Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Tennis, anyone? Oh, wait, not if you’re Israeli, says BDS

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When the Tunisian tennis federation ordered the country's no. 1 player, Malik Jaziri, not to play against Israeli tennis player Amir Weintraub in the Tashkent Challenger tournament quarter final last month, they probably failed to predict the full implications of their discriminatory decision. Not only has this decision jeopardised Jaziri's ranking and career, it has also led the International Tennis Federation to ban Tunisia from the Davis Cup for a year, in a move that can be seen as a strong message against the BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) movement.

And that movement should take note. The International Tennis Federation was unequivocal that the actions of the Tunisian Tennis Federation was "discriminatory" and motivated by "prejudice" - something BDS proponents always deny is they case with respect to their efforts (Daniel Meyerowitz-Katz responded to one such effort earlier this week).

The story started when Jaziri refused to play in the quarter final against Weintraub, due to a "knee injury", thus forfeiting the match. Later on it was discovered that a few hours beforehand he received an email from the Tunisian tennis federation forbidding him from playing against the Israeli player, following a meeting with the Tunisian Ministry of Youth and Sports.

"Following a meeting this afternoon with the Ministry of Youth and Sports, I have the immense regret to inform you that you are ordered not to play against the Israeli player," the email read, in line with Tunisia's boycott of Israel.

Jaziri and his brother (who serves as his manager) publicly expressed shock at the Tunisian Tennis Federation decision, and complained about political pressures and their detrimental effects on Jaziri's career. "At the political level, we received an order not to play. It was an email from the Tunisian Tennis Federation, via the national technical director," Jaziri's brother, Amir, confirmed the orders of the Tunisian tennis federation. He also stated that the decision is "shocking, because it brings politics into sport ... We are totally against that. And Malek is the first victim, because tennis is his career, his bread-winner." He went on to explain the personal price Malek, who since the incident had dropped in his international ranking, is likely to pay. Meanwhile, Weintraub himself referred to Jaziri as a "good friend" who "really wanted to play."

When the International Tennis Federation (ITF) looked into the case, it was clear to them that despite the medical reason given by Jaziri, the directives of the Tunisian Tennis Federation were definitive evidence. The ITF Board of Directors voted unanimously to suspend Tunisia from the 2014 Davis Cup.

In a strong statement, the ITF explained its decision as a move against discrimination in sports:

"[...] ITF Board of Directors found that the Tunisian Tennis Federation was in breach of the ITF Constitution by interfering with international sporting practice and ordering Tunisian player Malek Jaziri not to compete against Israeli player Amir Weintraub at the 2013 Tashkent Challenger in October.
The Board voted to suspend Tunisia from the 2014 Davis Cup by BNP Paribas competition, saying:
" The 2013 ITF Constitution states the ITF and its members must preserve the integrity and independence of Tennis as a sport and must carry out their objects and purposes without unfair discrimination on grounds of colour, race, nationality, ethnic or national origin, age, sex or religion."

ITF President Francesco Ricci Bitti added that:

"There is no room for prejudice of any kind in sport or in society. The ITF Board decided to send a strong message to the Tunisian Tennis Federation that this kind of action will not be tolerated by any of our members."

The spirit of ITF's message of anti-discrimination, in this case directed at the Tunisian Tennis Federation, can, and should apply in all cases of discrimination against Israeli athletes in international sporting events, as suggested by Ben Cohen ("Tennis Deals a Blow to the Boycott of Israel," Commentary, 3.11.2013):

"The ITF decision should properly be read as establishing a precedent that can equally apply in other sports." He suggest, reminding the readers of past cases of discrimination against Israeli athletes, such as the recent international swimming competition in Dubai, where scoreboards at the event and television broadcasts tried to censor the "Israel," and the Israeli flag. 

"[..] there should be consequences to these actions," Cohen continues, "As well as ejecting boycotting countries from competitions, international sporting authorities should also ban countries that still advocate the boycott of Israel - like Qatar, which will host the 2022 soccer World Cup - from hosting such prestigious events. Thanks to the ITF, that outcome is now one step closer."

The ITF's press release rightly makes it clear boycotts of Israeli professionals are discriminatory and unfair, while President Bitti pointed out in strong words that such boycotts are based on prejudice. Furthermore, the ITF's decision had created a situation in which there is a price for discriminatory boycotts of professionals based solely on their nationality. The spirit of this move by the ITF should resonate beyond the realm of sports, and be seen as explaining the reality behind the BDS programs in all areas- such as arts, culture, industry and business, and academic cooperation. What the International Tennis Federation noted about the Tunisian Tennis Federation's action - that refusing to engage with someone professionally because that person is Israeli is discriminatory and rooted in prejudice - applies to almost all the measures advocated and engaged in by BDS supporters. And there rightly are legal and regulatory consequences for discriminatory behaviour.