You have just won a gold medal. If you were from any other country, you would be standing on a podium, proudly wearing your national flag, singing along as your national anthem was played.
But instead, a blank patch adorns your uniform where your flag was supposed to be. You are left stoically singing your homeland’s anthem as the event’s organizers play the “International Judo Federation anthem” – a piece that sounds as if it was ripped from the soundtrack of a tacky 1980s martial arts film.
But you were expecting all of that; the event’s organizers told you that they weren’t going to play your anthem or let you wear your flag, citing “security concerns.” What you weren’t expecting was that your opponent would eschew the most basic semblance of sportsmanship by refusing to shake your hand after the match. A day later, officials from the hosting country – the homeland of the opponent who snubbed you – apologize for the unsportsmanlike conduct. But they make no mention of the fact that they banned your national flag and anthem. This apology, instead of being viewed as the least the officials could do to uphold an appearance of propriety, is heralded as a “historic moment that shows ‘progress.’”
For most athletes, such treatment would be unthinkable.
For Israeli athletes, it’s just another Monday
For most athletes, such treatment would be unthinkable. For Israeli athletes, it’s just another Monday. The most recent mistreatment of Israeli athletes in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) this past week is nothing new. It is yet another demonstration of how flagrantly many in the Middle East deny even basic civility to Israelis. But it is also a good reminder of how fickle supposedly fair and principled international groups are when it comes to imposing such civility.
Going into the Judo Grand Slam, the International Judo Federation (IJF) demanded that the UAE treat Israeli athletes equally. But after the event, the IJF president, Marius Vizer, made no comment about the unequal treatment of the athletes with respect to their national flag and anthem. In fact, he lauded UAE officials for their “courage” in apologizing that their athletes didn’t shake the Israeli athletes’ hands. Where was the outrage at all the other instances of unequal treatment? Both the UAE and IJF should be ashamed of themselves.
Marius Vizer is not Middle Eastern – he is Eastern European. It seems safe to assume that his prime motivation in overlooking the unequal treatment of the Israeli athletes was to try to get the media to focus on the positive aspect of the story – after all, continued bad press would hurt his organization’s image. We see that Mr. Vizer traded away the rhetoric of fairness and equality, which he voiced before the event, for the most pragmatic and uncontroversial resolution he could find. After the events of this week, he can no longer claim the high ground of principle. Of course, no one should be surprised at Mr. Vizer’s response. No one looks to the president of the International Judo Federation to bridge the diplomatic gulf between Israel and the United Arab Emirates – that’s not his job. While we can be disappointed that he didn’t take a more principled stance, we all understand that Mr. Vizer’s job is to protect the interests of the organization that he runs. But for some reason, we don’t apply this same reasoning when it comes to heads of state and sovereign governments.
International relations are complicated. But in many cases, they are dictated by pure, cold pragmatism. Some of us will pretend that countries put principles in front of pragmatic gains, but to do so is to have an unrealistic expectation of foreign policy, and unrealistic expectations often lead to disappointment. They also can lead to dangerously foolish actions. We should hope for the best, but constantly expect and plan, pragmatically, for the worst. And we should waste very little time complaining when the worst does come.
The Israeli athletes who were snubbed in Abu Dhabi will be fine. If they are strong enough to win gold medals, they are strong enough to endure whatever petty indignities the United Arab Emirates may throw at them. Israel is also strong. And while the existential challenges that Israel faces are much more daunting than petty snubs at a sports tournament, those who have Israel’s best interests at heart may find pragmatic politicking much more productive than perpetual outrage.
Joseph M. Frager is a physician and lifelong activist.