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Cool the Olympic outrage for just one minute

It wasn't anti-Semitism. And saying it was makes it harder to spot the real cases

On Monday evening, a moving ceremony was held in London’s illustrious Guildhall to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of the murder of eleven Israeli athletes at the Olympic Games in Munich. Although the event wasn’t hosted by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), its president Jacques Rogge was in attendance alongside an impressive list of luminaries including UK Prime Minister David Cameron, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle and London Mayor Boris Johnson.

Under any other circumstances, this would have been viewed as a fitting tribute to the victims of Munich. Yet, such has been the tenacity of the campaign to commemorate the Munich massacre with a minute’s silence at the opening ceremony of the London Olympics that anything less, including Monday’s event, is regarded by many as scant consolation. Indeed for those who doggedly insist that a minute’s silence is the only valid form of commemoration, Monday’s event and an impromptu ceremony in the athletes’ village are mere crumbs from the IOC’s table, lip service to the memory of the fallen.

In reality, those who campaigned so hard were led a merry dance into thinking that the minute for Munich was ever a realistic goal.  Now, their disappointment shows dangerous signs of morphing into wild accusations of anti-Semitism. It is impossible not to have sympathy for the pain of Ankie Spitzer, the wife of murdered fencing coach Andre Spitzer.  But when she directly accused IOC officials at Monday’s gathering of refusing a minute’s silence, “because they [the victims] are Israelis and Jews,” she was well wide of the mark. Yet, Spitzer has been joined by the likes of Deborah Lipstadt, a celebrated historian who undeniably knows a thing or two about defining anti-Semitism. Lipstadt recently argued that the charge of anti-Semitism is “absolutely correct” when leveled against an IOC for whom “Jewish blood is cheap.”

Who knew that you could determine so much about an entire organization based solely on the content of an opening ceremony?  If the IOC’s refusal over the minute for Munich were part of a pattern, the accusation of anti-Semitism would make more sense. Yet, it is almost impossible to detect any additional hint of anti-Semitism at the IOC or discriminatory behavior towards Israel. Israeli athletes appear to be treated equally to all others, an Israeli Alex Gilady has sat on the IOC since 1994 and Jewish athletes are among the most celebrated Olympians, including legendary swimmer Mark Spitz who made his mark at the Munich games.

So, what is behind the IOC’s steadfast refusal to permit a minute’s silence? Beyond the accusation of anti-Semitism, Spitzer’s tirade against the IOC at Monday’s event hammered home several truths — none more so than her claim that the IOC is “only interested in power, money and politics.” Unfortunately, the popular idiom that “sport and politics don’t mix” is nonsense and the Olympic Games are perhaps the ultimate proof of this. The race to host the games is possibly the most keenly contested political race outside of government. London was awarded the Games in 2005 after an enormous lobbying effort to win the votes of the 104 IOC members who determine the venue. The UK enlisted superstars such as David Beckham, then prime minister Tony Blair and even members of the royal family to make the case for London.

As for the Games themselves, the manipulation of the 1936 Berlin Olympics by the Nazi regime has been well documented. More recently, the United States and its allies (including Israel) boycotted the 1980 Moscow games in protest at the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Moscow returned the compliment four years later when the Games were held in Los Angeles. Meanwhile, the abiding image of the Mexico Olympics in 1968 is the poignant Black Power demonstration by American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos as they received their medals.

These incidents are incredibly damaging to the image of an organization like the IOC which markets itself by peddling the “Olympic spirit” of global friendship and mutual understanding. And so against this backdrop, the IOC is loath to endorse anything that may divide the Olympic family. Whether we like it or not, a moment of silence for the victims of the Munich massacre is clearly categorized by the IOC as such a danger.  Israeli IOC member Alex Gilady admitted as much by saying, “Such an act may harm the unity of the Olympics.” After all, who can honestly imagine the Iranian delegation honoring the silent tribute? If confirmation were needed over how divisive a minute’s silence might be, the very idea of such a mark of respect was described by the president of the Palestinian Olympic Committee as “racist.”

Fearing the ire of delegations hostile towards Israel and a subsequent sullying of its own unifying image, the IOC has refused a silent tribute and thus chosen self-interest over compassion and respect. It is a political decision which renders the organization guilty of selfishness and cowardice. Repugnant as that may be, it is not anti-Semitism.

Sadly, we don’t have to look too far to find genuine examples of anti-Jewish discrimination in the world. They must be opposed at every turn.  Yet, incorrectly finding anti-Semitism on every corner makes this task more difficult, complicating efforts to identify and mobilize against genuine instances of prejudice. Those who have accused the IOC of anti-Semitism would do well to take just a minute to consider the consequences of their claim.

About the Author
With over a decade of experience working with governments, politicians, NGOs and Jewish organizations in Israel and abroad, I hope to bring a fresh look at some of today's big issues.