Israeli athletes have had a rough reception from some of their fellow competitors at the Rio Olympics. First, members of the Lebanese delegation barred Israelis from boarding a bus to the opening ceremonies. Then a Saudi judoka pulled out of a match due to injury as soon as it became clear that she would be facing an Israeli competitor in the next round. But the ultimate statement came last Friday following Egyptian judoka Islam El Shehaby’s defeat at the hands of Or Sasson, when El Shehaby refused to shake the Israeli Sasson’s hand. El Shehaby was booed by the crowd following the breach of judo etiquette, and following a “severe reprimand for inappropriate behavior” from the International Olympic Committee’s Disciplinary Commission, El Shehaby was sent home. The incident created an uproar back in Israel, but ultimately a snubbed handshake is, after all, just a snubbed handshake. It isn’t the details of this episode that matter, but the larger lessons that it imparts.
If nothing else, the absurdity of the entire thing should settle once and for all that Israel is subjected to a unique standard. This doesn’t mean that Israel should be absolved from blame for its actions or policies that deserve to be criticized, but only one country’s athletes are treated this way. For some perspective, there are North Korean athletes competing at the Olympics, but nobody even hints that they should be treated as outcasts because of their government, and rightly so (and if you for some reason think that the government of Israel and Bibi Netanyahu are more worthy of criticism than the government of North Korea and Kim Jong Un, please just stop reading now since you are wasting your time). And deciding that Israeli athletes do indeed deserve to be held responsible for anything Israel does will not necessarily end only in discourteous behavior and lack of sportsmanship, as testified to by the 1972 Summer Olympics terrorist massacre of Israeli athletes in Munich.
The handshake snub also says something about identity and nationalism, and illuminates the dilemma faced by many American Jews, particularly college students and those who travel in progressive circles. El Shehaby is Egyptian, and he represents a country that has a formal peace treaty with Israel; in fact, Israeli-Egyptian cooperation has never been more robust. Yet, his refusal to shake hands with Sasson was an act on behalf of standing up for the Palestinians, a group with which he clearly sympathizes because of a shared identity. This shared identity is so strong that El Shehaby was willing to accept an official reprimand and risk sanction, neither of which serves Egyptian interests, in order to support his Palestinian compatriots. Many American Jews feel a similarly strong bond with Israeli Jews, and their identity is intertwined with support for Israel. So when the price of entry into progressive circles is a demand that American Jews renounce Israel, it creates a genuine crisis of identity, since Judaism and Zionism cannot always be so easily untangled. In criticizing El Shehaby’s actions, nobody has demanded that he withdraw his support for the Palestinian cause. It would be nice if American Jews were granted the same basic level of understanding.
The fact of the handshake itself also obscures a greater barrier that must be overcome. I have seen a number of people grant that El Shehaby behaved poorly, but justify it based on the fact that had he shook Sasson’s hand, he would have put himself in danger back home. It does not speak well for a society that would de facto criminalize a handshake based on national identity, and that should be the basis for a critique rather than the basis for a justification. But more importantly, that nearly four decades after the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty and the establishment of diplomatic relations, simply shaking an Israeli’s hand would place an Egyptian at risk of physical harm demonstrates better than any other example why mere government-to-government relations are not enough. The Israeli government points to its cooperation with Arab states as proof that it is breaking out of its regional isolation, but acceptance is more about social attitudes than it is about state relations, since the former will never follow the latter but the latter will follow the former. Without routine interaction and habituation over time, the structures in place that make Israelis feel so isolated will not come down, and it doesn’t matter how much Israel helps the Egyptian government fight ISIS in the Sinai or how much intelligence Israel shares with the Saudi government. It is the same reason that the anti-normalization campaign mounted by Palestinians against Israelis is a far greater threat than BDS, since once it becomes common for Palestinians to treat Israelis the way Egyptians do, all hope of any lasting resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the societal level will really be gone.
One concluding thought: it would be an interesting social experiment to see if an Egyptian or Iranian judoka would refuse to shake hands with an Arab Israeli athlete on the grounds of supporting the Palestinian cause. After all, if Israelis are being shunned because they are held collectively responsible for the actions of their government, then this should apply across the board to all Israeli athletes. I have a sneaking suspicion that those who support what El Shehaby did as a legitimate and relatively harmless form of political protest, and who claim that this has nothing to do with Jews but is solely about Israel, would feel differently about El Shehaby snubbing an Arab from Umm al-Fahm rather than a Jew from Jerusalem.
Nice post about the imperatives of Arab-Israeli normalization, but I think you missing part of the story. I was struck first by the fact that El Shehaby was sent home and, second and even more interestingly, booed by the attendees.
It seems some things are relative. After the Armenian wrestler Migran Arutyunyan defeated Rasul Chunayev, an Azerbaijani, at the Rio games, calls were widespread on social media to lynch Chunayev when he returns to Azerbaijan, petitions were started to revoke his citizenship and he was (and still is) subject to very nasty insults! “Chunayev will be beaten on the streets” was a common refrain. Chances are he will.
The two wrestlers didn’t have immediate issues between themselves, but an intense anti-Armenian atmosphere in Azerbaijan, promulgated by Baku, has made defeat against any Armenian opponent worthy of punishment.
Rasul Chunayev may want to see asylum. These Azeris have issues.
It’s STILL the Occupation…
I’m sure many of my readers enjoy the eclectic and erudite essays of Michael Koplow, disseminated as “Ottomans and Zionists” and also by the Israel Policy Forum, of which he is the policy director. I generally agree with his point of view, though I’m often convinced that he doesn’t take his own logic sufficiently far. This feeling was so strong with regard to his current column that I had to write this rejoinder. (I’ll pause while you read his article.)
