The British Jewish leadership proposed lobbying for a minute of silence during the London Games as far back as 2009, but was dissuaded by the Olympic Committee of Israel, several figures have told The Times of Israel.
The Israelis, they say, did not believe the campaign could succeed, and chose not to pursue British Jews’ offers to try to reach out to influential British political figures to advance it.
“All along, everyone involved from [the British side] wanted something to happen, but we accepted, perhaps too easily, the Israeli committee’s view,” says one British Jew who was involved in the discussions. None of the leaders interviewed for this article would be identified due to the sensitivity of the issue. “They said they were trying for years and years to get [a moment of silence], and we should give up because we won’t get it.”
Holding a minute of silence in memory of the 11 Israeli athletes who were murdered in the Munich Olympics in 1972 has been a long-term request of the families of the victims, but they have been consistently turned down by the International Olympic Committee. This summer, the idea gained particular momentum after JCC Rockland, in suburban New York, launched a petition which was signed by more than 110,000 people, and was publicly supported by US President Barack Obama and other international statesmen.
The campaign was fronted by two of the Munich widows, Ankie Spitzer and Ilana Romano, and was publicly supported by Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, Sports and Culture Minister Limor Livnat and Israeli Olympic Committee secretary-general Efraim Zinger, all of whom attacked the International Olympic Committee for refusing to allow a minute of silence to go ahead.
However, more than half a dozen British Jewish leaders have told The Times of Israel that attempts to explore a minute of silence with the Israelis three years ago were rebuffed.
The idea was first pursued seriously in October 2009, when a small group of British Jews decided to establish a committee that would examine how to commemorate the Munich tragedy during the Olympics. Shortly after, in December 2009, a senior British Jewish representative, Lord Janner, met in Ramat Gan with Zinger; chairman of the Israeli Olympic Committee Zvi Warshaviak; and the only Israeli on the International Olympic Committee, Alex Gilady, and raised the option. It was allegedly placed on the agenda with Munich widow Ankie Spitzer at least twice. In addition, the British Jewish leaders say they were in constant contact with the Olympic Committee of Israel over the issue.
On at least one occasion, British sources allege that the Israelis said that a minute of silence was impossible because the Arab countries on the International Olympic Committee would block it, and rejected offers to use British-Jewish political connections in order to advance the cause.
By April 2010, the Brits were in serious talks with London Mayor Boris Johnson about marking the 40th anniversary of the Munich massacre in some way – either through a minute’s silence, a permanent memorial in London or a civil service organized by the mayor, during the Games. However, securing any of this partially depended on a delegation of senior British Jews visiting IOC head Jacques Rogge in Lausanne. A British source alleges that this never took place because the Olympic Committee of Israel asked them not to pursue it.
According to several British sources, the Israelis consistently said that their priority was a ceremony to commemorate the victims. This eventually became the memorial that took place earlier this month in London’s Guildhall, which was organized by the National Olympic Committee of Israel, the local Israeli embassy and the Jewish Committee for the London Games, a coalition of several British Jewish groups.
“We were giving them what they wanted,” says one of the Brits. “We liaised with the Israelis at every step, they seemed quite happy with the Guildhall event… They said we would never get a minute of silence.
‘They obviously didn’t think we had a chance of getting anywhere [with the minute of silence] and were suggesting they should put their eggs in a different basket’
“They obviously didn’t think we had a chance of getting anywhere [with the minute of silence] and were suggesting they should put their eggs in a different basket.”
Another British leader says that they did not “put a lot of energy” into the minute of silence because they understood from Israel’s Olympic Committee that it was not what the families wanted. Therefore, they put their resources into the Guildhall commemoration.
At the time, the British Jews involved were “quite surprised” and “a bit perplexed” at the Israeli attitude, says the leader, especially as London’s former mayor, Ken Livingstone, had already expressed his support for the minute of silence initiative and there were indications that the new mayor, Boris Johnson, might be amenable. However, the British Jews involved did not think it appropriate to overrule the wishes of the families.
