When it comes to Israel, the Arab world isn’t a good sport

UAE’s refusal to play anthem for Israeli judoku who won gold is latest case of Sunni states bending over backward to pretend to boycott a country everyone knows they cooperate with

Raphael Ahren

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Egypt's Islam El Shehaby (blue) refuses to shake hands after defeat by Israel's Or Sasson in their men's over-100kg judo contest at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on August 12, 2016. (AFP/Toshifumi Kitamura)
Egypt's Islam El Shehaby (blue) refuses to shake hands after defeat by Israel's Or Sasson in their men's over-100kg judo contest at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on August 12, 2016. (AFP/Toshifumi Kitamura)

Last month, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel’s relations with the Arab world were better than ever.

“There is cooperation in various ways, on various levels, but is not yet out in the open. But what is not yet out in the open is much greater than in any other period in Israeli history. This is a major change,” he gushed.

Indeed, there has been much security cooperation and intelligence sharing since Israel and the pragmatic Arab regimes found common enemies in Iran and radical Sunni Islamists. But even as Netanyahu seems to talk about it all the time, his Arab partners insist everything remain hush-hush.

For the time being, Arab countries are refusing to recognize the State of Israel and reject any overt manifestation of collaboration with the Zionist entity — no exceptions, no common courtesies, no fair play.

That’s why on Thursday, when an Israeli athlete won a gold medal at a judo tournament in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, Israel’s national anthem wasn’t played and its flag wasn’t hoisted. Indeed, due to the Emirates’ boycott of Israel, the Israeli judokas in the tournament competed under the “flag” of the International Judo Federation (IJF).

The national flags of medal winners at the 2017 Judo Grand Slam in Abu Dhabi, with the Israeli flag replaced by the flag of the International Judo Federation (second from right) due to the United Arab Emirates Judo Federation’s ban on Israeli symbols at the event. Israel’s Gili Cohen took bronze at the competition, which took place on October 26, 2017. The other flags, from left to right, are of Brazil, Belgium and Romania. (YouTube screen capture)

After Herzliyah native Tal Flicker beat Nijat Shikhalizada of Azerbaijan to take the gold, the “national anthem of the International Judo Federation” was played in the hall. Meanwhile, Flicker mouthed his own “Hatikvah,” giving his Israeli compatriots a modicum of pride.

“The IJF are in second place with one gold and one bronze medal,” the judo federation’s website stated, risibly, as of Thursday night, referring to Israel.

This absurd situation is not the fault of the IJF. Before the tournament, the organization’s president, Marius Vizer, sent a letter to UAE Judo Federation President Mohamed Bin Thalub denouncing the expected discrimination against the Israeli team and demanding it be treated “absolutely equally in all aspects, without any exception.”

His plea fell on deaf ears.

And even though the Emirates’ ground rules were known to all even before the tournament started, Israeli officials were typically strident after Thursday’s incident.

“It’s a disgusting display of hypocrisy, against the very spirit of sports,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Emmanuel Nahshon told The Times of Israel.

“It’s an outrage. Shameful,” he added on Twitter.

“A disgrace to the spirit of sports,” the Israeli embassy in Washington tweeted.

“In light of Israel’s rising status in the Arab world, it is regrettable and despicable that the Israeli national anthem was not played,” Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely said. “It’s time the Arab states understand who their friends are in the world and who their enemies.”

Arab states’ discrimination of Israeli athletes is familiar. In 2009, the UAE denied a visa to Shahar Peer, leading the World Tennis Association to hand the tournament organizers in Dubai a record fine of $300,000.

Shahar Peer playing in 2011. (CC-BY-SA Keith Allison, Flickr)
Shahar Peer playing in 2011. (CC BY-SA Keith Allison/Flickr)

Last year, Egyptian judoka Islam El Shahaby refused to shake hands with his Israeli rival, Or Sasson, when he was defeated by him at the Rio Olympics. El Shahaby received a “severe reprimand” from the International Olympic Committee.

As Israeli athletes become increasingly successful, it will be interesting to see whether Arab countries will be able to uphold their policy of prohibiting Israel’s national symbols on their soil. Perhaps the ridiculousness of Thursday’s incident, paired with growing international indignation at such blatant discrimination, will help bring about change.

The motto of World Judo Day this Saturday, the final day of the Abu Dhabi Grand Slam, is “Courage.” The rulers of Abu Dhabi failed to live up to it.

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