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.