Anti-Semitism in sport: Discrimination and death threats

Israel Olympics London 2012

Israeli athletes are among those who have experienced anti-Semitism in sport. Photo: Israeli athletes at the London 2012 Games by Marc/Flickr

In recent years, rich Muslim countries have won many politically attractive hosting rights for international sporting events. But, Israeli athletes pay a high price for this development.

Anti-Semitism is something that is often up for discussion. Not least in the political debate about the state of Israel, which was created as an independent Jewish nation inside Palestine in the midst of a Middle East dominated by Islam.

But, anti-Semitism is also a recurring theme in international sports politics, where the Palestinian terror attack against the Israeli team during the 1972 Munich Games, costing the lives of 11 Israeli, is the worst example.

The theme has not become less topical after rich Muslim countries in the Middle East and Asia, headed by Qatar, have been winning many politically attractive hosting rights for international sporting events in recent years.

The World Jewish Congress recently urged the United Nations Human Rights Council to condemn the discrimination and bias that Israeli athletes have been known to experience at a number of international sporting competitions.

In January this year, international attention turned to Malaysia where the government refused to issue visas to Israeli para-swimmers because of the Palestine conflict, thus preventing them from competing at the world championships, scheduled to be held in Malaysia this summer.

”If hosting an international event is more important than safeguarding the interest of our Palestinian brothers and sisters who are being mutilated time after time again, if that is more important it means we have lost our moral conscience and moral compass,” explained Malaysian sports minister Syed Saddiq on 23 January in the BBC show Hardtalk.

Four days later, the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) chose to strip Malaysia of the hosting rights and look for another host country, who would issue visas for all qualified swimmers regardless of their nationality, to take over the hosting.

A general tendency
A spokesperson from Israel’s national Olympic committee, Bruria Bigman, underlines that the Malaysia case is far from the only example of discrimination of Israeli athletes in recent years.

“Israeli athletes have suffered from several cases of discrimination and exclusion. The Israeli Olympic Committee condemns this tendency, which contradicts the International Olympic Charter,” says Bigman referring to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) whose charter advocates absolute equality between athletes and nationalities regardless of religion, race or sex.

She also emphasises that Arabic harassment of Israeli athletes is a general tendency, which is seen in many shapes:

“Athletes from Arab countries did not participate in battles when facing an Israeli athlete opponent. They staged injuries or pretended to be ill. Israeli athletes have difficulties obtaining entry visas to certain Arab countries. Israeli athletes are required to perform without the country’s symbols and the Israeli Anthem is not allowed to be played when winning a medal,” she says.

The Israeli NOC does not stand alone with this viewpoint. A group of international lawyers, headed by the renowned Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz, last year pledged to run a case about anti-Semitism in sport at the international sports court, CAS.

”We have to fight this discrimination on every front – legal, diplomatic, political and even economic,” said Dershowitz according to Israeli press.

”It may begin in sports but it doesn’t end in sports. If this is allowed to continue it will spread to other areas of life.”

Defined as hate against Jews
According to senior researcher Cecilie Felicia Stokholm Banke from the Danish Institute for International Studies, who has conducted research into anti-Semitism, the examples of harassment of Israeli athletes given by the Israeli Olympic committee can all come under the definition of anti-Semitism adopted by most of the 31 member countries in the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. The alliance, which comprises mainly of Western democracies, works against anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial.

”If the individual Israeli athlete is blamed for the politic of the Israeli government, it sounds as more than simply a critique of Israel. It sounds like hate against Jews,” says the Danish researcher.

In the examples highlighted by the Israeli NOC, several Muslim countries are doing exactly that: Making Israeli athletes collectively responsible for the actions of the Israeli government.

As hosts of an international Grand Slam judo tournament in Abu Dhabi, the Emirates have for several years banned the Israeli national judo team from competing with Israeli symbols on the athletes’ national judo gis. The Israeli flag has not been on display during the tournament alongside flags of the other competing countries. And the Israeli national song has not been played when Israeli have won a fight.

Israeli national symbols were not allowed until the most recent judo tournament in Abu Dhabi in October 2018 after the international judo federation threatened to strip the Emirates of the hosting rights if this policy was not scrapped.

“I hope the unity between the two cultures, Muslim and Israeli cultures, is a start for a new era in the sport and later in the world, social, political, economic areas,” said Marius Vizer, president of the international judo federation.

Anti-Israeli sports politics
But other Muslim countries, not recognising the state of Israel either, who do not wish diplomatic nor sportive association with the Israelis are still leading their political fights against the Jewish state all the way into the sporting arenas.

During a grand slam tournament in Paris this February, the Iranian judo world champion, Seed Mollai, deliberately lost a fight against the lower-seeded Rusland Mussaev from Kazakhstan to avoid meeting Israeli judu, Sagi Muki, in the following fight. The Iranian simulated an injury. Same thing happened in October last year, when Saeed Mollai was supposed to have competed against Sagi Muki in the Abu Dhabi tournament.

According to Radio Farda, the Iranian branch of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), the Iranian judo was afterwards celebrated by the head of Iran’s Basiji Athletes Organisation, general Davoud Azarnoush, who underlined that it is the official Iranian politic not to compete against Israeli sports teams.

