By refusing to shake hands with the Israeli who had just defeated him, Egyptian Olympic judoka Islam al Shehady was booed by the audience and reprimanded before being sent home by the International Olympic Committee. The headlines ran on the lines of ‘outrage’ and the ‘snubbing’ of the Israeli. International Judo Federation spokesman Nicolas Messner said the bout between the two athletes been ‘a sign of progress and of a big improvement that Arabic [sic.] countries agree to fight Israel.’
All of it was marred by Shehady’s refusal to shake hands with the Israeli, Or Sasson. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) said Shehady’s action was ‘contrary to the rules of fair play’ and against the spirit of friendship exemplified by the games.
Shehady himself, who had come under pressure at home not to compete, said that ‘I have no problem with Jewish people or any other religions or different beliefs but for personal reasons you can’t ask me to shake the hand of anyone from this state, especially in front of the world.’
If there was a question, it is probably why he agreed to fight the Israeli in the first place. He could have refused (and wrecked his international sporting career) as a Syrian boxer did in June. Refusing to fight an Olympic qualifying match against an Israeli he said that ‘I cannot compete against him when he represents a Zionist regime that is killing the Syrian people.’ Israel’s support for the takfiris doing exactly that is not even secret nor is the wish expressed by senior political figures that they would rather see an Islamic State regime in Damascus than the present secular government.
This was not the only political protest at the Rio Olympics against Israel. The Lebanese team refused to travel in the same bus as the Israelis, drawing from the Zionist regime’s ‘minister of sports and culture’, the ultra-rightwing Miri Regev, the comment that their behavior was ‘anti-semitism’ and the ‘worst kind of racism’. What goes on in Hebron and across the West Bank every day fits into another category in Ms. Regev’s world.
The situation invites comparisons with the past and particularly the attitude of the international sporting world to apartheid South Africa. Segregation in South Africa was written into law so it looked worse but Zionist apartheid against Palestinians is actually worse. Not only is there apartheid in regular daily officially sanctioned practice but Palestinians over more than seven decades have suffered a level of state violence never experienced by black South Africans. The massacres on the West Bank and in Gaza, or in Lebanon, completely eclipse the killing of black South Africans, the worst of which, in terms of numbers, was the killing of 69 people during demonstrations in the township of Sharpeville in March, 1960.
Apartheid in the case of South Africa eventually led to exclusion and boycotts. Cricketers and rugby teams broke the rules but all the important international federations had by the 1970s expelled or suspended South Africa: they included the IOC and FIFA. By 1980 the UN had established a ‘Register of Sports Contacts’ aimed at putting moral pressure on sportsmen and women who continued to compete in South Africa.
As a state with a shocking record of violating international law and as a state which has never shown any interest in any kind of peace other than one it can dictate and impose it remains an anomaly that Israel has not been given the same treatment as South Africa. If it had ever shown any willingness to live within the law, to accommodate what the world has defined as a fair settlement, i.e. a state for the Palestinians, there might be some argument for shaking hands with Israelis at the Olympic games but it does not. On the contrary, even while the athletes were competing in Rio, the Israeli regime announced the construction of 2500 more housing units on the West Bank. Against this background, for the Olympics committee or other international sports federations to issue irritated statements about ‘fair play’ and ‘friendship’ is grotesque.
There are precedents for political gestures being made at the Olympics. At the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, black American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised gloved hands in the black power salute when standing on the rostrum to receive their medals. The same booing that Islam el Shehady had to endure followed, along with the same reprimand and being sent home from the games in official disgrace. Time magazine featured Smith and Carlos on a cover under the heading ‘Angrier, Nastier, Uglier.’
The athletes themselves defined their gesture as a ‘human rights’ salute which – whether Time liked it or not – was what ‘black power’ was all about: the current ‘Black Lives Matter’ sits in the same category and the fact that black Americans still have to mass in defense of their rights and against police killings (very much a feature of American life in the 60s and 70s) is a sign of how far the US has not come (or has yet to go). Other athletes elsewhere have made similar gestures, often against the racism of spectators. In 1993 the indigenous Australian footballer Nicky Winmar, sick of racial abuse by the crowd, defiantly and proudly pulled up his sweater to show them the color of his skin. His gesture is now regarded as a defining moment in Australian sporting culture.
It is not Islam al Shehady at fault but the IOC for not making the abandonment of apartheid practices at home a condition for Israel’s continued participation in the Olympic Games. Of the 47 athletes in the 2016 Israeli Olympic team, many of Russian origin, there is not one Israeli Palestinian. Did the IOC notice this and wonder about the reasons? There was no Palestinian in the Israeli team competing at the London Olympics in 2012 and in fact only two Palestinians have ever competed for Israel. Across-the-board structural discrimination against Palestinian Israelis, including the refusal to invest any money in the sports sector, suggests one reason.
‘Fair play’ and friendship’ were nowhere in evidence when Israel prevented the head of the Palestinian Olympic team, Issam Qishta, from leaving Gaza for Rio; neither were they apparent when Israel blocked the entry into Gaza and the West Bank of equipment needed by Palestinian sportsmen and women, compelling them to buy it when they reached Brazil; neither were they apparent when, in November 2102, apart from killing nearly 200 people during one of its onslaughts, Israel destroyed the offices of Palestine’s National Paralympic Committee and the Gaza sports stadium. Only recently the head of the lower Galilee regional council, Moti Dotan, said he did not want ‘Arabs’ using community swimming pools for reasons of hygiene: ‘Their culture of cleanliness is not the same as ours.’ Such seemingly random statements are the evidence of deeply rooted ideological, structural and social racism. The evidence shows that most Israeli Jews do not want to live with Palestinians in the same towns or even the same buildings let alone swimming in the same pools: accordingly, why should Palestinians or any Arab sympathetic to the Palestinian cause be expected to go through the motions of shaking hands with Israelis at the Olympics or any other sporting event?
The time to shake hands with Israeli athletes will come only when the state of Israel agrees to live by the principles of ‘fair play’ and ‘friendship’ instead of violating them at every single level. The UN, the IOC and FIFA, amongst other international organizations, are actually impeding the cause of peace by refusing to link a reversal of racist policies with participation in international sporting events. It worked in South Africa but unlike South Africa, Israel has a powerful benefactor, which until now these international organizations dare not challenge even though they must be well aware of the disgusting situation for Palestinians living under Israeli rule.
In the meantime, Arab athletes should not be expected to sanction Israel’s standing violations of international law by competing with its athletes or, if they do decide to compete, by shaking hands with them and thus contributing to a false and completely misleading image of ‘friendship’, ‘fair play’ and progress on the political front.
– Jeremy Salt taught at the University of Melbourne, at Bosporus University in Istanbul and Bilkent University in Ankara for many years, specializing in the modern history of the Middle East. Among his recent publications is his 2008 book, The Unmaking of the Middle East. A History of Western Disorder in Arab Lands (University of California Press). He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.