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Israel: Sports’ New Pariah State?

Andy Ram, the Israeli tennis star, will participate in the Barclays Dubai tennis championship next week, after the United Arab Emirates relented on its earlier decision not to grant him an entry visa. The turnaround comes too late for Ram’s … Read More

By / February 20, 2009

Andy Ram, the Israeli tennis star, will participate in the Barclays Dubai tennis championship next week, after the United Arab Emirates relented on its earlier decision not to grant him an entry visa.

The turnaround comes too late for Ram’s fellow Israeli, Shahar Peer, who was refused a visa on the grounds that her participation might provoke "fan anger" in the wake of Israel’s recent war with Hamas in Gaza. The women’s competition is already underway and Peer is absent – not because her performance isn’t up to scratch, but because of her Israeli passport. Ram’s exemption from the ban appears to be the result of external pressure – in protest at the Peer decision, the Tennis Channel in the US said it wouldn’t broadcast the event, while the Wall Street Journal European edition pulled its sponsorship – and not any soul-searching on the part of the UAE’s rulers. The emirate’s terse statement announcing that Ram would, after all, be allowed in, didn’t provide a reason as to why and studiously avoided any mention of the words "Israel" or "Israeli."

Thanks to this rather undignified violation of fundamental sporting ethics, Dubai’s self-image has taken something of a battering. Dubai likes to present itself as an exception in the Arab world; Ibiza, if you will, set to a Middle Eastern rhythm, with all the attendant wealth and glamor and sun-drenched hedonism. The migrant workers who built its shimmering facade, most of them drawn from South Asian countries and living in wretched conditions, have long known the sordid truth. Yet it took the exclusion of an Israeli celebrity to achieve something that the daily trials of thousands of nameless Bangladeshi laborers could never do: persuade the world to look at Dubai a little more cynically. As the Wall Street Journal acidly observed, "a city-state that fancies itself a global mecca for commerce, sport and recreation ought to be able to handle a few Jews in its cosmopolitan midst." Yes, and they might want to tackle these constant reports about slavery as well.

The other issue, of course, is what the Dubai episode means for the participation of Israel and Israelis in international sport more generally. Israel’s visible sporting prowess, particularly in tennis, basketball and football (by "football," I mean kicking a round ball, not throwing an oval one), has coincided with a growing campaign to ensure that Israeli athletes face the same virulent protests as the South African Springboks rugby team did when they toured as sporting emissaries of the racist, white-minority regime.

Already, we’ve had a few glimpses of what that involves. In January, the Bnei Hasharon basketball team was chased from a Turkish court by baying protestors in Ankara. On February 18, Sweden’s tennis authorities announced that a Davis Cup match against Israel would be played in an empty arena, because of what they described as "security concerns."

When it comes to football, keep a close eye on the FIFA World Cup, which will be played in South Africa in 2010. Like everyone else, Israel is in the qualifying stage. Unlike everyone else, Israel competes for a place against European teams, for the simple reason that the national teams in its own region refuse to play against it.

Israel last qualified for the World Cup in 1970. Its chances of qualifying for 2010 are better than at any other time over the last forty years, with a team that includes world-class players like Yossi Benayoun and Ben Sahar. Currently, Israel is in second place in its qualifying group, one point behind Greece and one point ahead of Switzerland.

Examining Israel’s forthcoming match schedule, though, is rather like looking at a protest calendar. When the Israelis go to Greece in April, what will get more attention: the action on the pitch or the abuse at the sidelines? Will the jeering be restricted to the fans or will it spread to the opposing team, as it did when Israel thrashed Andorra in 2006, at a time when the Lebanon war was a recent memory? If Israel does win a World Cup place, what sort of reception can the team expect in South Africa, where advocates of the apartheid analogy are at their most vocal and aggressive? If Iran qualifies, as it normally does, will FIFA be forced to fix the first round groups so that an encounter with the Israelis is avoided?

Questions, questions, questions. All of which suggest that in sport, as at the UN, Israel is less-than-equal, that it faces – whether because of spectator fury or state-sponsored discrimination – pariah status in a truly globalized domain. For the time being, the immediate test for resolution lies with those bodies, like FIFA, which adjudicate the sports in which Israel participates. They can either now draw a line in the sand in the light of the Dubai visa row, or they can sit back while the rot spreads.

 

 

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