of the UN for 69 years). Whatever trouble Israel experiences on the global stage, it’s past time to stop these vindictive attempts to exclude it from world sports.