Israel’s Olympic Judo Team Members Say Their ‘Fighting Spirit’ Will Never Be Sidelined by Anti-Israel Snubs
Members of Israel’s Olympic judo team on Monday expressed their dedication to representing their country in the world of sports, despite facing anti-Israel sentiment at major international competitions.
Judokas Ori Sasson, Sagi Muki, and Peter Paltchik who won the silver medal at the New York Open Judo Championship on April 6, are visiting the US on a tour of college campuses. Schools at which they’ll perform judo workshops and share their stories of overcoming discrimination will include Rutgers University, University of Delaware, and the University of Pennsylvania.
“We’re gonna show the world that no one can wipe out Israel. Not now, not ever,” Sasson told The Algemeiner. “Like a warrior who goes to war, he doesn’t think about the other things, he just goes to fight and do his best. We know how to manage our emotions and just focus on winning. That’s the most important” — to which Paltchik added, “that’s the reason why we are going through all this.”
Muki and Paltchik made international headlines when they individually won gold medals at the Abu Dhabi Grand Slam in October 2018, which led to the playing of the Israeli national anthem, “Hatikvah,” for the first time in history at the competition. Afterwards Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Muki to congratulate him on his victory and for advancing Israel’s cause around the world, according to the athlete. Muki called the experience “a moment that I will never forget.”
Paltchik added, “Every time I’m on the podium and I’m hoisting our flag and the national anthem is played, it’s always a feeling of pride, but in Abu Dhabi, it was very, very special. It was by far the most special moment in my career. When I got back to our hotel I got like 3,000 messages … It was a big, big win of sports over politics. The years before that we didn’t even play with our names, not just Israel’s symbols [were disallowed], but not even our names on our back.”
Muki recalled winning the bronze medal during the 2015 competition in Abu Dhabi. At the medal presentation, each winner stood on the podium with their respective flags — except for him. He also competed in 2015 and 2017 without the Israeli flag, which judo officials in the country banned at the time, claiming it would be dangerous. Israeli competitors were additionally barred from having the letters “ISR,” which stands for Israel, on their uniforms.
In 2017, five Israeli judokas won medals in Abu Dhabi, including a gold, but tournament organizers refused to play Israel’s national anthem. The Israeli competitors also were required to wear the uniform of the International Judo Federation and received their medals under an IJF flag.
One memorable moment in the 2017 competition was when gold medal winner Tal Flicker personally sang “Hatikvah” as the IJF’s anthem played in the background and its flag was raised.
“It wasn’t easy for me to compete without the flag,” said Muki. “This is something that bit me a little. In 2018, when I knew that I would fight with the flag, I can tell you that it really motivated me.”
Sasson himself drew international attention at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, when his Egyptian opponent, Islam El Shehaby, refused to shake his hand at the conclusion of their heavyweight bout.
The International Olympic Committee reprimanded El Shehaby and he was disqualified from the competition. Sasson, who lost in the semifinals but later won a bronze medal, said he had hoped El Shehaby would act cordially since the whole world was watching.
“The first thing we do right after a match is shake hands, it’s like showing respect to your opponent. When the Egyptian fighter refused to do [this] I felt like he hurt the values of the Olympic games,” Sasson said. “Deep inside I hoped that because it was the Olympics and the whole world is watching, I thought he would act differently, but he didn’t. So I just focused on the next fight and … when I finished the competition I got messages from all over the world, even until now, even people from Egypt, they said they don’t agree with the way he acted. So it had a big impact all over the world.”
Fellow athletes have expressed solidarity with the struggles the judokas have faced in hostile countries, the trio told The Algemeiner. Sasson said after El Shehaby snubbed him at the competition, Olympic gold medalist and French judoka Teddy Riner approached him to deride the Egyptian’s actions. Paltchik added that even in Abu Dhabi, when he and Muki competed without their national symbols, other players didn’t understand why they were being singled out.
“I said to them everyone knows where we come from and who we represent. We represent Israel and they can cover our flags and our symbols, but they cannot cover our fighting spirit and we’re always fighting for Israel and for our national home,” Paltchik said.
The athletes are also optimistic about anti-Israel sentiments subsiding in the near future, citing the shift in Abu Dhabi as an example of progress.
The International Judo Federation even stripped the UAE and Tunisia from hosting two international tournaments last year due to their failure to guarantee equal treatment of Israeli athletes. That resulted in Israel hosting its first-ever International Judo Federation (IJF) Grand Prix event, during which Israeli judokas racked up four gold medals, two silver medals, and one bronze medal.
“Step by step, it’s getting better,” Muki stressed.
The team’s campus tour and US trip was organized by the Jewish National Fund-USA and Media Watch International as part of their Positively Israel campaign, to highlight openness and inclusiveness in Israeli society.