Simon Johnson: Sporting Hate of Israel is Futile Gesture Politics

"This article appears in the 2nd September 2016 edition of the Jewish Telegraph and is available at www.jewishtelegraph.com"

The last month has seen the unwelcome return of exclusionary tactics against Israel in sport. You might not have caught them amidst the euphoria of the Rio Olympics but they were sufficiently newsworthy as to creep in to the mainstream papers. They should raise concern amongst all those who believe, like I do, that sport has the power to transcend politics and to conquer hatred and prejudice.

The first occurred at the Rio Olympics, before even the first competition had started. On the way to the Opening Ceremony, a Lebanese coach tried to block Israeli athletes from boarding a bus with his athletes, as he did not want to share a bus with Israelis. This ridiculous impasse was broken by Rio officials finding another bus for the Israelis. I am sure that this Lebanese coach must have felt very proud for striking a blow against the hated Zionist enemy. In fact, he looked ridiculous.  He was rightly censured, as was the Lebanon delegation. Who would he have preferred to share a bus with? Convicted drug cheats? North Korean athletes? It showed a depressing disdain for the Olympic movement and was utterly pointless.

Then, at the end of the Judo bout between Israel’s Or Sasson, who won the bout, and Egypt’s Islam El Shehaby, the Egyptian refused to shake the hand of his victorious opponent. In a sport like Judo, respect between opponents is inherent, with the handshake before and after the bout an important part of the culture. By refusing to shake his opponent’s hand, all the Egyptian Judoka did was look churlish, bitter and a bad loser. If he had objected so much to fighting against an Israeli, why did he not refuse the bout in the first place?  That would have at least had more integrity. His gesture earned him only opprobrium from the Olympic family. In an Olympics that was already tetchy and edgy, with suspicion over the inclusion of convicted drugs cheats erupting into post-event press conferences, the last thing the IOC needed was a breach of sporting etiquette for so called political reasons.

Mr El Shebaby was roundly condemned by the IOC. We watched and waited to see whether the Egyptian Olympic Committee would take any action. Five days after the event, they perhaps remembered that Egypt is actually at peace with Israel and decided to send El Shebaby home. This was a little bit late, as the Judo had finished by then any way and even Or Sasson was on his way home. But, it’s the thought that counts.

The Israeli had the last laugh though as he went on to win the Bronze medal.

And then, on August 17th, there began the saga of Celtic and the Palestinian flags. Celtic were playing the first leg of their UEFA Champions League Third Round Qualifier against the Champions of Israel, Hapoel Beer Sheva. Predictably, the Scottish PSC had arranged for a pro- Palestinian protest outside the ground before the game. Equally predictably, Rangers fans had set out attacking Celtic fans whom they spotted with Palestinian flags, not out of any ardent pro Zionism, but mainly out of an enmity for Celtic fans.

At the start of the game, the Celtic fans, inspired by the “Celtic Green Brigade” raised dozens of Palestinian flags inside the ground and thus attracted a fine for Celtic from UEFA for displaying political banners at a UEFA match. In an admirable bout of crowd funded philanthropy, the Celtic Green Brigade then raised nearly £150,000 for two Palestinian charities after a call to action to match the fine that UEFA would likely impose upon the Club.

I have some questions for the Celtic fans. Exactly what message were they trying to send to Hapoel Beer Sheva by flying Palestinian flags? Were they trying to show solidarity with Palestinian people? If so, why not fly Palestinian flags at their earlier Champions League matches? Perhaps they will also fly as many Palestinian Flags when they play Barcelona or Man City later in the season?

If they had felt so strongly about raising money for Palestinian charities, why wait until faced with a fine from UEFA to start an appeal for them? Why not launch an appeal at the start of the UCL campaign?

If they felt so strongly about Palestinian causes, how many of their fans visited Palestinian territories during their away trip for the second leg in Beer Sheva? After all, it is only a few miles from there to Gaza. Surely, those committed Celtic Ultras will have made an effort to go to Gaza to show their solidarity?

But wait, isn’t there a PSC proposed sporting boycott of Israel? So presumably, the Celtic fans will have boycotted the away leg in solidarity with the Palestinians?

And how seriously do they listen to the Club Manager, as they are clearly not on the same wavelength? Brendan Rodgers gushed enthusiastically about the warmth of the Club’s welcome in Israel. No boycott as far as he is concerned.

I think we all know the answers to those questions. More important to the PSC and the so called Celtic Green Brigade was the gesture. A little blow to try and delegitimise Israel through sport.

Is that what the Celtic fans thought as they downed their next pint of Tennents in the pub after the game? Or did they wonder why they had been given a strange flag to fly?

The fact is that, in the Autumn, as Celtic prepare to play Barcelona away, their fans might not even remember who they played in the Qualifying round. So what did this gesture achieve?

My message to the PSC of Scotland is this. Your protest against Hapoel Beer Sheva was futile. Israeli clubs continue to play in UEFA competitions. There will be no sporting boycott of Israel by either UEFA or FIFA. By this empty gesture, you have drawn attention to the paucity of your argument. Neither you, nor the Celtic fans, really care about the Palestinians. If you did, there were many ways this last week in which you could have helped them.

What you actually care about is delegitimising Israel. And the sooner you admit that, the more honest you will be.