BDS Means Showing Disdain for Israeli Athletes?

by Kevin Jon Heller

As regular readers know, although I’m opposed to academic BDS, I fully support its economic incarnation. Which is why I find stories like this both depressing and infuriating:

“I have no problem with Jewish people or any other religion or different beliefs. But for personal reasons, you can’t ask me to shake the hand of anyone from this state, especially in front of the whole world.” These words, spoken by an individual who has just engaged in a gesture of support for the Palestinian people, are a standard response to the accusation of anti-Semitism which is routinely hurled at pro-justice activists.

The necessary distinction made between the “Jewish people” and the Israeli state is one Israel itself seeks to erase, as it strives to deflect all criticism of its policies, blaming it on anti-Jewish hatred instead. As such, these words do not in themselves establish new grounds, but a new approach to solidarity. Yet as Egyptian judoka Islam El-Shehaby uttered them last week in Brazil, they signified a new milestone: the sports boycott had arrived at the 2016 Olympic Games.

“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,” El Shehaby explained, in the fallout from his action, which resulted in his dismissal from the games, for “poor sportsmanship.”

One day before El-Shehaby’s refusal to shake the hand of the Israeli Olympian he had just competed with, another judoka, Saudi Joud Fahmy, had withdrawn from the competition, in order not to have to compete against an Israeli athlete, should she win and advance to the next round.

You want to know why so many people despise BDS? Because of childish, appalling actions like these — actions that make it all too easy to erase the necessary distinction between criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism. I don’t watch the Olympics, in part because I don’t find them interesting (outside of a few sports like football), but mostly because I find the rampant jingoism sickening. But I would never hold the politics that pervert the Olympics against the individual athletes who compete in the games, all of whom — to a man and a woman — have dedicated their lives to sporting excellence. There is absolutely no justification whatsoever for disrespecting an Olympic athlete simply because of the country he or she represents. None.

Here’s a thought experiment. Imagine you did not view the Olympics solely through the prism of politics. Which country do you think more highly of now that the Olympics have ended? Egypt, whose judoka wouldn’t shake an Israeli judoka’s hand? Or New Zealand, whose 5000-metre runner gave up any shot at a medal to help an injured American runner who had initially helped her?

I don’t think what the Egyptian and Saudi athletes did is anti-Semitic. But I sure as hell think what they did was stupid — and profoundly damaging to the BDS cause. If these actions are a “new milestone” for BDS, as Mondoweiss claims, BDS is in serious trouble.

28 Responses

  1. I’ve edited the post to exclude the Lebanese athletes who wouldn’t let Israeli athletes onto their bus. As a commenter pointed out on twitter, there are other explanations for that action than simple hostility toward Israelis. Better to focus on the actions of individual athletes toward individual athletes.

  2. Campaigns to isolate and marginalize Jews living on the eastern bank of Mediterranean predate the establishment of Israel, let alone the occupation. Whatever one can say about what BDS represents or has the potential to represent in the West, there is no mistaking its ambitions or its performance in the Middle East — it is almost entirely an extension of long-standing “anti-normalization” commitments which are perfectly expressed through conduct like this. Its motivating instinct is not to craft a just resolution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict that is responsive and respectful to both Jewish and Palestinian self-determination rights; it is motivated by a belief that one party is a foreign colonial interloper which has no relevant dignitary claims worth respecting. It is not shocking or even aberrational that it leads to conduct like this, or goes further to bar non-Israeli Jewish organizations from hosting non-Israeli related programming with non-Israeli participants (Brown University, Red Rattler Theater Sydney), or goes further than that to demand flatly that all Jews be expelled (Durban University of Technology). BDS goes down this track because that’s where its track was built from. The train has no brakes.

  3. Completely wrong. BDS is a non-violent movement in the best tradition of peaceful activism and represents the best hope for forcing Israel to cease its endless repression of Palestinians. If Israel has made anything clear, it is that is not remotely interested in a “just resolution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.” It cares only about maximizing its territorial expansion while minimising the costs of the violence that its expansion creates. The core of what makes BDS so valuable — creating change through the pocketbook, not through violence — is not affected by excesses like the ones discussed in this post. All movements have extremists that harm the their otherwise-worthy causes.