As you just read, he strongly critiques the unique standard Israel is not infrequently held to in international forums. In this case, an Egyptian judoka refused to shake hands with an Israeli competitor after a match and was sent home. I should emphasize that I absolutely agree with Dr. Koplow that this is outrageous and the reactions to it should have included some of the further societal critiques he suggests.
But there is one crucial aspect of the context missing from his critique; namely, the word “Occupation.” In my view, that is the primary (though by no means sole) reason for this phenomenon of singling out Israel and Israelis for this treatment. This is the 50th year of the Israeli Occupation of the West Bank, and no one sees any likelihood of it ending any time soon.
Now, the Occupation in no way justifies this behavior, nor is it one of the major atrocities in the world today. I know that Dr. Koplow does not support it, and the IPF is engaged in a new campaign to try to end it. But the fact that this salient aspect of the situation that gives rise to the all-too-common treatment of Israel goes unmentioned is itself curious. In fact, it plays into the hands of the current Israeli government in ways that I am sure Dr. Koplow doesn’t at all support, but his article nevertheless gives aid and comfort to a pernicious worldview.
That worldview is the updated version of the “lachrymose” view of Jewish history; namely, that they (i.e., the whole world) hates us (the Jews), and will always hate us, and that there is nothing Israel (or the Jewish people) can do about it. We have to simply keep our own counsel, do what we feel is necessary, and recognize that we will always be attacked whatever we do.
That is clearly the message that is put out overtly, in increasing measure, by Prime Minister Netanyahu and many of his coalition partners. They have no doubt that Israel will always be “a nation that dwells alone,” so why not expand settlements, spit in the world’s eye, and increase the pressure on foreign support of NGO’s, since “they” will always hate us.
In fact, it is the Occupation that is now the overwhelming source of anger against Israel – and ending it would liberate Israel from its psychological, human, military, and financial costs, as well as ending most (certainly not all) support for BDS and other anti-Israel measures.
Now, I do not want to overstate the case. There is undoubtedly a core of genuinely anti-Israel sentiment that would reject the end of the Occupation and see it just as a step on the way to Israel’s eventual demise. Israel would remain under threat; ending the Occupation would not really affect that hard core.
But the vast majority of those whose resentment against Israel has grown considerably in the last 15 years would turn their attention elsewhere. Europe, for example, is labeling and boycotting products from the settlements. It has no other major dispute with Israel. The Sunni states, which are now Israel’s de facto regional allies, cannot make their relationship overt and public because there first must be a Palestinian state. As they have repeatedly made clear; after that, all options are open.
Then why is Israel, whose transgressions are far less violent than, to make a random and far from complete list of vicious states, singled out? (Any such list would of course include North Korea’s treatment of its own people, China’s treatment of Tibet and dissidents, Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen and support for terror, the regime of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, Russia’s aggression, Erdogan’s wholesale oppression in the wake of the failed coup, etc., etc.) For many the only acceptable answer is anti-semitism.
But that is the wrong answer, or at least constitutes only a tiny part of it. It is that Israel holds itself out as – and in many ways is – a modern, progressive, westernized nation recognizing the rule of law and rejecting discrimination. That is partly true. But Israel’s Occupation and repression of Palestinians flies in the face of that. No other country on the (admittedly incomplete) list above is in that position. Yes, there is a double standard, and Israel benefits tremendously from it.
But there are costs to the double standard – and one of them is that ruling over another nation without rights to vote or control its own destiny, is unacceptable today. Israel has transgressed that rule for 50 years. That is at the root of Israel’s isolation. End that and most (not all) of the anti-Israel rhetoric and activities would dry up – as well as benefitting Israel itself in a variety of ways.
There are at least two points I am making that will likely be distorted, so I will reemphasize them:
1) There is no justification for the behavior that Dr. Koplow rightly criticizes.
2) All opposition to Israel will not cease the moment the Occupation ends. But the mass support will fairly quickly fade away. The Palestinians in the Occupied Territories are the poster child for Israel’s repressive policies. Once there is a credible, viable Palestinian state, Israel will not be perfect, but its issues will not stand out as they do now.
It is still the Occupation, and ending it must be the chief goal of anyone who cares about Israel.
What “nation” does Israel rule over? There has never been a Palestinian nation. Israel has made several generous offers to the Arabs that live in the West Bank and Gaza to have a state, but they were rejected. The reality is that the Arabs want Israel, nothing less will please them.
Thank you, Mr. Scham, for so cogently analyzing why the Palestinians will never agree to the end of Israel’s “occupation” of Palestine.
Wonderful article on the scandal. Best analysis I’ve read so far!
For what it’s worth, I’m convinced that Jews operate at a higher global level of functioning to other peoples. There is a clarity — intellectual rigour and morality (and always in equipoise) — to Jewish writing (thought) that is unsurpassed. They (Jews) use more of each cerebrum than most, one hemisphere never letting the other get out of hand, all the while keeping both tethered to the heart and always seemingly mindful of a metaphysical reality. They manage to always be in the moment: nimble and fleet of foot when required; yet also resolute when the situation calls for that trait. While they (the Jews) are not perfect, in the main everyone else seems to be playing catchup. Through forces nature or nurture (again, most likely a combination of both) then, lucidity seems to come standard. What this does do is frustrate those around them, particularly their Arab (and some non-Arab) neighbours. I think people will enjoy the Jew (and what the Jew has offered and continues to offer the world) a whole lot more if they just let the Jew be. There is a constant transference-countertransference issue at play whenever Israel is involved. That is a situation that the Jew must tire of. I do (tire of it) just watching it. Fair enough, and well said.
You always feel it necessary to throw in “this doesn’t mean Israel is absolved for blame for its actions…” Why do you feel necessary to always throw that in. When does Israel get absolved for blame about anything?