Unsporting behavior, a call to end Israeli athletic discrimination

Israeli tennis player Shahar Pe'er at a 2008 press conference with other members of the Israeli team prior to their Fed Cup match against Russia in Tel Aviv. Credit: Roni Schutzer/Flash90.
Israeli tennis player Shahar Pe'er at a 2008 press conference with other members of the Israeli team prior to their Fed Cup match against Russia in Tel Aviv. Credit: Roni Schutzer/Flash90.

By Ben Cohen/JNS.org

One of the most enduring images of last summer’s Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro captured Islam El Shehaby, an Egyptian judo competitor, or judoka, turning his back on the outstretched hand of his opponent, Or Sasson, after the Israeli athlete’s victory in a bout that earned him the bronze medal.

As El Shehaby stomped off to the locker room, the referee called him back for the customary bow to the opponent, which was met with a curt nod. As he turned around again, loud booing emerged from the crowd. Because of the handshake refusal, El Shehaby was sent home from the games in disgrace.

Many Israel advocates regarded El Shehaby’s actions as emblematic of an Arab and Muslim loathing of Israel that manifests in all contexts as soon as there is an opportunity. Quite a few of them took to social media to slam the Egyptian personally. In my view that was unfair. True, El Shehaby hardly endeared himself to the spectators, and he may well share the hostile views toward Jews expressed by 75 percent or so of his countrymen, but I don’t think he had much of a choice. Before the fight with Sasson, he’d been warned on social media that competing against an Israeli was a violation of the Islamic faith, and so he did something to save face. Competing and then behaving in such a disgraceful fashion is marginally better than boycotting the contest outright, as was done by the Iranian judoka Arash Miresmaeili, whose refusal to fight the Israeli Ehud Vaks at the 2004 Olympics in Athens garnered him much praise from the regime in Tehran.

Iran and Egypt aren’t the only Muslim-majority countries to boycott Israel and its athletes, violating every norm of good sportsmanship in the process. In 2009, the United Arab Emirates denied Israeli tennis star Shahar Pe’er an entry visa, forcing her to pull out of that year’s Tennis Championship in Dubai. Since then, Arab states have grudgingly granted visas to Israeli athletes, including Pe’er, but have discriminated against them in other ways. At an international swimming competition in Dubai and Qatar in 2013, Israeli competitors were excluded from broadcasts and endured protests from officials, who refused to say the word “Israel.” When Amit Ivry won the silver medal in the 100m Individual Medley, the Israeli flag was blanked off in broadcasts of the award ceremony.

In the world’s most popular sport, soccer, Israel has regularly taken an off-the-field battering from the game’s international authorities (on the field, the national team has failed to qualify for every World Cup since 1970, but that’s for another column.) Last year, in the midst of an unprecedented corruption scandal which resulted in the exit of most of the international governing body FIFA’s leadership, Israel’s soccer authorities fought a Palestinian challenge to have them expelled.

Now, the Palestinians have adapted their campaign to a targeted boycott of six teams based in Jewish communities in the West Bank. All of these teams are lower league sides, and are a million miles from making it to the glamour of European competitions, where even Israel’s top teams struggle to get past the group qualifying stage. But that doesn’t matter to the Palestinians who – not satisfied with their own membership of FIFA, which was never opposed by Israel – are insisting that a body that governs soccer (very badly) is in a position to adjudicate Israel’s borders.

They’ve also turned to the U.N., which has, unsurprisingly, indicated that it supports the move to force Israeli clubs to move behind the Green Line. Meanwhile, FIFA’s president, Gianni Infantino, has said the issue must be resolved before his organization’s congress next year, which conveniently falls during the major anniversaries commemorating Israeli military victories in the 1947-48 and 1967 wars.

If FIFA does take action against Israel over these clubs, then it will have to get ready for a volley of accusations concerning double standards. After all, if Israel has to face consequences for national league teams that have no impact on the ability of Palestinian teams and the Palestinian national side to play the game – the national side is currently competing for a place in the 2018 World Cup competition – then why have a different rule for Iran, which bans women from attending matches, an act of gender discrimination that defies several international conventions?

FIFA is in an even weaker spot when it comes to Qatar, the tiny oil-and-gas emirate arguably its most powerful member, having secured the hosting rights to the 2022 World Cup following a corrupt bidding process. Qatar is politically close to Jibril Rajoub, the Fatah leader who heads the Palestine Football Association, and will therefore do whatever it can to boost him, even if that means tarring the sport with the sectarian hatreds of the Middle East.

More importantly, FIFA is facing legal action in Switzerland over the abysmal treatment of the migrant workers constructing soccer stadiums in Qatar; under the emirate’s kafala system of labor importation, these workers are little more than slaves, enduring medieval working conditions for pennies in exchange. Now a Dutch labor union is suing FIFA for complicity in these abuses, on behalf of Nadim Sharaful Alam, a Bangladeshi migrant worker. If FIFA, kowtowing to the Qataris, couldn’t demand the abolition of the kafala system as a condition of hosting the World Cup, then what legitimacy can be assigned to any future act of punishment directed against Israel?

Most soccer fans, and sports aficionados in general, detest the imposition of political conflicts on athletic competitions. Moreover, boycotts and acts of discrimination can backfire. When the UAE excluded Shahar Pe’er, Venus Williams issued a condemnation and Andy Roddick withdrew in solidarity before the Wall Street Journal pulled its sponsorship.

These are important precedents that need to be drawn upon in any situation in which Israeli athletes face discrimination. Come 2018, Israel will have been an independent state for 70 years (and a member of the U.N. for 69 years.) Whatever trouble Israel experiences on the global stage, it’s past time for these vindictive attempts to exclude it from world sports to end for good.

Ben Cohen, senior editor of TheTower.org & The Tower Magazine, writes a weekly column for JNS.org on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, The Wall Street Journal, and many other publications. He is the author of “Some of My Best Friends: A Journey Through Twenty-First Century Antisemitism” (Edition Critic, 2014).

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