Two Israelis won medals at the Judo Grand Slam tournament in Abu Dhabi over the weekend – albeit while keeping their home country and its flag hidden at the event.
Former world champion Yarden Gerbi won a bronze medal in the women under 63-kilogram weight class, and current European champion Sagi Muki won a bronze medal in the men under 73-kilogram category.
Both wore uniforms with the International Judo Federation insignia and not Israeli flags, as per an agreement with organizers in the United Arab Emirates, which does have formal ties with the Jewish state.
Israeli athletes competing in the Arab world have at times been asked to hide their country’s flag in exchange for visas to enter the country for a competition. Other times, local organizers decline to display Israel’s flag, sometimes drawing criticism.
Israeli Judo Association head Moshe Ponti told the Israeli sports website One that the UAE did not want to let the Israelis compete until a number of conditions were met.
“We went through a series of correspondence and talks with relevant officials in order to come and compete in Abu Dhabi. We got visas on the condition that no stories about this would be published in the Israeli and international media, and this on its own was a hard mission to meet,” he said.
Ponti said he would rather the team compete without its insignia than give up on the possibility of bringing “a historic medal for the Judo Association and the State of Israel.”
“As head of the association and a proud Israeli, I will continue striving to enable members of this association to participate and win every tournament anywhere in the world,” he said.
All eight Israeli contestants at the Abu Dhabi Grand Slam competed under the IJF flag. A ninth Israeli judoka, Alice Schlesinger also participated in the females under 63-kilogram category, but under a British flag.
But Sports and Culture Minister Miri Regev said she was unwilling to put up with Israel being boycotted at sporting events, following this case and a windsurfing competition in Oman last month at which Israeli Maayan Davidovich competed while wearing the International Surfing Association’s RS:X and not the Israeli flag.
“I plan to fight it,” Regev told Army Radio. “The Israeli team, like any other team in the world, has the right to represent Israel with the flag and national anthem in any compeititon on any continent. I won’t let this become the norm. When the judo team returns I will figure out what happened there.”
Both Muki and Gerbi defended their decisions to participate in the Abu Dhabi event.
“Even though we competed without the flag, [Israel] is on the map,” Muki told Army Radio after the tournament. “The flag is always in my heart,” he said.
Gerbi wrote on Facebook after the tournament that the Israeli team had been trying to compete in the Abu Dhabi tournament for six years but “for these or other reasons it never happened.”
She called Ponti’s decision to agree to compete under the IJF flag “courageous” and said that when she learned she would not be competing with an Israeli flag “the feeling deep in my heart was painful, as an Israeli patriot, but when I thought about it, it is so important to compete, everyone knows where I come from, where I grew up.”