Wednesday 31 August 2016

The Unfortunate Olympic Legacy

The Israeli Olympic team has returned from Rio with two bronze medals, both for judo.  This almost equals Israel's best medal haul in any Olympic Games to date.  Twice before Israel has earned two medals although, on the previous occasions, one medal was either a silver or gold.  Unfortunately, however, the most talked-about story in Israel relating to the games has nothing to do with the medals that were brought home.  Instead, the legacy of the Rio Olympics in Israel will always be the handshake that never was.

This of course relates to the judo bout between Israel's Ori Sasson and Egyptian judoka Islam El Shehaby.  The incident began long before the bout when, we are advised, El Shehaby indicated that he was not willing to fight an Israeli opponent.  He had been encouraged by fans on social media not to fight the Israeli in this bout.  Some reports suggest that the Egyptian authorities forced El Shehaby to partake in the bout, against his will.  This all seems somewhat strange for an athlete at the peak of his career.  It is assumed that the opportuntity to participate in, and excel at the Olympic Games is almost unrivaled as an ambition of any athlete.  The story published in some media says that El Shehaby decided to  retaliate against being forced to participate, and this came in the form of a refusal to shake hands with Ori at the end of the match.  Sasson had been warned of this situation beforehand, but still approached his vanquished opponent at the end of the fight for a handshake that was rejected by the Egyptian.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) intervened and  found that the Egyptian athlete had acted contrary to the rules of fair play and against the spirit of friendship embodied in the Olympic Values.  They issued the athlete with a reprimand.  The Egyptian Olympic Committee punished the athlete by sending him home from the games.  This incident followed the "scolding" issued to the head of the Lebanese Olympic delegation in Rio, after he refused to allow the Israeli team onto their bus that they were due to have shared on the way to the opening ceremony.  And also came after the incident involving the Saudi Arabian judoka who withdrew from a bout, when it became clear that the winner of her bout would have to fight against an Israeli in the next round.

Even though these incidents, particularly the rejection of Ori Sasson's handshake, made news around the world especially on social media, none of them come as a huge surprise to Israelis.  Despite the ideals of the Olympic Movement to promote peace and cooperation between peoples around the world, Israelis have always known that these ideals do not necessarily extend in equal measure to them.  The terror attack at the Munich Olympic Games, in 1972 in which 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team and a German police officer were killed, is clear evidence of that.  It is not so much about the terror attack itself - it is well known that terror groups around the world will use every possible way of getting to Israelis to sow fear amongst them.  It is rather about the response by the IOC to this incident.  It is inconceivable that it took until 2016 for the IOC to finally agree to officially honour the slain members of the Israeli Olympic team at a games in any way.  Why would it take 44 years to do this?  Who would have opposed the request made many years ago by the Israeli delegation to officially honour those who were killed?  And why?

It is notable that the most prominent anti-Israel incident at the Rio Games, the incident with El Shehaby, came from an athlete representing a country with whom Israel does have diplomatic relations.  Despite the concept and tradition of the "Olympic Truce" which calls for athletes to be allowed right of safe travel to and from the Games, Israel will expect representatives of countries like Lebanon and Saudi Arabia, with whom there are no diplomatic relations, not to agree to travel on the bus with her athletes.  This is clearly in direct contravention of the Olympic ideals.  But it is more surprising when the greatest protest comes from a so-called friendly country.  While it is noted that the country's Olympic Committee and other official bodies came out against the actions of the individual athlete, it seems as though El Shehaby received a huge amount of unofficial support for his actions from fellow Egyptians.  

Israel and Egypt signed their peace treaty 37 years ago.  More than a generation has elapsed since then, and yet their athletes still refuse to shake hands with Israel's athletes at the Olympic Games.  It is true that the peace has not been a truly warm peace, and there have been awkward times when the peace agreement looked like it was in grave danger.  It is nevertheless a peace treaty between countries that are neighbours, and comes with full diplomatic relations.  Was this refusal from an athlete who was born after the peace treaty was signed, a product of the education that he received?  I cannot imagine one Israeli athlete who would refuse to shake the hand of any opponent, no matter which country they come from.  Even from those countries that are insistent on wanting to destroy Israel.

It is ironic that the Israeli athletes travelling to the opening ceremony were willing to travel with the Lebanese delegation in the way that the organisers had intended.  After all, Lebanon is a country that has been at constant war with Israel for the past 68 years, and has tried to destroy Israel on numerous occasions.  It is even more ironic that the Israeli team had to refuse to be split up and reallocated onto a number of other buses due to security concerns associated with  the team being split up.  With the ramifications of Munich still resonating in their ears, the Israeli team was ordered by their security team to remain together until the organisers laid on an alternative bus in which the entire team could travel together along with their required security escort.  Perhaps the greatest irony of all, is the fact that the security of the entire Olympic Games in Rio was left to a group of 36 Israeli companies to take care of.

With anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment rife around the world, Israeli athletes went to the Olympic Games in Rio to find a relative safe haven from the turmoil.  If everybody adhered to the ideals of the Olympic Movement, this is what they would have found in Rio.  But this was not the case at all.  They found in Rio the same anti-Semitic behaviour that has become openly acceptable in football stadiums in Europe, and in the General Assembly of the United Nations.  And this from  countries with whom Israel has diplomatic relations.  This puts the achievement of our athletes in earning two bronze medals into the proper context.  Kol hakavod!

Wednesday 17 August 2016

The Historical Entitlement Argument Does Not Work

Image from

The link between the Jews and the land of Israel is undeniable.  The extent to which Jewish history has played itself out in this land makes it inconceivable that a Jewish state could exist anywhere else in the world.  We feel this link every day as we pray to be in Zion and the rebuilt city of Jerusalem, and we experience it every week in our readings of the Torah that mention places that still carry the same names to this very day.  The festivals that we celebrate are frequently associated with particular places in this land, and the graves of our revered forefathers and mothers are within our borders.  Perhaps, most of all, the site of the holy Temple, destroyed almost 2,000 years ago in the city of Jerusalem, remains the holiest site in our religion and culture.  Despite offers to create a Jewish homeland in other parts of the world, Jews through the generations could never have accepted a  Jewish state anywhere other than in the land of Israel.
In spite of this, the international community continues to question the rights that Jews have to be in the land of Israel, and to have their own homeland there.  This forces Israelis into defending why they have the right to state in the land of Israel.  The main argument that Jews use to justify their right to be there, is on the basis of historical links and entitlement.  Typical justifications include the fact that it is written in the Old Testament about the borders of the Jewish state, or that there has been more then 2,000 years of continuous Jewish presence in the land.  This is true despite numerous attempts over the years to expel the Jews from the land of Israel.  It is my view, however, that the ongoing attempts to prove rights to the land by Jews via these avenues, serve to weaken the claim rather than to strengthen it.  Even the act of trying to justify the rights at all represents a weakness in my eyes.

Israel is the only member of the UN whose right to exist is continuously questioned, and whose future existence is openly threatened.  Other members of the UN have no qualms in calling for Israel's destruction, knowing full well that this comes without any consequences.  Without the support of the members of the international community who should speak up against such atrocious threats and behaviour, Israel is drawn into the vacuum and feels the need to defend herself.  While this is a natural response to such vile threats, the act of going on the defensive only goads the bullies into increasing their attacks.  This creates a vicious circle which has no end to it.

Under UN partition plan in 1947, independent Arab and Jewish states were approved to be established in the former British mandate of Palestine.   This was confirmed by a two-thirds majority of states present and voting at the UN General Assembly.  Despite the fact that 13 countries voted against the plan and a further 10 countries abstained, the will of the 33 countries who voted in favour of the resolution was implemented.  This concluded any questions about who would have the right to live in the land, and to set up their state there.  The fact that the Arabs rejected the plan and refused to establish their state as envisaged does not detract from their right to do so, nor from the right of the Jews to do the same.  This was clearly laid down in resolution 181(II) and passed on 29 November 1947.

The justification for a Jewish state in the land of Israel is embodied solely in the UN resolution that presented this right.  Since the moment that the resolution was passed, the arguments surrounding historical entitlement or continuous presence (or anything else) were effectively set aside and became less significant as points in order to prove entitlement.  Perhaps these matters were considered in the extensive work and report issued by the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP).  Now that the recommendations of the committee have been accepted, the partition plan approved and the State of Israel established, there is no room to question this any further.  And it is certainly not acceptable to call for the destruction of the State of Israel, a country that was set up by a UN mandate with a two-thirds majority.

By continuing to put forward the argument of historical links and rights to the land, Israelis effectively give detractors justification to ignore the importance of the UN vote.  This negates the vote, and its legal significance.  It also gives  people the opportunity to open all types of debates to negate the historical rights arguments.  Not everybody believes what is written in the Bible, and it is almost impossible to conivince them otherwise.  Similarly, the debate whether or not Jews have really had a continuous presence in the land of Israel.  Facts of history are frequently difficult to prove unequivocally.  This is an argument that can never really be proved or won, in one direction or the other.  It is futile, and shows only that Israelis are happy to reopen this debate that cannot really prove anything in either direction.

The time has come to stop using arguments to justify Jewish presence in the land of Israel, that simply serve to weaken its right.  This is not to say that the historical link is unimportant to the Jewish soul.  On the contrary, this is what drove the Jews to fight so hard for their homeland in this place over so many years.  Now that this homeland is a reality, these arguments are no longer useful as political arguments, and are mostly unhelpful.  Instead, the vote by the international community that legitimised the Jewish homeland in Israel is the one and only relevant argument.  And, while it is true that the map of Israel today is not quite the map that was approved by the UN in 1947, it is equally true to note that the Arab state that was approved in that same UN vote was never accepted.  Instead, the land that was earmarked for the Arab state has simply been used as a springboard to try to destroy the Jewish state.

The Jewish state could never be anywhere else, other than in the historical Jewish homeland.  Now that this has been accepted by the UN and the international community in a legally binding vote, the argument about historical entitlement should be ceased.  It is simply no longer relevant as a political and legal argument, and not helpful to Israel's cause.