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Justice for Israel’s paralympic team, and a message to Malaysia

The absence of diplomatic ties can never be allowed as an excuse to boycott participants

Kudos to the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) for stripping Malaysia of the right to host the 2019 World Para Swimming Championships due to its insistence on blocking Israeli Para swimmers from participating in the event. IPC’s forthright announcement also made clear that allowing participation of all eligible countries in their events includes full compliance with their “protocols related to anthems and flags, and where required the provision of relevant visas.” This sets an example for all international organizations: they must send a clear message to all who believe they can intimidate, boycott, disinvite or even isolate Israel from international events.

Last February I personally felt such a blatant effort to isolate and boycott Israel when nominated to head the Israeli delegation to UNHABITAT’s 9th session of the World Urban Forum in Malaysia. Malaysian authorities unjustly delayed approval for our participation, with the intention to keep Israel from participating in one of the UN’s largest events. Only when the United Nations secretariat conveyed to Malaysia, in no uncertain terms, that it is their strict obligation to host all states, was Israel allowed to participate.

My visit was a first visit by an Israeli diplomat to Malaysia in decades. During my stay in Kuala Lumpur, I had a chance to have non-formal encounters with Government officials as well as with many participants and visitors to the UN forum. I was highly impressed by the fast development of Kuala Lumpur and by the possibilities for mutually beneficial Israeli-Malaysian cooperation. Everyone I met expressed a desire for improved ties with Israel and an aspiration for greater economic development, accompanied by further opening of Malaysia to the world.

Malaysia’s failed effort to disallow Israeli Paralympic athletes to participate in the World Para Swimming Championships, a qualifying event for the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics, indicates that the lesson on international norms have not been fully understood.

While efforts to withhold Israeli participation in the UNHABITAT event were made behind closed doors, this time, Malaysia’s Prime Minister’s Mahathir’s declared his intention at the prestigious Oxford Union debate chamber, leading me to the sad conclusion that the people I met in Malaysia deserve more from their leaders. But what also struck me — astounded me — was the applause that reportedly met the Prime Minister Mahathir’s statement when he proclaimed “I am not antisemitic, the Arabs are all Semitic people.” Those present in one of the world’s most prestigious debating chambers should have known better.

While it might be too late for Prime Minister Mahathir, a thorough education on the origin of the centuries-old anti-Jewish canard is desperately needed by his cheerleaders at Oxford Union. A good start mighty be to memorize the working definition of antisemitism accepted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA):
“Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”

Whether in its old or new incarnation, antisemitism does not exist because of what Jews do, say, or believe, or because of what the State of Israel does. We all must adopt a zero-tolerance policy to any sign of antisemitism or to any such effort to excuse or rationalize it.

Mahathir’s excuse for excluding Israeli athlete from an international official Paralympics swim meet because his country has “no diplomatic relations with Israel at all, and we don’t think that they should come to our country” was ludicrous at best.

While it is correct that every country can determine who may or may not enter its borders, when it comes to events under the banner of the UN and other world bodies, no country can have the right to hold an international meeting without first consenting to allow delegates from all states to participate. As for Mahathir’s claim that by boycotting Israel, he is supporting the Palestinians, he does them no favors and distances Malaysia from its ability to have any positive influence in the area.

I am confident that one day, Israel and Malaysia will establish mutually beneficial diplomatic and economic ties. But our insistence that our swimmers join others in competing in the Olympic spirit has little to do with our bilateral ties with Malaysia and everything to do with the Olympic Games moto “Where the most important thing is not to win but to take part”

Ambassador David Roet has been a diplomat at the Israeli Foreign Ministry for more than 30 years. Last February he headed the Israeli delegation to UNHABITAT’s 9th session of the World Urban Forum

About the Author
David Roet is Deputy Director General and head of North America Division, Ministry of Foreign Affairs.