Israeli Rugby Team Disinvited From Tournament After Facing BDS Pressure
by Shiryn Ghermezian
The Tel Aviv Heat, Israel’s first professional rugby team, said on Monday that it was “surprised and disappointed” that the South African Rugby Union (SARU) has rescinded its invitation to have the Israeli athletes participate in an upcoming competition in South Africa.
The Israeli team, founded in 2021, was set to compete in the 2023 Mzansi Challenge starting on March 24 with teams from Kenya, Namibia and Zimbabwe, and six South African provinces. However, SARU told the team on Friday that it has withdrawn the invitation. The Mexican Rhinos have been earmarked to replace Tel Aviv Heat, pending approval by SA Rugby’s General Council.
“We have listened to the opinions of important stakeholder groups and have taken this decision to avoid the likelihood of the competition becoming a source of division, notwithstanding the fact that Israel is a full member of World Rugby and the [International Olympic Committee] IOC,” said SARU President Mark Alexander.
The announcement was made the same day that the South African BDS Coalition released a statement expressing outrage and calling the rugby union’s invitation to Tel Avi Heat “embarrassing” and an “overtly racist move.” The anti-Israel group also said “if this apartheid Israeli team comes to play in South Africa, SARU will have blood on its hands.” The BDS Coalition then celebrated a victory after the SARU made its decision to disinvite the Israel team and said “kick apartheid Israel out of all sports now.”
In March 2022, Tel Aviv Heat was invited by the South African rugby team Blue Bulls to visit their home country and play against three local rugby teams. Israel’s team also includes a number of South Africans, including former Bulls players, and its coach Kevin Musikanth was born in South Africa.
Tel Aviv Heat said in its statement on Monday that although SARU claimed that they had “listened to the opinions of important stakeholder groups,” SARU “did not consult with the Tel Aviv Heat, the Israel Rugby Union, or the Israeli Embassy in South Africa prior to the decision,” the Israeli team explained.
Tel Aviv Heat, which made it to the finals of the 2022 Rugby Europe Super Cup, added that its success on and off the field “has been driven by its rewarding and supportive team culture that brings together players, staff, and a community of passionate supporters that bridge multiple cultures, races, nationalities, and religions.”
“Blocking participation in the Mzansi Challenge has deprived the Tel Aviv Heat of a strategic opportunity to continue its development as an elite professional rugby team and to build valuable brand equity in South Africa and other Mzansi Challenge markets and unjustly punishes and demoralizes players, coaches, staff, and supporters in the midst of preparing for the competition,” the team said in its statement.
Tel Aviv Heat also noted that SARU’s decision to disinvite the Israeli team from the Mzansi Challenge “will only sow further division in South Africa and beyond by bolstering voices dedicated to vilify, demonize, and censor those who do not share their views.”
The team said, “In the end, SARU’s decision runs contrary to the spirit and core values of rugby, promotes the politics of hatred and retribution over the best interests of sport, and exposes the Tel Aviv Heat and its supporters to being targeted by aggressive, hateful language designed to intimidate, delegitimize, and silence.”