  4. Kevin, permit me to respectfully disagree with you. You are completely wrong, both regarding the aims of BDS as well as your highly biased view regaqrding the aims of Israel.
    The aims of BDS are far from being “peaceful activism” or “creating change through the pocketbook”. They endeavor to annul the legitimacy of the state of Israel, through comprehensive political warfare.
    Permit me to refer you and the readers of Opinio Juris to the following publication: “BDS Unmasked:Radical Roots, Extremist Ends”

  5. This debate often can be summarised as ‘he who is not with me is against me’, which is a pity. BDS appears to be directed to weaken the state of Israel, but does nothing to prevent Arab attacks on this USA/European colony created in the Middle East after WWII.

    Jews and Arabs both are Semitic. Perhaps that’s why they hate each other so much. Has the time come for the World to say ‘a plague on both your houses’ and cease meddling?

  6. Alan,

    I have no doubt there are a not-insignificant number of BDS supporters who “endeavor to annul the legitimacy of the state of Israel.” But to describe BDS in general as having that motivation is simply wrong — not least because there are tens of thousands of progressive Jews all over the world (including me) who fully support the use of peaceful economic means (not “political warfare”) to pressure Israel to end the occupation of the West Bank and its violence toward Palestinians in general.

  7. Kevin, I can agree that BDS is for the most part non-violent (“for the most part” because there have been cases where persons — particularly Palestinians — who have flouted the boycott have been subject to violent reprisals). I can also stipulate that the current Israeli government is “not remotely interested in a ‘just resolution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.'” But none of that requires that BDS, as a movement, is interested in such a resolution. One can non-violently seek out bad ends, and it is perhaps not surprising that there can be parties on both sides of this conflict who each are uninterested in justice.

    And while I have no doubt about your personal motives, I’ve seen little evidence that they can be properly imputed to the BDS movement writ large, particularly as practiced inside the Middle East. Again, there’s something odd about taking a political strategy applied against Israelis since well before ’67 (indeed, before ’48), and then saying “well today it’s about the occupation.” Some people might sign up for that reason, but the movement as a whole has been quite clear in expressing more expansive goals (“right of return” being the most controversial).

    Put simply, from cases like this to academic boycotts to the more vicious forms of purely anti-Semitic exclusion carried under BDS’ banner I alluded to in my first comment, there’s a reason why you’re so often shocked to observe gambling going on in the establishment. I respect that you genuinely want to get off the train before it gets that far, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to stop where you want it to.

  8. That Mr Alan Baker tells to someone else that he/she is “highly biased” toward something is quite ironic. Anyone a bit familiar with Mr Alan Baker is aware of how one-sided, biased and blinded are his works and views.

  9. Just to provide a bit of context to OJ’s readers. This is Alan Baker:

    “The prohibition concerning the transfer of the occupying power’s nationals to the occupied territory refers to forcible transfers, along the lines of what the Nazis did. Article 49 was drafted after World War II and is aimed at preventing the kind of mass population transfers the Germans carried out to alter the demographic character of the territories they occupied. Israel’s policies ban forcible population transfers, but do sanction voluntary ones; Israel has refrained from expropriating private land; the scale of the transfers is too small to affect the territory’s character; and, what is most important, the transfers are not permanent.”

    Israel is expropriating much private land (that has very little to do with Mulk land in Ottoman times). Plus, in each round of negotiations the Israeli authorities require to the interested parties to take into account the new local demography: they are by and large permanent, as 99% of historical precedents show. And settlers dont move to settlements out of the blue, they do so pushed by a huge amount of subsidies and support provided by the State.
    GC 49 prohibits individual or mass forcible transfers or deportations from OT declares that the OP “shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.” GC Article 147 makes “unlawful deportation or transfer” a “grave” breach of Geneva law — which seems relevant to per se “gravity.” Perhaps especially because Rome Statute Article 8(2)(a)(vii) similarly lists unlawful deportation or transfer among “grave” breaches. And, of course, customary laws of war would be relevant regarding proper interpretation of the Rome Statute.

  10. These athletes in question had no business to be in the Olympic Games. If that does not act as a deterrence, the nations sending these athletes should be penalised. “not least because there are tens of thousands of progressive Jews all over the world (including me) who fully support the use of peaceful economic means (not “political warfare”) to pressure Israel to end the occupation of the West Bank and its violence toward Palestinians in general.” I am sorry Mr. Heller; but I cannot agree with you. The efforts be it in the form of political warfare or economic coercion are aimed at undermining the State of Israel and no reasonable person can concur with such views. Israel’s right to existence is questioned by a large number of states and non-state actors. And under those circumstances, Israel will continue to act in the way it deems fit and proper.

