Sports and the Palestinian BDS Struggle (Part 3): Looking Ahead

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This article appeared first on Palestine Square, the blog of the Institute for Palestine Studies, a third of three articles derived from Bloomfield’s Master’s thesis at the New School in New York City. Read Part 1, Part 2.

A “game-changer,” that is how the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights (USCPR), a national coalition of groups that advocates for Palestinian rights, described the decision by six National Football League (NFL) players to boycott an Israeli government-sponsored propaganda trip. In an email to supporters on 21 February, USCPR claimed that “never before have we seen U.S. sports players on this scale engaged in the boycott of Israel’s propaganda efforts” and called the sports boycott of Israel “an extremely effective instrument of change.”

Only time will tell if this is truly a game-changer, but it certainly represents a significant boost both for the profile of sports boycotts within BDS and for the Palestinian struggle within the sports world, particularly in the United States. The anti-Apartheid movement targeting South Africa provides an instructive historical touchstone as USCPR pointed out, citing the many cultural figures who “proudly and publicly” announced their refusal to perform or play in Apartheid South Africa.

According to one commentator, “celebrity junkets to Israel have been an effective public relations tool for decades—bringing high-profile Americans and other foreigners to have a fabulous time in Israel and spread the word.” The logic of this strategy is to “play down politics as much as possible.” But it didn’t work for Israel this time. Instead, what was meant to be an easy publicity win for the Israeli government backfired spectacularly.

While five players still went on the trip, their travels in Israel received little attention. Meanwhile, Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett decided not to participate, and ­­invoked 1968 Olympian John Carlos’s statement that there can be no partial commitment to justice­­. His brother Martellus Bennett, along with Kenny Stills, Carlos Hyde, Justin Forsett, and Cliff Avril, also decided not to participate. The players’ withdrawal from the trip led to widespread media coverage, including reports in mainstream outlets such as CNN, Newsweek, ESPN, the Associated Press, the Washington Post, and USA Today. The story reached millions of people around the world, including, as USCPR observed, “many audiences that do not normally hear about injustices being done to Palestinians.” That is the power of sports. That is the role they can play in the BDS movement.

Israel and its supporters are clearly worried about the potential impact of a sports boycott movement. Israeli diplomatic cables pointed to the 2015 campaign to expel Israel from FIFA, world soccer’s governing body (see Part 2 of this series), as a turning point in BDS efforts, noting that the movement was heading in a “more populist direction, probably because they [BDS activists] noted that it garnered more attention and was more effective.”

One Israeli observer wrote that his country’s reaction to the threat of expulsion from FIFA was one of “quasi-hysteria,” and described the prospect as a “virtual nightmare for most Israelis, whether they are football fans or not.” Simon Johnson, the head of the UK-based Jewish Leadership Council, which actively works to counter BDS efforts, also said in 2015 that, “there was no question that the sporting boycott proposed by the Palestinian Football Association (PFA) would have been the most visible act of boycott…[and] would have resonated around the world and led to a potential domino effect of other high profile boycotts.”

Israel’s vulnerability to a sports boycott hinges on its close connections with the West and its fear of international isolation. Israel’s political identity is grounded in a deep identification with the West, particularly Europe, which was the birthplace of Zionism. Any challenge to Israel’s place among or access to Western nation states, such as the possibility of its soccer and basketball teams being barred from competing in Europe, or the prospect of Israel’s expulsion from the relevant international sporting institutions, prompts deep anxiety in the Israeli body politic. Despite the lack of significant concrete results from sports boycott and sanctions efforts so far, any hindering of Israel’s ability to whitewash its illegal occupation through international sports competitions already reveals the extent to which sports and BDS can effectively challenge Israel human rights violations.

While Israel may be looking away from Europe for political support, given an increasingly rocky relationship with some European countries, the continent remains an important site for BDS activism because Israel’s highest profile sports teams compete there on a regular basis. But the failure of the NFL propaganda trip also demonstrates that sports-focused activism can generate attention in countries where Israeli’s sporting ties are not as strong, most notably, the United States.

It seemed most likely that soccer players would lead the way in boycotting Israel given that the majority of sports-related BDS activism has been in the soccer world. And, as discussed in Part 1 of this series, some soccer players have previously spoken out against Israeli violations. Yet Michael Bennett’s refusal to become a tool of Israeli propaganda has arguably been the most explicitly political stance, to date, by a high profile athlete. Furthermore, it also makes sense that this message would come from a black athlete in the United States. Bennett’s decision comes in an environment characterized by the growing profile of the Palestinian rights movement in the United States, the deepening of black-Palestinian solidarity, and the increased prominence of sports within BDS more broadly.

