When Israeli judoka Tal Flicker won a gold medal at the Abu Dhabi Grand Slam judo tournament last month, he stood on the podium and quietly sang the Israeli national anthem to himself, while the International Judo Federation’s anthem sounded in the background. Unlike winning competitors from other countries, Flicker’s national anthem was unequivocally banned by the organizers of the tournament, the United Arab Emirates Judo Federation, in a clear act of systematic discrimination against the Jewish state and its athletes.
The Israeli athletes were expecting this. Their national team had been informed prior to the tournament that it would not be allowed to compete with Israeli symbols, nor would its national anthem be played should any athlete win a medal.
Following a request at that time by the World Jewish Congress to intervene on behalf of the Israeli national team, the International Judo Federation sent a letter to the UAE Judo Federation demanding that “all delegations, including the Israeli delegation, shall be treated absolutely equally in all aspects, without any exception.”
The UAE federation refused to comply. Instead of receiving their medals under the Israeli flag, the Israeli gold medalist and his bronze-winning teammates stood under the IJF flag, as the IJF anthem played.
This was hardly the only example of the UAE’s discrimination against Israel over the course of the international tournament. The Israeli team was stranded for hours at Ben Gurion airport when the UAE refused at the last minute to grant the athletes visas to travel via Turkey as planned, forcing them to change their route and tickets, and travel via Jordan. After 14 hours of waiting in Amman, the team finally took off for the UAE.
Buoyed by the systemic discrimination shrouding the event, athletes from Morocco and UAE snubbed their Israeli opponents, refusing to shake hands. The UAE issued a surprising apology to that regard the following day, and the IJF said it hoped to “achieve the best condition of participation” for the Israeli team in the future. But at the Abu Dhabi Grand Slam of 2017, as at the very same tournament two years ago, it was too little too late. The damage was done, and not a word was mentioned about the rest of the discriminatory treatment.
Just two weeks later, Israeli judoka Ori Sasson faced the same discrimination, initially denied the confirmation letter needed for a visa to the World Championships Open in Marrakech and forced to wait for approval. While Morocco eventually agreed, under pressure from the IJF, the demands made in Abu Dhabi had once again fallen on deaf ears.
No other country in the world is privy to this form of blanket discrimination, regardless of the conflicts and disputes within and beyond their borders. When the only country in the world that is denied the right to display its flag or play its national anthem happens to be the world’s only Jewish state, the issue extends beyond the realm of politics and into bigotry and hate.
It is encouraging and welcome that IJF Chairman Vizer made a pointed effort to quell the discrimination against the Israeli national team, but the unwavering lack of compliance was dangerously glaring.
Furthermore, it is never enough to demand compliance without consequence – anti-discriminatory measures must be enforced, and severely penalized if ignored. Otherwise, this phenomenon is sure to continue both in the IJF and will be encountered at other international sporting events.
To be clear, what happened in Abu Dhabi last month and Morocco this week are not isolated incidents. Political discrimination against Israeli teams, and even widespread and unapologetic anti-Semitism, is ever present in sports worldwide.
At the very moment that Israel’s gold medalist judoka mouthed his country’s anthem in a private national celebration on the Abu Dhabi podium, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) Council was in Kolkata, preparing to debate the Palestinian Football Association’s long-standing request for punitive measures against the Israeli association over six teams based in the West Bank.
FIFA rightfully ruled in response that the dispute was political in nature, and had no relevance to football. This principled decision should be applauded and emulated by all sporting federations challenged by discriminatory procedures against any national team, Israel’s included.
International sport organizations must not stand on the sidelines in silence as the world singles out Israel for discrimination, nor can they allow political disputes to darken the spirit of comradery, national pride, and athletic excellence upon which these events are built and thrive.
It is the responsibility of the overarching bodies in all branches of sport to enforce a code of ethics for equal and fair treatment, without compromise or exception. They are obligated to safeguard the rights of all national teams, and make it clear that any countries wishing to participate in their events, including the organizers, must comply with clear rules and regulations barring discrimination and political interference, or face a red card.