With the onset of the Olympics a new discussion has emerged on Twitter and the blogosphere regarding the decision of certain Olympians to refuse competing and training with Israeli athletes. This is a necessary conversation for those of us who stand in solidarity with the oppressed around the world to have.
First, I have seen various comments online objecting to the premise of the discussion because it politicizes the Olympics. It appears that this stems from a general understanding of Israel’s aggression against the Arab world as a political problem. My response is that my concern for those who suffer from Israeli oppression has nothing to do with politics. As far as I am concerned, oppression of a people is a humanitarian issue and is the business of each and every one of us as human beings. I believe that all human beings are entitled to justice, freedom and equality regardless of sex, race, religion or ethnicity. To claim that a struggle for justice is somehow political is to fall prey to the terms of the oppressor and, by default, only serves to further enable and normalize oppression.
Along the same lines, to claim the Olympics are free of politics is simply naïve. During the opening ceremonies in London, Taiwan was referred to as “Chinese Taipei” and Macedonia the “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.” Both labels make careful and conscious political statements. Let’s also not forget that in 1980, 65 nations, including the United States and Israel boycotted the Moscow games following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. More recently, Israel itself pushed heavily for a minute’s silence to commemorate the killing of eleven Israeli athletes in Munich by the Palestine ‘Black September’ group. The initiative for a minute’s silence flopped, but Israeli athletes entered the opening ceremonies with black handkerchiefs in their pockets commemorating the events of Munich, which happened over forty years ago. Politics are not foreign to the Olympics.
Now, the most well known incident in the London Olympics of boycotting Israel is the Lebanese judo team’s refusal to practice on the same mat as the Israeli team. There was also a false report on the blog Angry Arab News which stated that a Tunisian swimmer, Taqi Murabit, refused to compete with an Israeli swimmer. It turns out that Murabit was disqualified for a technicality. Regardless, that report helped this conversation blossom. Refusing to compete or train with Israeli athletes is a bold statement that merits reflection and careful consideration. What kind of message is being sent? Are these athletes justified in their refusal? Why Israeli athletes?
I strongly support the Lebanese athletes and any athlete who refuses to compete and train with Israeli athletes. At the same time, I do not wish to condemn those who do not do the same. Both are understandable and justifiable.
Let’s take a moment to consider the Israeli team and what exactly it represents. First, Israel is a state founded on the ideas of separation and ethnocentrism. Even before it existed, Israel’s founders began a premeditated and deliberate process of ethnically cleansing historic Palestine of its indigenous population. Israel also maintains the longest military occupation of modern history, collectively punishes the 1.6 million inhabitants of the Gaza Strip through a brutal economic and maritime siege and routinely carries out acts of aggression not only against Palestinians but also its neighboring countries. What does this have to do with the Israeli Olympic team?
Much of the criticism of the view that Israeli participation in the Olympics should not be normalized is largely centered around the understanding that Olympic teams and athletes are separate and independent of the crimes and policies of their states. It follows then, that it would be wrong to hold Israeli athletes responsible for the crimes of Israel. This would be true if it weren’t for the fact that at least two of the Israeli athletes competing in the Olympics this year served in the Israeli Air Force that routinely bombs civilian populations in Palestine and neighboring countries. Moreover, Israeli athletes openly announce that they serve as representatives of not only Israel but also the IDF. The IDF Spokesperson on July 23rd tweeted boasting about the participation of two former IDF soldiers in the Olympics.
Furthermore, in this article published on the IDF’s website, one of the members of the Israeli Olympic team, Pvt. Yaakov Tomarkin, is quoted as saying, “I represent both my country and the IDF in front of my competitors around the world and prove that as a soldier you can reach high levels and succeed.”
Notice the word choice: he “represents” the IDF in front of his “competitors” and “the world.” Many of his competitors have been direct victims of Israel’s crimes, which Yaakov openly endorses and condones.
Now, this former IDF soldier is clearly very proud of his service in the IDF. Let’s take a second to consider what this service might have entailed and whether it is really deserving of such pride.
Between July 12, 2006 and August 14, 2006, the IDF conducted more than 7,000 indiscriminate and disproportionate air attacks in Lebanon leaving an estimated 1,183 people killed (one-third of whom were children). 4,054 individuals were injured and 970,000 people, or 25 percent of the total population, were displaced (Amnesty International).
According to a report by Amnesty International on Israel’s Operation Cast Lead, (which left over 1,400 Palestinians dead, hundreds of which were children and unarmed civilians, and large areas of Gaza razed to the ground) “Aerial bombardments launched from Israeli F-16 combat aircraft targeted and destroyed civilian homes without warning, killing and injuring scores of their inhabitants, often while they slept. Children playing on the roofs of their homes or in the street and other civilians going about their daily business, as well as medical staff attending the wounded were killed in broad daylight by Hellfire and other highly accurate missiles launched from helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, and by precision projectiles fired from tanks.” Israel also notoriously used white phosphorus, “a highly incendiary substance, that was repeatedly fired indiscriminately over densely populated residential areas, killing and wounding civilians and destroying civilian property.” This information is from Amnesty’s full report titled ‘Operation “Cast Lead”: 22 days of death and destruction.”
This is hardly a record fit for a proud Olympian, much less a human being with an ounce of decency. The only international stage the likes of Yaakov Tomarkin should be paraded on is a court of law in front of a jury and the world.
To put things in perspective, it would be one thing if Israel made an effort to separate its Olympic sport team from its politics, but this is not the case. The Israeli athletes themselves have announced that they view their participation in the Olympics as an extension of the tenure in the Israeli Army and as an opportunity to “prove that as a soldier you can reach high levels and succeed.” Couple this open declaration with the fact that Israel has yet to be held accountable for any of its crimes and one can easily see how it is entirely reasonable and respectable that any athlete would object to compete against such individuals on a purely human level.
The name of the advertising campaign used to advertise the Olympic games is “Celebrate Humanity.” According to the Celebrate Humanity report from 2004 the phrase “Celebrate Humanity” resonated with “the truth that the Olympic ideals — the values of hope, friendship and fair play, dreams and inspiration, joy in effort — are universal, shared by all.” Are these values actually shared by all? Do friends drop tons of highly explosive materials on civilian populations? How about depleted uranium and white phosphorous? Do aggressive operations against unarmed and defenseless civilians by one of the most advanced armies in the world count as “fair play”? Are the 80% of Palestinian children in Gaza suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Major Depression entitled to hope and dreams? Are these questions too political for the Olympics?
We all know that Olympians train hard to get to the level they are at. To have reached the Olympics is a huge accomplishment only achieved by the best of the best. I do not condemn those who do compete against Israeli athletes. I am in no position to criticize anyone who chooses to compete. At the same time, others are in no position to condemn the Lebanese judo team for refusing to train side-by-side with the Israeli team.
If Israel had been held accountable for its crimes, the circumstances would be entirely different, but it hasn’t. To that end it is highly insensitive to blame any athlete, particularly those who directly suffered from Israel’s brutal oppression, to object from competing with Israeli athletes who proudly announce their affiliation with the criminal Israeli Army. On the contrary, it is a matter of principle that is entirely justified.
Until Israel is held accountable and justice is served, when it comes to Israel there is no such thing as a fair game.