Of Handshakes and Hate in Rio
Israel can take some consolation from the official tut-tuts that followed Egyptian judoka Islam el-Shehaby’s refusal to shake hands or ceremoniously bow to his Israeli opponent Or Sasson on August 12.
Shehaby was reprimanded by the International Olympics Committee and Egyptian authorities sent him home. But the official and media response to the story only touched the surface of the incidents.
For the IOC, Shehaby’s bad behaviour was “contrary to the rules of fair play and against the spirit of friendship embodied in the Olympic Values,” but nothing more. For the media, the affair was another instance of Middle East tensions boiling over into the Olympics, like the Lebanese team refusing to let Israeli athletes board the same bus, and unconfirmed reports that Saudi judoka Joud Fahmy forfeited a match to avoid fighting an Israeli in the next round.
There are certainly plenty of tensions around the world and the Middle East is the mother of all world tension spots. But a search of Olympic snubs comes up with zero incidents apart from Arabs dissing Israelis.
Yemen isn’t boycotting Saudis
There are no cases of Israelis dissing Arabs, and none of Yemenis insulting the Saudis who are bombing their country. There are no protests against the Syrians who are, with the help of their Arab brothers, slaughtering each other. Nor are there incidents between Iran or Russia, who are both playing a key role in the Syrian bloodbath, and anyone in the Arab world.
There are plenty of complaints about Israeli racism towards Arabs, but few speak of anti-Israeli racism. Yet that is exactly what we see, not just at the Olympics, but in the Arab world’s attitude toward Israel in general.
Nor is this post-modern racism, like perceived slights that the perpetrator might not even be aware he or she is making, or institutional racism, like college admission standards that effectively create racial barriers.
The racist attitude of Arabs toward Israel is the kind based on deep hatred that lumps all Israelis into one monstrous, violent people who don’t deserve to live in our neighbourhood, and should go back where they came from and leave us alone.
Personal and nasty
Anti-Israeli racism goes beyond legitimate and fair criticism – or even condemnation – of Israeli behaviour towards Palestinians. It gets down to the very personal level of refusing to have direct contact with Israelis or even be in their presence.
If the Lebanon incident has echoes of blacks being forced to sit separately on buses (that is, in the back) in the pre-civil rights south, well, the comparisons are appropriate.
Of course, like most racists, Shehaby and the Lebanese team leader say race wasn’t the issue at all. The team leader called the whole thing a misunderstanding. Shehaby was quoted in L’Esprit du Judo as saying he had “no problem with Jewish people or any other religion or different beliefs” but he also said, “Shaking the hand of your opponent is not an obligation written in the judo rules. It happens between friends and he’s not my friend.”
Actually, shaking hands is something you usually do when you meet someone for the first time, and it’s not as if the thousands of other athletes at the Olympics and other sporting events first become good buddies before they engage in the post-game ritual. Shehaby is engaging in the typical dissembling of racists who don’t want to admit as much as in public, but want to send the message to those who share their hatred that, yes, of course I know what I was doing.
Arab anti-Israel racism has far greater implications for Israel than an occasional Olympic snub. It touches on our place in the Middle East.
We can sign peace treaties (as we did with Shehaby’s country, lest he forget) and we can form strategic alliances, as it appears we’re doing with the Saudis. But those ties haven’t penetrated below the realpolitik concerns
Like the first black family with the courage to move into a white neighbourhood, we can buy the property and make it our home. But we’re not going to be a part of the neighbourhood until the attitude of our neighbours changes. Israel has a lot of room to improve in its treatment of Palestinians, but the real problem is the Arab world’s loathing, not just of Israel, but Israelis.
David Rosenberg is the Business Editor at Haaretz. © Haaretz (www.haaretz.com), reprinted by permission, all rights reserved.