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Time to huddle: Antisemitism on the field

The world of sport is emerging as the next battleground.

Sagiv Jehezkel played for the Turkish soccer team Antalyaspor. Credit: Antalyaspor.
Sagiv Jehezkel played for the Turkish soccer team Antalyaspor. Credit: Antalyaspor.
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen writes a weekly column for JNS on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in the New York Post, The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, Haaretz and many other publications.

As unsettling and painful as the current wave of global antisemitism that followed the Oct. 7 Hamas pogrom in Israel is, it’s still important to remember that those bestial atrocities were an episode in, and not the fundamental cause of, the renewal and remodeling of this ancient superstition.

Where it all began remains a matter of debate. Many analysts nod to the U.N. World Conference Against Racism in 2001 in Durban, South Africa, where several of the memes visible in today’s pro-Hamas protests were rudely on display, as the point of origin. Others go back further, into the Cold War, when the Soviet Union ran a vicious campaign of anti-Zionist propaganda centered on the claim that Zionism is a form of Nazism. And one can go back even further, to the antisemitic riots and revolts targeting Jewish communities in British Mandate Palestine in 1929 and 1936. The point is that the basic message—Jews as colonial interlopers who must be destroyed—hasn’t really changed.

The other consideration is that certain sectors are more amenable than are others to anti-Zionist antisemitism, or antizionism, as I prefer to call it. Over the last two decades, the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement seeking to quarantine Israel alone among the world’s nations has been the most tangible and energetic expression of contemporary opposition to Zionism. In the worlds of culture and academia, especially, boycotts of Israel and shrill rhetoric denouncing Zionism (or more precisely, a caricature of Zionism) have been the order of the day.

Regardless, then, of where and when we believe the current wave began, that discussion is less important than an assessment of where we are headed—and specifically, which spheres of human activity alongside art and education will start to echo the growing antisemitic chorus, both in their words and in their deeds.

The world of sport is emerging as the next battleground. It is a much more fearsome prospect; a row over an art exhibition featuring antisemitic caricatures or a lecture at a provincial campus promoting antisemitic tropes is, let’s be honest, a picnic compared to a row involving an athlete with instant, global name recognition.

Someone like the French soccer icon Karim Benzema, a former Real Madrid striker and winner of the coveted Ballon d’Or football (soccer) award who now plays in Saudi Arabia, and who this week announced that he would be suing Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin. A devout Muslim, at least outwardly, Benzema fired off an angry social-media post denouncing Israel’s “unjust bombardments” in the Gaza Strip. When Darmanin was asked about the post in an interview with a conservative broadcaster, he lambasted Benzema for his silence on the Oct. 7 atrocities in Israel and then charged that the player retained close links with the Muslim Brotherhood, the global Islamist network that includes Hamas.

Benzema angrily denied any links with the Brotherhood, accusing Darmanin of exploiting his fame—and notoriety—to push an Islamophobic smear. Now Darmanin may have to answer in court for his impulsive statement (it would have been more prudent to describe Benzema as an “echo chamber” for the Brotherhood) in a spectacle that will draw the French and international media like bees to honey. Benzema will present himself as the victim and will enclose the Palestinian population of Gaza in his victimhood in a circus that will only compound the fear prevailing among French Jews and bolster the view among hundreds of millions of soccer fans that the State of Israel is a criminal enterprise—whether or not he wins or loses any eventual court case.

The demonizing discourse about Israel now percolating in the world of sports is, alarmingly, being matched with acts of discrimination against Israeli and Jewish athletes—just as Jewish and Israeli academics, artists and musicians have suffered discrimination as a result of antisemitic agitation in their spaces.

Last week, Sagiv Jehezkel, an Israeli winger playing for the Turkish soccer club Antalyaspor, was arrested by security forces before being booted out of both his contract and the country. Jehezkel’s offense was to score an equalizing goal in a match against Trabzonspor and then celebrate by displaying his bandaged wrist to the cameras. On the bandage, Jehezkel had scrawled a Star of David and the words “100 days” (a reference to the continuing plight of Israeli hostages in Gaza) and “7/10” (the date of the Hamas pogrom.)

The reaction in Turkey was furious. Jehezkel was abused as a “Zionist dog” and accused of violating Turkish sensibilities. Should he ever return to Turkey, he will likely face arrest and prosecution. But it is unlikely that he will go back, just as it is unlikely that any Israeli soccer talent will find its way to Turkey for the foreseeable future. Sports in Turkey are effectively Judenrein.

There are good grounds to fear that a similar situation is emerging in South Africa, too, where the U-19 Cricket World Cup is currently being hosted. One week before the tournament commenced, Cricket South Africa (CSA), the sport’s domestic governing body, announced that it was removing David Teeger, the South African team’s sole Jewish player, from his role as captain, citing “security fears” about angry protests by Hamas supporters targeting Teeger as the official reason.

This was—in a word summed up by MLB Hall-of-Famer Kevin Youkilis, who declared his solidarity with Teeger—“bullsh*t.” Shortly after the Hamas pogrom, Teeger was the subject of a complaint submitted to CSA by pro-Hamas campaigners who objected to his remarks at a Jewish communal award ceremony, where he lauded “the State of Israel and every single soldier fighting so that we can live and thrive in the diaspora.” They argued that Teeger had brought the game into disrepute, though an independent commission reporting to CSA duly found that Teeger had not violated CSA’s code of conduct with his speech, clearing the way for the talented young batsman to be appointed as captain the following month.

Even so, the political pressure from the ruling ANC was unrelenting. It is no accident that Teeger was humiliated in the same week that South Africa launched a legal case against Israel at the International Court of Justice on the trumped-up charge of “genocide”—elegantly, if inadvertently, illustrating the inevitable domestic impact of an antisemitic foreign policy.

Here in the United States, Jewish professional athletes are unlikely, for the moment, to experience this kind of discrimination. Yet as the recent antisemitism scandal involving the NBA’s Kyrie Irving (and others in different athletic arenas before him) demonstrated, our sporting scene is as vulnerable as anywhere else to antisemitic propaganda, often of the crudest sort. It’s definitely time to huddle.

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