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March 16, 2023 11:29 am
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Legal Group Representing Israeli Rugby Team Demands ‘Immediate’ Reinstatement to Competition After ‘Discriminatory’ Ban

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avatar by Shiryn Ghermezian

Players from Tel Aviv Heat celebrating after a victory on the field in London in November 2022. Photo: Provided

A legal advocacy organization is urging the World Rugby Union (WRU) to immediately allow an Israeli rugby team to participate in a competition in South Africa after the team was uninvited by the South African Rugby Union (SARU).

The Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, which is representing the Israeli team Tel Aviv Heat, highlighted in its letter on Thursday to WRU’s executive committee SARU’s “discriminatory exclusion” of the Israeli team from the Mzansi Challenge, which begins on March 24 with teams from Kenya, Namibia, Zimbabwe and six South African provinces.

The organization is asking WRU to take “an emergency decision on this matter” by acknowledging that Tel Aviv Heat have been discriminated against by SARU, and forcing the latter to “immediately” reinstate Tel Aviv Heat into the Mzansi Challenge and also apologize to the Israeli team. The committee is also being asked to impose sanctions on SARU for their actions.

SARU said on Feb. 3 that it withdrew its invitation to have Tel Aviv Heat compete in the Mzansi Challenge, saying that it “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.” The announcement was abruptly made with no prior notice to Tel Aviv Heat after supporters of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel pressured SARU, saying it “will have blood on its hands” if it allowed the “apartheid Israeli team” to compete in the Mzansi Challenge.

The Louis D. Brandeis Center noted in its letter that SARU further claimed its exclusion of Tel Aviv Heat was “not due to shortcomings from the Tel Aviv’s side” and gave two reasons for its decision: “the threat to the security of all people participating,” and a concern that any disruption of the Mzansi Challenge would threaten the principle “that rugby must always be ‘stronger together.’”

However, the legal group believes that SARU’s claim that rugby must be “stronger together” appears “to be coded language meaning ‘stronger without Israelis.’” The Louis D. Brandeis Center reminded the WRU that discriminating against athletes based on their nationality and country violates the governing body’s bylaws and code of conduct as well as the “fundamental principles of international sports.”

“Evidence indicates that the Heat were excluded as a team because they are based in Israel,” the legal group said. “The members of the team come from diverse backgrounds. They were excluded from the Mzansi Challenge, however, due to their association with Israel.”

The group also drew attention to a number of BDS-affiliated groups that took credit for SARU’s decision against Tel Aviv Heat and released statements praising the move to disinvite the team from the Mzansi Challenge.

The legal group further pointed out that WRU has never before permitted member unions, like SARU, “to discriminate on their own initiative” and that nothing in WRU’s bylaws allows national unions “authorization to discriminate” on their own accord. The WRU has excluded only three other competitors in the past based on nationality, according to Louis D. Brandeis Center — apartheid-era South Africa, and Russia and Belarus were banned after the 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

Others organizations which have asked SARU to amend its actions against Tel Aviv Heat include the Israel-based International Legal Forum, the Jewish group South African Friends of Israel and the British group UK Lawyers for Israel.

In February, a New Zealand-based lawyer filed a legal complaint with the World Rugby Council about SARU’s move. The Israel Rugby Union and Tel Aviv Heat have also threatened to take legal action against SARU.

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