Sports and the Palestinian BDS struggle

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Despite considerable evidence to the contrary, the myth that sports and politics do not mix endures. There is a long history of repressive regimes using sports as a vehicle for normalization, just as there is a parallel history of activists and subaltern actors using sports as a venue for political protest. Nowhere has this been more obvious than in the global campaign against Apartheid South Africa. Sporting boycotts and sanctions imposed on South Africa were some of the most significant weapons of the anti-apartheid movement; together, they had a powerful psychological and public relations impact on the ruling white regime.

Recently, sports have begun to play a small but steadily increasing role in the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement that targets Israel for its ongoing violations of international law and Palestinian human rights. Launched in 2005 by a coalition of over 170 Palestinian civil society organizations, the movement calls for a global campaign of boycotts, divestment, and sanctions against Israel “similar to those applied to South Africa in the Apartheid era.” The most recent example of the role of sport in BDS is the growing pressure on FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association), world soccer’s governing body, to take action over the presence of Israeli soccer clubs in the illegal West Bank settlements. Early calls for such action were initially highlighted by the Palestine Football Association (PFA), though with little organizational and institutional support these calls gained little traction. Since 2016 however, this issue has become a focal point due to the independent efforts of BDS groups and civil society more broadly.

The BDS movement is inspired by, and modeled on, the global anti-apartheid movement that began in the 1950s. The Palestinian BDS National Committee (BNC)­­­­­­­—the coalition of Palestinian organizations that leads and supports the BDS movement—frequently invokes the South African struggle in its press releases, statements, and campaigns. Despite this evident historical precedent, the BDS movement has yet to fully embrace the lesson of employing sports in the anti-apartheid struggle: that disrupting a nation’s ability to compete in international sports represents a powerful means of building pressure to challenge the legitimacy of illegal actions it commits.

The Palestinian BDS efforts and the anti-apartheid movement differ in terms of geopolitical contexts and demographic aspects. At their core, however, both movements share important features. Historian Malcolm MacLean, one of the few academics to address the issue of sport and BDS, along with sociologist Jon Dart, notes that both movements respond to indigenous calls for action, and that the sports boycott aspect is just one part of a wider array of activities designed to pressure the regime in question. BDS seeks to increase the costs of Israel’s status quo, just as the anti-apartheid movement did to the South African regime.

Israel clearly takes seriously the challenges posed by BDS, as evidenced by the immense amounts of money and resources it has invested in combatting the movement. Here, the most significant achievement of the BDS movement has been its ability to focus continuous public attention on the Israeli occupation. The impact of BDS on Israel is primarily psychological and reputational; it disrupts Israel’s international image and shifts the narrative by drawing attention to Israeli human rights abuses against Palestinians.

BDS is starting to set the agenda of Palestinian resistance, despite the Palestinian establishment remaining wedded to the long-dead peace process and reluctant to challenge Israel. Israeli journalist Dimi Reider argues that when Israel responds “with panic and outrage to any BDS advance, however small, Israel is repeatedly affirming that yes, BDS is working, and working really well.”

Sports were central to the South African anti-apartheid movement from its inception. Participation in international sporting competitions, and South Africa’s membership in international sporting bodies, bestowed respectability on the South African regime and obscured its racist policies.

Anti-apartheid activists hold signs that read; “Going to see the South African ‘Whites Only’ cricket team? (It’s not cricket).”

The boycott campaign called for teams and athletes to refuse to compete in South Africa, to bar South African teams and athletes from playing in other countries, to expel South Africa from international sporting organizations, and to sever sporting ties with those countries that continued to play against South Africa. Racial discrimination in South African sports provided the initial justification for the boycott campaign. But the focus soon broadened to encompass explicit opposition to the entire Apartheid system and those who represented or supported it. This was summed up in a slogan: “No normal sports in an abnormal country.” This more comprehensive focus is something that has yet to gain much prominence in conversations regarding the nascent sports boycott aspect of BDS.

Although South Africa’s international sporting isolation was never total, and activists had to mount an ongoing struggle to protect the gains they had won, the sports boycott campaign nevertheless energized the wider struggle against Apartheid. South African Princeton professor, Rob Nixon, argued that the power of the sports boycott came from its ability “to grip the media by generating spectacle” and thereby engage a “vast swath of society largely indifferent to international politics or ignorant of the issues at stake.”