In the sports world, Bennett’s position mirrors a trend already evident in the music scene, where Roger Waters, Pink Floyd’s frontman, has been an outspoken supporter of the BDS movement and very vocal in encouraging his fellow artists to respect the call for a cultural boycott of Israel. This does not mean Bennett will necessarily become the Waters of the sports world, although his commitment to fighting for justice is increasingly clear. But it shows that the environment is certainly ripe for such a figure to emerge.

One of the criticisms of sports boycotts and sanctions against Israel is that sports should be a mechanism for bridge building and promoting coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians. Various initiatives with this aim already exist, including the University of Brighton’s Football 4 Peace program and the Twinned Peace Sports Schools run by the Peres Center for Peace. However, as well intentioned as such efforts are, they do nothing to address the underlying structural oppression and discrimination that define the relationship between Israel as an illegal occupier and the Palestinians as an occupied people.

Furthermore, using sports as a bridge building tool that ignores Israeli apartheid can be a distraction from efforts to dismantle this unjust system. Bridge building programs have often been used as propaganda tools, focusing international attention on Israeli soccer as an “integrative enclave” (see Part 1), which encourages a false image of coexistence and equality.

In addition to challenging false images of coexistence and equality, sports boycott efforts must also involve challenging uncritical media coverage of Israeli sports teams competing internationally. The recent hype over Team Israel’s surprise run at the World Baseball Classic is a prime example. Fawning media coverage presented the team as a “plucky, loveable underdog,” with one writer even claiming “team Israel is very much the story of Israel itself,” without mentioning the Palestinians. The absence of political context from the soft coverage of Team Israel meant that it simply helped contribute to the “further normalization of Israeli apartheid.”

The BDS movement is officially agnostic in terms of advocating for a particular political solution for Palestine and Israel (two states, one state, or something else). Yet Israel and the United States have taken great pains recently to emphasize, both through their rhetoric and actions, that the two-state solution is well and truly dead.

Given this reality, one democratic state with equal rights for everyone is increasingly emerging as the only realistic and just future for Palestinians and Israelis beyond the status quo of one state defined by apartheid.

As Palestinian footballer Iyad Abu Gharqoud argued in 2015, when the injustices of the existing system have been confronted and dismantled, as the BDS movement seeks to accomplish, and “Palestinians and Israelis are equal under the law,” then sports can truly be a means for reconciliation and bridge building. For now, sports should continue to be promoted as a vital part of the BDS campaign. Indeed, a recent UN report that concludes Israel has established an apartheid regime, and has subsequently been withdrawn at the behest of the United States and Israel, highlighted the role of “economic sanctions and sports boycotts” in helping to end the South African Apartheid, and thus urged governments to support BDS efforts aimed at challenging Israeli violations.

Sports and the Palestinian BDS struggle on Mondoweiss, part 1 and part 2

About Aubrey Bloomfield

Aubrey Bloomfield is a writer and researcher based in New York City and recently completed his master’s thesis at The New School on the role of sport in the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. You can follow him on Twitter @aubbloomfield.

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20 Responses

  1. jon s
    March 20, 2017, 3:00 pm

    The sports boycott of South Africa was appropriate and justified especially because SA practiced racist apartheid in the realm of sports, which is not the situation in Israel.

    • John O
      March 20, 2017, 4:23 pm

      The behaviour of Beitar Jerusalem FC supporters, the inclusion in the Israeli leagues of teams from the illegal settlements , and the harassment of Palestinian footballers are all in themselves good cause to have Israel kicked out of international competitions.

    • just
      March 20, 2017, 4:39 pm

      Pu-leeze!

      Of course it practices “racist apartheid in the realm of sports”, etc. For example:

      “The most vocal supporters of Beitar Jerusalem make up the controversial nationalist La Familia group.[25] These fans are well known for their hatred of Arabs and their pride in the fact that Beitar Jerusalem is the only team in the IPL that has never had an Arab player, even though it had several players of the Islamic faith (Non-Arabs). Fans in and out of the stadium’s stands chant anti-Arab and racist slogans. The club has also been penalized many times for the behavior of its fans.”

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beitar_Jerusalem_F.C.

