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February 15, 2023 5:20 pm

Legal Group Demands South African Rugby Union Take ‘Principled Stand’ and Reinvite Israeli Team to Tournament


avatar by Shiryn Ghermezian

Members of Tel Aviv Heat lined up before their game against Black Lion as part of the 2022 Rugby Europe Super Cup finals. Photo: YouTube screenshot.

Arsen Ostrovsky, a human rights attorney and CEO of the Israel-based International Legal Forum, is demanding that the South Africa Rugby Union (SARU) reverse its decision to disinvite Israel’s national rugby team from an upcoming competition following pressure from supporters of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

“We call on SA Rugby to live up to its own values and immediately reverse its decision, re-invite Tel Aviv Heat to the competition and make an unequivocal statement condemning the intimidatory, bullying and discriminatory tactics of the BDS movement and those who led the campaign to rescind the invitation to Tel Aviv Heat,” Ostrovsky wrote in a letter sent via email on Wednesday to SARU President Mark Alexander, which was obtained by The Algemeiner.

SARU announced earlier this month that it rescinded its invitation to have the rugby team Tel Aviv Heat compete in the Mzansi Challenge tournament, which is scheduled to start on March 24 with teams from across Africa and six South African provinces. Explaining its decision, SARU said it had “listened to the opinions of important stakeholder groups” and took the step “to avoid the likelihood of the competition becoming a source of division.”

Tel Aviv Heat released a statement expressing disappointment in SARU’s actions, saying that its 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.”

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The handbook of the World Rugby governing body, of which SARU is a member of, forbids “discrimination of any kind against a country” and SARU’s constitution says one of its main objectives is to promote “inclusivity and diversity within the game,” Ostrovsky cited in his letter to SARU’s president.

“Your decision to exclude a team from Israel, the only team to be disinvited from the tournament is, therefore, a complete abrogation of the very values of inclusivity, unity and non-discrimination that the game of rugby is meant to represent, and the principles SA Rugby is obliged to legally uphold,” he explained.

Ostrovsky further condemned the union for folding under pressure and alleged threats that it faced from the BDS movement.

He told SARU, “instead of taking a principled stand, objecting to these methods and taking the necessary security precautions to ensure the safety and security of all players, officials, staff and supporters, SA Rugby cowardly caved-in, sending a message that intimidation, bullying and extortion by BDS supporters will achieve its desired goals.”

South African Friends of Israel (SAFI) has also reached out to SARU about its decision regarding Tel Aviv Heat, accusing the union of allowing “political interference” in sports, according to the South African news outlet IOL. The Jewish group asked SARU for minutes of the meetings it claimed it held with stakeholders before it announced its move against Tel Aviv Heat. SAFI said if they are not given the information by Wednesday, they will submit a Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA) application on Thursday morning.

Rowan Polovin, national chairman of the South African Zionist Federation, told The Algemeiner on Wednesday that the federation fully supports SAFI’s move to submit an application for full access to meeting minutes and the “decision-making process that led to this bigoted decision.”

“We believe this will provide us with an indication of who was involved in SARU’s decision-making process, and if it allowed ANC [African National Congress] politics and the antisemitic BDS agenda to define who is welcome to participate in sporting events in our beautiful country,” he said.

The British group UK Lawyers for Israel (UKLFI) has also written to Alexander, as well as to World Rugby about its move against Tel Aviv Heat, calling it “illegal” for going against SARU’s constitution.

“Although there have been suggestions that the invitation was cancelled on security grounds, this is belied by Mr Alexander’s statement and by the fact that the decision to cancel was evidently taken without any new risk assessment,” Jonathan Turner, chief executive of UKLFI, said in a released statement. “It appears that the cancellation decision was taken on racist grounds, pandering to the bigotry of unidentified “stakeholder groups.”

Earlier in February a New Zealand-based lawyer filed a legal complaint with World Rugby Council in regards to SARU’s decision to axe Tel Aviv Heat from the tournament.

Mark Alexander did not respond to The Algemeiner‘s request for comment at time of publication and the South Africa Rugby Union referred back to its original statement about their decision when contacted.

Note: the story has been updated to include information about UKLFI’s involvement and a quote from its chief executive.

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