Israel doesn’t have the same international sporting profile as did Apartheid South Africa (particularly in cricket and rugby), but soccer and basketball are very popular in Israel. Moreover, Israeli national and club teams and athletes regularly compete in high-profile European soccer and basketball competitions. Many observers point to Israeli soccer as an “integrative enclave” in which Palestinian citizens of Israel can achieve a measure of integration and acceptance within Jewish-Israeli society. Apologists for Israel and Zionism exploit this in order to project an image of Israel as an egalitarian society. The reality, however, is much more complicated. Inclusion of Palestinian citizens in Israeli sports teams has not led to their wider acceptance within Israeli society, let alone any meaningful changes in the discriminatory policies of the Israeli state.

Palestinian citizens of Israel have featured prominently in Israeli club and national teams, particularly in soccer, yet to claim that the soccer pitch is an integrative enclave says more about the profound systematic discrimination in the rest of Israeli society than it does about its absence from Israeli sports. Furthermore, it only reveals part of the picture: as prominent soccer writer James Dorsey notes, to succeed in Israel, Palestinian players are “expected to swallow their pride and tolerate racist taunts.”

Thousands of people joined a march against British arms sales to South Africa on 17 March 1963 (Source: Henry Grant Collection/Museum of London).
Thousands of people joined a march against British arms sales to South Africa on 17 March 1963 (Source: Henry Grant Collection/Museum of London).

A sports boycott of Israel would not focus exclusively on Israel’s treatment of its Palestinian citizens, or its treatment of Palestinian athletes (who are frequently subjected to restrictions on their freedom of movement, and who have also been attacked, detained, and even killed by Israeli authorities). The BDS movement also focuses on the Israeli occupation more broadly, just like the anti-apartheid movement did. It challenges the status quo, which is characterized by a system of apartheid.

International sporting competitions comprise a high-profile venue on which to construct and express national identity. These competitions thus play a key role in influencing how nations are perceived. Israel’s membership in international sporting bodies, participation in European and international sporting competitions, and hosting of sporting tournaments all serve to make its presence on the world stage unremarkable.

In these moments, audiences watching Israeli teams are not seeing a nation engaged in a brutal, decades-long occupation, or one that is guilty of egregious and ongoing violations of international law and Palestinian human rights. Instead, audiences see Israel as just another competitor, imperfect perhaps, but no better or worse than the nations it plays against. This is the context in which Israel and its supporters then claim that sport is not political, and that those advocating sporting boycotts and sanctions are unnecessarily mixing sports and politics, perhaps for malevolent reasons rooted in anti-Semitism.

This selective view of Israeli sports teams and international sports competition distracts attention from Israeli policies and actions towards Palestinians; it normalizes the abnormal. Because of the powerful legitimizing effect of international sports competition, disrupting Israel’s access to these normalizing processes can have a significant symbolic and reputational impact.

The prospect of an Israeli sports boycott is not new. In the 1970s, Israel was expelled from all Asian sporting federations after teams and athletes from Arab and Muslim nations refused to compete against Israel as a means of protesting its occupation of Arab lands. Because of this resistance, Israel eventually became a member of European sporting bodies.

Sports boycotts and sanctions also played a role in the Palestinian struggle well before the call for BDS. Since at least 2002 groups such as the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) in the United Kingdom and the Muslim Association of Britain were calling for a sports boycott of Israel and organizing demonstrations whenever the Israeli national soccer team and Israeli club teams played in Europe. Since then, protests have taken place at a variety of sporting events in countries around the world, including tennis in New Zealand, ice hockey in South Africa, soccer and basketball in the United States, soccer in Europe, and the Olympics in Brazil.

Red Card Israel caricature by Carlos Latuff.

However, these actions tended to be isolated and infrequent, and thus did not generate sustained attention. This began to change in 2011, however, when a campaign started against the Union of European Football Associations’ (UEFA), the governing body of European soccer, a decision to award Israel hosting rights for the 2013 men’s under-21 tournament. Palestinian clubs and players, later backed by the PFA, activist groups such as the PSC and Red Card Israeli Racism (RCIR), and a number of top soccer players led by Europe-based Malian international striker Frédéric Kanouté, condemned UEFA’s decision. They called for the tournament to be moved, arguing that awarding hosting rights to Israel constituted an endorsement of its occupation and discriminatory policies.