      In case you haven’t heard:

      “Apartheid wears a veil” by Jonathan Ofir

      http://mondoweiss.net/2017/03/apartheid-wears-veil/

      ~and~

      “UN bowed to ‘fearmongering and threats’ from powerful governments to cover up ‘painful truth’ of Israeli apartheid — UN official’s resignation letter” – See more at: http://mondoweiss.net/2017/03/fearmongering-governments-resignation/#sthash.hWXN5Z8o.dpuf

      Oh, and then there are those teams that play in and around the illegal settlements. Then there’s the targeting of Palestinian players by all the goons in your IOF/border police/illegal settler thugs. On and on and on…

      Perhaps you can read it and share it with your students…

    • Mooser
      March 20, 2017, 5:40 pm

      “because SA practiced racist apartheid in the realm of sports, which is not the situation in Israel.”

      Yes, participation by Palestinians in Israeli sports exceeds the quotas set by Israel for participation by Palestinians.

    • oldgeezer
      March 20, 2017, 6:14 pm

      @jon s

      Anyone can be the soccer ball in Beersheba

    • Mayhem
      March 21, 2017, 4:12 am

      Sportsmen and women from Muslim countries who refuse to compete in sports against Israeli athletes are committing a hate crime that warrants the expulsion of the offending nations from international sports federations. But these bodies don’t have the guts to expel the offenders because of the political pressure they are under from the anti-Israel camp. In the same way as the Olympic movement never properly commemorated the murder of the Israelis at Munich by Palestinian terrorists.

      • John O
        March 21, 2017, 12:54 pm

        It’s not a hate crime – it’s a boycott, whether or not done of the athletes’ own free will or by government instruction. It’s also the reason why Israel is allowed to play in European groups during World Cup qualifying rounds, a classic fudge by a sports body anxious not to let principles interfere with the making of money. The Olympic movement was perfectly within its rights not to commemorate the Munich massacre at the behest of the cynical opportunists in the Israeli government.

        If Israel stopped mistreating the indigenous people of Palestine, and made proper peace with its neighbours, the problem would disappear. But you reap what you sow.

      • talknic
        March 21, 2017, 1:37 pm

        @ Mayhem

        Take your pathetic whining to the Zionist Federation for A) deciding to colonize Palestine B) Loaning money to specifically poor Jews (at interest) on condition they put themselves and their families at the front lines in their war on Palestine C) Insisting there be a Jewish State despite lying that it wasn’t their intention D) declaring that state and thereby robbing Jews of the ability to live anywhere in the Jewish People’s alleged Historic Homeland

      • John O
        March 21, 2017, 2:30 pm

        I forgot to mention in my previous post that, after they ended apartheid and became a proper democracy, South Africa found their rightful place in world sport, including hosting the soccer World Cup and their unforgettable win in the Rugby Union World Cup in 1995 (even the Glastonbury music festival, which I was at that year, stopped to watch). Israel could learn a lesson from South Africa; sadly, I fear they won’t.

      • amigo
        March 21, 2017, 3:35 pm

        “Sportsmen and women from Muslim countries who refuse to compete in sports against Israeli athletes are committing a hate crime that warrants the expulsion of the offending nations from international sports federations ” Mayhem

        Quote relevant law please.

      • amigo
        March 21, 2017, 4:19 pm

        “But these bodies don’t have the guts to expel the offenders because of the political pressure they are under from the anti-Israel camp “Mayhem

        Should read !!.

        “But these bodies don’t have the guts to expel the offenders because of the political pressure they are under from the pro-Israel camp.”

        There Mayhem –much closer to the actual facts , dontcha think.

      • RoHa
        March 21, 2017, 6:51 pm

        Yeah, everything is a hate crime.

      • Annie Robbins
        March 21, 2017, 6:52 pm

        mayhem, as Aubrey Bloomfield pointed out in pt 2 http://mondoweiss.net/2017/03/palestinian-struggle-palestine/ it’s against FIFA rules to operate clubs in another national association’s territory without their consent. so people, including athletes, have every right boycott, shun, “refuse to compete in sports against Israeli athletes” or any version thereof because, contrary to jon’s ridiculous assertion upthread, israel practices racist apartheid in the realm of sports in israel. ie: none of the jewish only settlement’s teams operating out of illegally occupied palestine have incorporated palestinian players. and there’s simply no denying palestinian players don’t practice and participate in sports w/the freedom israeli jews do. the checkpoints, everything.

