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July 26, 2018 12:41 pm

Anti-Israel Hatred Also Exists in Sports

avatar by Joshua S. Block


Israeli soccer star Eran Zahavi. Photo: Nir Keidar via Wikimedia Commons.

The Lacrosse Championship in Israel has come to an end, creating lasting memories for years to come. In a vibrant festival of sport, 46 teams from all over the world competed against each other across ethnic, religious, and cultural divides.

Sports are a team-building exercise. They’re meant to bring strangers together in a celebration of healthy competition — and that’s exactly what happened in Netanya during the lacrosse event.

In reflection of the Lacrosse Championship, foreign players, referees, and other officials expressed surprise and admiration for the normalcy of life in Israel and the country’s diversity. For nearly all the participants, it was their first visit to the Jewish state, and because the coverage of Israel in the international media is dominated by conflict, many didn’t know what to expect.

“The conflict is just a small part of the life of Israel,” the Czechs’ general manager Pavel Semerak observed during the tournament.

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Some of the teams also faced pressure from the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement not to travel to Israel. BDS activists called on the Iroquois Nationals, a group of indigenous people credited with inventing the sport of lacrosse, to pull out of the competition. However, the Iroquois defied this ideology of exclusion and made it to the semi-finals, winning the bronze.

Israel’s efforts to bring people together under the umbrella of lacrosse stands in stark contrast to the politicization of sports as an instrument in foreign policy — a spill-over effect from other arenas in which actors hostile to Israel seek to delegitimize the Jewish state.

Take the example of Liel Levitan, a seven-year-old girl from Haifa who recently won the European Chess Championship. For the “crime” of being Israeli, the little girl is prohibited from playing in the World Chess Championship, because host nation Tunisia will not allow Israelis to compete. If that’s not racism, what is?

And this isn’t the first time that countries have denied Israeli athletes the opportunity to participate in international tournaments. No other country in the global sporting industry is subjected to such horrific acts of discrimination.

Israel was left out of the World Chess Championship, which took place in Saudi Arabia in December, after seven of its players were unable to obtain a visa. “Israel is not fielding a team at the World Chess Championships,” the Saudi embassy in the United States declared.

The list goes on. At an international swimming competition in Qatar in 2013, the Israeli flag was banned from public display and the name of Israel’s swimming champion Amit Ivry appeared next to a blank white flag in on-screen graphics.

During the 2016 Rio Olympics, the discrimination started on the day of the opening ceremony, when the Lebanese delegation refused to travel in the same bus as their Israeli counterparts. In a similar incident, a Saudi judoka forfeited her first-round match to avoid competing against Israeli judo fighter Gili Cohen in the next round.

Another sporting arena in which Israeli athletes face appalling levels of discrimination is soccer (or “football” in most of the world). The Jewish state was expelled from the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) in 1974 by Arab countries following Israel’s victory in the 1973 Yom Kippur war, which the Arab world initiated.

Although Israel may be facing challenges in being accepted internationally in sports, that hasn’t stopped the Jewish state from developing an impressive international profile. Israelis are starting to make their marks in varied sports all across the world, even in sports that Israelis have not participated in previously. And more Israelis are competing than ever before.

Though Israel did not take home any medals, it sent its largest delegation to the Winter Olympics in South Korea earlier this year. Israeli basketball coach David Blatt has coached in Italy, Russia, the United States, and, most recently, Turkey. Last year, Alon Day, Israel’s first professional race car driver, won the European series NASCAR Championship. The same year, the Israeli national baseball team played in the World Baseball Classic, surprising everyone by winning the qualifier in 2016 and making it into the tournament. The team even featured the first Israeli to be signed by a Major League Baseball team — Dean Kremer. Kremer was recently in the news, when he was part of a blockbuster trade that brought superstar Manny Machado to the Los Angeles Dodgers.

In the past few days, Israel has been on the international sports stage again. On Sunday, the Israeli under-20 basketball team beat Croatia for the FIBA European Championship.

Fortunately — not just for Israel, but anyone who understands the spirit of sport — there’s a growing awareness that using sport as a tool for discrimination is not just morally reprehensible but also undermines the very meaning of sport itself.

An Egyptian judoka was sent home during the 2016 Rio Olympics after he refused to congratulate his Israeli opponent. And on Friday, the International Judo Federation stripped Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates of their right to host international tournaments for their past discrimination. And for all the bad news, there are indications that times are slowly changing. Earlier this year, Israeli race drivers Dani Pearl and Itai Moldavski were the first ever invited to participate in the five-day Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge.

The Olympics says that its spirit is defined by everyone having the “possibility of practicing sport, without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.” It’s time to see that spirit extended to the entire world community — including Israel — by all sporting authorities.

Joshua S. Block is CEO and President of The Israel Project. He is a former Clinton administration official and spokesman at the State Department’s USAID. He got his start on Capitol Hill in the office of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and was a spokesman for the Clinton/Gore and Gore/Lieberman presidential campaigns. Follow him on Twitter @JoshBlockDC.

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