Sports Illustrated assumes it’s a “Muslim” thing to boycott Israeli teams

Sports Illustrated has found a new role in American mainstream media. No more sports analysis, no more demeaning swimsuit competitions, and no more college football predictions. Instead, they’ve decided to become a foreign policy website. And an ignorant one at that.

Today was their first attempt at providing FOX News-like political commentary:

Two more athletes became political victims at the Games when Mohammad Soleimani, an Iranian tae kwon do athlete pulled out of his gold-medal bout in the 48-kilogram class against Gili Haimovitz from Israel, claiming a leg injury. Athletes from Iran and some other Muslim countries often withdraw from competitions against Israeli athletes because they do not recognize Israel as a country. Rather than stand on an awards podium a step below Israel during the medal ceremony, Soleimani also claimed he was too sick to attend the ceremony in person. The great irony: The medals were presented by Alex Gilady, an IOC member from Israel who was actually born in Iran.
Political victims at Youth Olympics; more Olympic notes, Brian Cazeneuve

Dear Mr Cazeneuve, I’m sure you’re an expert political scientist and I’m sure that’s why you work for a sports magazine, but I’ll tell you one thing: It goes well beyond whether or not an athlete recognizes Israel as a country. It involves whether or not Israel recognizes non-Israelis as people worthy of human rights, self-autonomy, equality, and life.

Let’s take a trip down memory lane to May 30, 2010, the day Israeli commandos stormed a civilian passenger aid boat en route to the Gaza Strip and left nine dead bodies in their wake. In the ensuing public outrage, Sweden and Turkey attempted to withdraw from upcoming football matches against Israel. It is important to note that Sweden is not a “Muslim countr[y]“, and just like Turkey, their respective governments actually do recognize Israel as a country. So what exactly prompted these two nations to be among the many that have boycotted or protested Israel on the playing field?

Like all human beings, we deplore violence and are shocked at what we saw.
Swedish Football Association President Lars-Ake Lagrell

Of course, there might exist a broad range of small-scale factors that encourage people to pull out of sporting events with Israel. But like Lagrell said, the driving force is Israel’s disregard for human life as witnessed during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, the attack on the Mavi Marmara, and the overall occupation of Palestine. It is an issue of humanity more than anything else.

Something that Sports Illustrated doesn’t mention is that Israeli sports teams face more pressure from crowds and spectators than from politically-motivated match cancellations. In June, Turkish spectators and civilians demonstrated against Israel’s national volleyball team as it faced Serbia in Ankara. A year and a half before that, Spanish fans rose from their seats and chanted in protest of Israeli policy during a basketball match between Barcelona and Maccabi Tel Aviv. (The YouTube video can be found below; I highly recommend watching it.) And in 2006, anti-war activists demonstrated at a football match in England between Liverpool and Maccabi Haifa.

But the protests aren’t only limited to fans. In 2009, professional footballer Freddy Kanoute scored a goal and revealed his support for Palestine with a shirt he wore underneath his jersey. BBC interpreted the move “as a response to Israel’s recent attacks on Gaza that have killed nearly 700 people [so far.]” Kanoute’s display of humanity, along with the countless worldwide protests, does not carry the label of “Islam” and has nothing to do with whether or not Israel is a recognized country. Once again, it’s an issue of humanity more than anything else.

There are many who argue that Israeli sports teams shouldn’t suffer the consequences of global outrage against Israeli policy. I’m of the opinion that it’s virtually impossible to separate politics from sports, especially when teams represent entire countries. The blue and white flag emblazoned on team jerseys is the very same flag that hangs from the backs of Israeli tanks and waves from the demolished rooftops of homes once belonging to Palestinian families. It all represents one entity and its policies, and if someone is critical of the flags on the tanks, the same person must be critical of the flags in the locker-rooms. The Nation‘s Dave Zirin provides a better response:

Should Israeli sport actually be a safe space from how its government conducts itself? In my mind, the answer is a simple one: hell no. [Regarding the Flotilla attack] Israel committed an act of state terror on an aid ship in international waters whose passengers included an 85-year-old holocaust survivor, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, and hundreds of activists committed to delivering the most basic kinds of food and medicine to the Gaza Strip. It’s actually dangerous, in such a situation, to just “shut up and play” as if there is nothing to see behind the royal blue curtain.
Are Teams Right to Refuse to Play Israel?, Dave Zirin

I’m not sure why Sports Illustrated would attempt such an ignorant analysis of petty politics. Maybe they’re giving into growing Islamophobia and have decided to pin the blame on the Muslims. Maybe they think that boycotting Israeli teams is an integral part of Islam. Maybe. Or maybe they were too busy analyzing the speed of a curveball to even think twice about acknowledging why Israel is demonstrated against in almost every country in the world.

This is not a Muslim issue nor is it an Arab issue, and it definitely isn’t an Iranian issue. This is an issue concerning the safety and wellbeing of entire groups of people. So long as Palestinians are oppressed, the world will protest Israeli policy – even if that means bringing Palestinian flags to a tae kwan do match or simply not showing up at all.

Sami Kishawi

I'm a teacher, writer, and activist based in Bangalore. I am dedicated to various issues including #BDS and Palestine, living Zero Waste, and reversing the effects of climate change.

Posted in Boycott, Sports Boycott
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