“I hope Israel will be wiped out and annihilated before the next Olympic Games, and all of us will breathe a sigh of relief.”

According to the radio station, other Iranian sports leaders such as the former president of the Israeli wrestling federation, Rasoul Khadem, are less enthusiastic about Iran’s anti-Israeli sports politic.

“If we must continue with the policy of non-competition against the Zionist regime’s athletes, the responsibility cannot fall on the shoulders of the coach and the athlete. Forcing an athlete to accept defeat or run around all night looking for a doctor's note is not right.”

Death threats on social media
Another Muslim country, the sultanate Oman, hosted the Windsurfing World Championships back in 2015 and refused to issue visas to Israeli windsurfers. Only if the surfers had a dual nationality passport were they allowed entry even though the championship was an important warm up for the Rio Olympics the following year.

These circumstances led the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs to advise the Israeli windsurfers against going to Oman for security reasons. This did not keep 27-year-old Israeli medal hope, Maayan Davidovich, from traveling to the sultanate using her Austrian passport and without Israeli national symbols on her outfit and gear.

Same year, Indonesia refused to issue visa to Israeli badminton player and Olympic athlete Misha Zilberman for him to compete in the badminton world championship in Jakarta. Only the day before the Israeli was supposed to play, was he picked up from a week-long non-voluntary stay in Singapore, by the general secretary of the international badminton federation, Thomas Lund.

“I received a lot of threats, on Twitter and Facebook as well. ‘You won´t get a visa’, ‘we will kill you’, ‘you shouldn´t come here’. What was important was to show that I’m here even though they tried to break me. To show, that sports beat politics,” Zilberman explained to Israeli media about his experiences in Indonesia.

In Qatar, which ranks number 16 on British SportCal’s list of the biggest sports nations and a highly controversial host of the upcoming FIFA World Cup in 2022, large parts of the Muslim population also use social media to distance themselves from Israeli participation in the nation’s many international competitions.

“The bulk of public opinion among Arab nationals is very different to Israel than their political elites. For them, to find out about Israeli sports teams coming is very, very difficult,” said professor in Middle East politics at the Durham University, UK, Christopher Davidson, to AFP when Israeli participation in an international school handball tournament in Qatar last year started a media storm from Muslim parents wanting to pull their children from the competition if Israeli children also took part.

Nazi salutes in the stadiums
Anti-Semitism is not restricted to Muslim countries. This was documented in the largest study so far about anti-Semitism and hate crimes against European Jews, which was published by the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights in December last year. Of the 16,000 Jews from the 12 EU countries that participated in the study, nine out of ten said that they experience an increasing level of anti-Semitism in their home country.

For many years, European football fans have used anti-Semitism as a weapon in their verbal and often violent fights against opposing supporter groups. Already ten years ago, a report by the British Parliament, ‘Anti-Semitism in European Football – A Scar on the Beautiful Game’, concluded that right-wing hoodlums and other extremists in a number of European countries are trying to whip up an anti-Semitic atmosphere around football matches with the use of Nazi salutes and hateful slogans against Jews.

Footballers in well-known European top clubs like Tottenham in London and Ajax in Amsterdam are often mocked by their opponents’ fans for being Jews because both clubs have traditionally had many Jewish immigrants among their supporters. According to the Times of Israel, it did not ease the anti-Semitic rhetoric in the Netherlands that some non-Jewish among Ajax supporters label themselves ‘super-Jews’ and have been known to sing ‘Hava Nagila’ on the stands while swinging large Israeli flags.

Many supporters defend the anti-Semitic rhetoric by saying that these expressions should not be understood literally, rather they form part of a group of ‘insider expressions’ used in the linguistically free space of football.

In 2011, however, in a study on anti-Semitism in Dutch football, researcher Manfred Gerstenfeld from the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs concluded that expressions like ‘Hamas, Jews to the gas’ have seeped from the football stadiums and into the surrounding society where they are used as protest songs in demonstrations against Israel. And there are no signs that anti-Semitism in European football is in the decline.

In the beginning of March this year, German police investigated a tweet suggesting that the Israeli captain of the German club Ingolstadt should disappear ‘into the chamber’. A remark, which allegedly referred to the chambers that German Nazis used in the genocide of Jews during World War II.

Foes in a friendly fight
The strained relationship that Arab and other Muslim countries have with Israel has led to the Israeli football federation internationally residing under the European football federation, UEFA, while the Israel Olympic Committee belongs under the European Olympic Committee (EOC).

Presented with the many examples of anti-Semitism in sport, president of the Danish Olympic Committee and vice-president of the EOC, Niels Nygaard, restricts himself to underlining that he fully backs the IOC policy of stripping countries of hosting rights if they do not honor their obligations about equal access and rights for all:

”It is important that official competitions in all sports are open for athletes from all member countries. Luckily, this is normally the case. And there are many examples of athletes from countries that are officially at war but who participate in friendly competition against eachother.”

Examples of political and religious enemies competing peacefully in the sporting arena do not appease Bruria Bigman from the Israeli Olympic committee:

“We believe that this is the way to act – preventing hosting rights from countries who bans and boycotts athletes and countries from competing."


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