MacLean argued that the campaign “marked a shift in the Palestinian BDS” movement and was “the first coordinated BDS attempt to address a multilateral sports event.” Ultimately, it did not succeed in moving the tournament to a new venue, but it did successfully highlight the role that sports could play in increasing pressure on Israel and drawing attention to its treatment of the Palestinians. Ali Abunimah wrote that the coverage generated took “the Palestinian campaign for the boycott of Israel, especially the sporting boycott, to new levels of international mainstream prominence and legitimacy.”

Following the UEFA tournament campaign, one of the leading figures in the BDS movement, Omar Barghouti, admitted that it had been slow to promote a sports boycott, but that the issue had now become part of the BDS agenda. He went on to highlight the “gradual psychological impact” that boycotts can have on the oppressor nation.

Since then, the role of sport in the BDS movement has grown noticeably. In 2014 and again in 2015, the PFA has called for a vote at FIFA on Israel’s membership, something BDS activists have supported. There have been ongoing protests at soccer matches in Europe, including a massive demonstration by fans of the Scottish club Glasgow Celtic in 2016.

Meanwhile, the campaign for FIFA to sanction Israel over the presence of Israeli soccer clubs in its illegal settlements continues to grow. In 2016, the BNC published a post by RCIR outlining the case for a sports boycott of Israel, the first time that the subject had been addressed so explicitly and comprehensively on the BNC website. The new BNC website, launched last year, now explicitly highlights complicit Israeli sporting institutions as legitimate boycott targets and also names FIFA as an international forum from which Israel should be expelled.

Yet BDS continues to have an inconsistent and somewhat ambiguous approach to promoting a sports boycott. In contrast to its relative silence on the Celtic protests, the BNC has engaged more actively the issue of the Israeli settlement clubs, as have other groups such as BDS South Africa. Even then, sports-focused activism has received less attention compared to other aspects of the from BDS movement.

Groups and individual activists don’t need explicit approval or direction from the BNC to engage in the promotion of sports boycotts and sanctions, though. Furthermore, groups such as RCIR and fans such as Celtic supporters have been protesting for years.

Nevertheless, despite the noticeable increase in BDS-related activity in the sports world, there has been no concerted attempt by the BDS movement to capitalize on sports’ potential for organizing protest and resistance. At present, there is no overall strategic effort to develop this aspect of the movement in the same manner as other aspects of the cultural and academic boycott and divestment efforts.

The lack of clear institutional support for BDS from the Palestinian sports establishment does not mean that a sports boycott campaign will yield scant results. What it does signify is that sustained civil society pressure, which BDS seeks to generate, is needed to convince national sporting institutions, such as the PFA, and international sporting bodies, such as FIFA, to take decisive action against Israel.

Letter from NFL player Michael Bennett, 2017.

There are ongoing signs of a shift within BDS that should be built upon. The news last week that a group of NFL players are set to visit Israel as part of an anti-BDS effort has been met with a letter of condemnation signed by BDS groups and others calling on the players to cancel their participation in the trip and respect the BDS call in the same way that artists and other cultural figures have done. This represents a further sign that things are slowly changing in terms of BDS’ engagement with sports. It also presents an opportunity to draw attention to the sports boycott in the American context, an arena where it has an even lower profile than in Europe, particularly given the fact that in a coincident development a growing number of NFL players are boycotting the trip, including footballers Michael Bennett, Kenny Stills, and Justin Forsett.

Barghouti and others in the BDS movement are clearly cognizant of the importance of sports. Making a sports boycott a more prominent part of BDS demands a wider discussion. The question is whether the BNC and the rest of the BDS movement are willing to fully embrace the lessons from South Africa.

This article was originally published on Palestine Square, the blog of the Institute for Palestine Studies, a first of three essays derived from Bloomfield’s Master’s thesis at the New School in New York City. 

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Kudos to Michael Bennett for his courage in standing up for Justice. I hope many others seriously consider joining him.

Orale Michael Bennett! Bien dicho!

You have my admiration.