  11. “The efforts be it in the form of political warfare or economic coercion are aimed at undermining the State of Israel and no reasonable person can concur with such views.”

    Hundreds of thousands of people committed to peaceful and progressive change disagree with you. I guess they are all just unreasonable.

  12. Yes, the bulk of the Islamic world may agree with your views on BDS. That does not necessarily mean that they are right, or for that matter, you are right. “BDS Unmasked” referred to by Alan Baker is meant to expose the proponents of BDS like you.

  13. @ Alan Baker
    Mr. Baker thanks for sharing the link.

  14. Alas, Alan Baker’s screed is anything but convincing. And you’re deluding yourself if you think BDS support is limited to the Middle East or to Arabs. It has tens of thousands of supporters all over Europe and the US, including large numbers of Jews — like me.

  15. It is your ilk that makes the world a dangerous place and promotes disruptive elements in society, not Amb Baker’s creed. The only fortunate part is that Jews like you are not in a majority. The “tens of thousands of supporters” are the anti-Semitic lot who provide the oxygen for radical Islamists the world over.

  16. Response…C’mon Kevin. Don’t be coy and don’t play us for fools. If Israel unilaterally withdrew from the West Bank tomorrow, you and the rest of BDS would still claim it was occupied.

  17. @MArk… Know something Mark, Israel’s existence will be questioned even assuming the Palestine issue is resolved. Similarly there is no peace possible between India and Pak (and China) even if the Kashmir issue is resolved. And persons like this author provide the much needed oxygen to such state actors like Iran, Lebanon, Pakistan and non-state actors like Hamas, LeT and similar groups.

  18. Mark,

    I know you think you’re being clever, but you’re just embarrassing yourself. Given that I am one of the very few left-wing international law scholars who doesn’t believe Gaza is legally occupied by Israel, you have no idea what you’re talking about — nor have you made any effort to.

  19. Mark has stated the bitter truth which is unpalatable for the likes of the author. And Mark is not embarrassing himself. He has bluntly stated how leftists view and interpret the Palestine issue. BTW the leftist view is the same as the Islamists’ view.

  20. So says a member of the right — the side of the political spectrum whose policies are uncomfortably similar to those of Islamic extremist groups and whose militarism in the Middle East gave more oxygen to those groups (such as ISIS) than leftists ever could.

    Good stuff.

  21. @mark

    “ and the rest of BDS would still claim it was occupied”

    No. After the withdrawal, they would claim that Israel, proper, is Occupied Palestine.

  22. @Kevin

    It would be wise to reflect on the fate of Norm Finkelstein, who, after criticizing BDS, was made persona non grata.

  23. Red Army Faction,Red Brigades, Action Directe – one ideology – Marxism-Leninism and all of whom were involved in violent activities and terror. Probably the author has forgotten about the leftist movement in Europe and their close links to Palestinian groups like Black September and Abu Nidal Organisation.

  24. It’s revealing that Kumar has to go back to the 70s and 80s to find terror groups with a far-left ideology. But I think we all know why he avoids terror by current extremist Islamic groups — not only because they have they been created/emboldened/strengthened by the actions of right-wingers like himself, whose only answer to extremism is more terror-producing violence, but also because the right wing and groups like ISIS agree on a variety of issues — religious freedom, women’s rights, gay rights…

  25. Merely stating and reiterating that right wingers are responsible for increased incidents of terror by Islamists only shows the author’s shallow thinking. Neither Israel’s policies nor its actions are in any way responsible for the rise of ISIS.

  26. A powerful critique of a claim I never made! Impressive.

  27. Another instance of selective amnesia and shallow thinking.

  28. The conflation of Judaism and Zionism is a reality. Whether it is intentional, unintentional or through ignorance is neither here nor there. It is a fact that I am confronted with continuously.
    Boycotts against Jews/Israel are nothing new.
    The most recent are the total boycott of Jews by the Nazis from 1933 on
    This was followed by the boycott of Palestinian Jews and Jews in General in 1946, which later became a boycott against Israel and Jews in general
    And lastly we have the BDS which grew out of the Durban conference (Which is known for its virulent Antisemitism) and the work of certain UK academics in circa 2002

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