All the British leaders make it clear that none of the Israelis they talked to were actually opposed to a minute of silence – one says they were “appreciative” of the British efforts. The Israelis simply thought it unattainable and therefore not worth pursuing, they say. “The Israeli position was probably informed by what they thought was achievable, not what they thought was a good idea,” says another of the leaders. “It was pragmatic.”
In Beijing 2008, a relatively small Munich commemoration ceremony took place in the Hilton Hotel. The Israeli interest this time around, says the source, was in having a more significant event and getting better political representation at the ceremony from the host city and from the IOC.
The Guildhall ceremony attracted over 600 people including British Prime Minister David Cameron, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, Opposition leader Ed Miliband, London Mayor Johnson, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle and IOC President Rogge.
“They felt they were incrementally making good progress on raising the profile,” says the same source. “Senior figures within the IOC became more receptive to the need to acknowledge [Munich]. Until Athens, there was never any presence of the IOC for any of these events; now they managed to make progress. Their sense about London was that they can have a successful big event, and that proved to be the case, as shown by the level of turnout of political figures. They thought this would be a big step forward.”
In spring this year, the JCC Rockland campaign went viral. Steve Gold, chair of the Minute of Silence Munich 11 Petition, says he was unaware the British Jews had already proposed and abandoned the idea of a minute of silence. His campaign, in turn, took the British leadership by surprise.
“There was consensus behind the Guildhall event,” said one person involved in organizing it. “Once the Rockland campaign started, that consensus changed. Suddenly the aspiration became a minute of silence in the stadium, previously it hadn’t been on the agenda.”
From the British point of view, there was full support for the Rockland Minute of Silence campaign, as it was a cause they had wished to promote in the first place. They were perplexed, however, that the Israelis got behind it so late in the day – “once it achieved critical mass,” says one leader – when it was probably too late, considering it could have been the goal all along.
“If people really wanted a minute of silence in the stadium or public recognition in the ceremony, for most of the period running up to the Games this wasn’t the objective,” says one of the organizers.
Had the British leadership been told that “this is really what we must have, we could have had a year-long campaign that got under LOCOG’s skin, and delivered something. I doubt it could have been a minute of silence, but another way of public recognition.”
The source emphasizes that much Anglo-Jewish political capital was put into attracting the biggest political names to the Guildhall event. This could have been channeled, instead, into a minute of silence.
“To achieve anything in the Olympic Park would have taken many months, using the political pressure we had to best effect. For example, it wasn’t an issue during the mayoral elections… but it could have been. Pressure could have been brought to bear in different ways. But it was not on the agenda.”
The Olympic Committee of Israel’s Zinger strenuously denied that anyone had told the British representatives not to visit Rogge in Lausanne, calling it a ‘non-respectable attempt to make political gain’ out of the tragedy
The Olympic Committee of Israel’s Zinger strenuously denied that anyone had told the British representatives not to visit Rogge in Lausanne, calling it a “non-respectable attempt to make political gain” out of the tragedy.
He confirmed that a meeting had taken place between him, Lord Janner, Warshaviak and Gilady. However, he would not address the content of the meeting or any other discussions with the British.
The Ramat Gan meeting was conducted “in a good atmosphere,” he said. “Our position has always been clear: The Olympic Committee of Israel is the central organ that works to commemorate the Munich victims in Israel and the world. Our battle is to commemorate their heritage and make the Olympic movement recognize them.”
Zinger added, “We hope that everyone’s great enthusiasm will continue because we are the only ones that did it, are doing it and will continue doing it.”
Ankie Spitzer was not available for comment. However another of the Munich widows, Ilana Romano, says that the families’ position, that a minute of silence was necessary, has always been absolutely consistent.
She says she was not aware that the British Jews proposed promoting a minute of silence and that the Israeli Olympic Committee was not authorized to speak on the families’ behalf.
“Absolutely not. Only the families can speak in the name of the families.”
However, she said she did not believe that the Israeli Olympic committee would discourage the British from pursuing the minute of silence.
“Zinger asks for the minute of silence in every forum. I don’t believe he said these things.”