        plus, israeli players they don’t get their feet and knees shot out or targeted for assassination the way palestinians do. nor do they get picked up and imprisoned under “administration detention” w/no charges the way palestinian athletes and heroes do. israel steals and murders their stars, their youth. it’s a completely incomparable situation to jewish israeli athletes.

        seriously, you’ve got to be kidding us of you think people have such short memories. israel’s targets children for assassination by bombing soccer games WHILE THEY ARE PLAYING and then they come back to bomb the funerals of those same kid days later killing even more people. or maybe you don’t recall how the november 2012 gaza massacre started. (or was it 2011?)

        why don’t you ask israel-palestinian former footballer Rifaat Turk is you think there’s equality in israel. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rifaat_Turk

        Turk was subjected to anti-Arab abuse during nearly every game he played

        could the IFA done something about that?

        israel is a racist apartheid state, regardless of how many redeeming features you or jon or peter beinart and anyone points out. nothing and no one has redeemed the abuse palestinians have suffered.

        and you have the gall to lecture us about “committing a hate crime that warrants the expulsion of the offending nations from international sports federations”!!!

      • RoHa
        March 21, 2017, 8:09 pm

        Psssst, Annie. “The gall to lecture…”, not “Gaul”. It is unitary, not divided into three parts.

        And yes, you are right about apartheid in Israeli sport.

      • Annie Robbins
        March 21, 2017, 10:41 pm

        RoHa, i can’t be right all the time ;)

      • RoHa
        March 21, 2017, 11:31 pm

        Why not?

      • Mooser
        March 22, 2017, 11:43 am

        “…not Gaul”

        You are always Russian to correct people.

    • jon s
      March 25, 2017, 5:15 pm

      South Africa practiced apartheid in sports and the boycott was directly connected to that policy . According to Wikipedia “The International Olympic Committee (IOC) withdrew its invitation to South Africa to the 1964 Summer Olympics when interior minister Jan de Klerk insisted the team would not be racially integrated”. Whites and Blacks did not play on the same teams or compete with each other. as I wrote, that’s certainly not the case here.

      Beitar Jerusalem is a team with a blatantly racist fan base, including the infamous LaFamilia, and a semi-official policy of not hiring Muslim players. The team has been repeatedly punished by the IFA for the fans behaviour. Should FIFA compel the IFA to take more severe measures such as relegation or even closing the club? Or compel it to hire Muslims? I would support that.

      The minor-league teams in the illegal settlements are a clear violation of FIFA rules. The IFA should be sanctioned for that. As a supporter of the two state solution, I oppose legitimizing and normalizing the settlements.

      • Mooser
        March 26, 2017, 1:20 pm

        “The minor-league teams in the illegal settlements are a clear violation of FIFA rules. The IFA should be sanctioned for that. As a supporter of the two state solution, I oppose legitimizing and normalizing the settlements.”

        Then why not move out of the Beersheba settlement? “Jon s” if hypocrisy was an Olympic sport, you’d make Mark Spitz’s chest look like small change.

  2. Annie Robbins
    March 21, 2017, 7:20 pm

    Michael Bennett’s refusal to become a tool of Israeli propaganda has arguably been the most explicitly political stance, to date, by a high profile athlete. Furthermore, it also makes sense that this message would come from a black athlete in the United States. Bennett’s decision comes in an environment characterized by the growing profile of the Palestinian rights movement in the United States, the deepening of black-Palestinian solidarity, and the increased prominence of sports within BDS more broadly.

    speaking of an explicitly political stance by a high profile athlete, although he’s not as famous as bennett, in 2014 Reggie Bush blew me away when he posted a photo of Palestinian photo-journalist Hamde Abu Rahma on his Instagram page.

    Abu Rahma held a sign reading:

    “The Palestinian people know what mean to be shot while unarmed because of your ethnicity #Ferguson #Justice.”

    Reggie Bush wrote:

    No matter who you are, what color skin you have, where you live, we are all in this together! this isn’t a Ferguson problem it’s a Global Problem! We need change NOW! What happened to humanity? #JusticeForMikeBrown

    See photos here: http://mondoweiss.net/2014/11/justiceformikebrown-ferguson-palestine/#sthash.DmxVoSOp.dpuf

    he got slammed for it too and came back and doubled down. it was unprecedented at the time as i recall. blew.me.away.

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