17 April 2007

16 April 2007 - Arab league apartheid, revisited

Last month I offered an overview of human rights and democracy (or the lack thereof) in the Arab world as a critique of the Israel-apartheid analogy. The call by the British National Union of Journalists to boycott Israel (even though a BBC journalist seems to have been killed by Palestinian terrorists) reminded me of another parallel between Israel’s neighbors and apartheid South Africa.

Last year, two English Premier League football clubs, Bolton Wanderers and West Ham United, left their Israeli players home when they traveled to Dubai, since the United Arab Emirates denies entry to Israelis. Contributor David Hirsh at the Guardian’s “Comment is free” website compared the clubs’ acquiescence with the refusal of the English cricket team to accede to South Africa’s demands in 1970.

Back then, one of the English stars was Basil D’Olivera, a South African-born cricketer who was classified as “coloured” and therefore knew he would be denied the opportunity to participate equally in his native land. He emigrated to England, where he became a mainstay of the side. On a tour of South Africa in 1968, England actually did leave him at home; finally the team decided to stand its ground.

The apartheid government objected to the English team not just because it was racially integrated but also because of D’Olivera’s political opposition to apartheid. “It's the team of the anti-apartheid movement,” complained South African Prime Minister B.J. Vorster. But the English team stuck to its guns—defended its wicket, you might say—and refused to play by South Africa’s racist, repressive rules.

That decision helped boost the international campaign to isolate South Africa from international competition altogether—not just in cricket but in every sport. It was a necessary and effective way to demonstrate the world’s revulsion at South Africa’s apartheid policies. And it hit sporting-mad white South Africans hard. Only when talks began with Mandela and the ANC was the boycott lifted, to great cheers.

Compare that treatment with the way the world accepts the treatment of Israeli athletes by Arab and Muslim states without complaint. The only whimper of protest came in 2004, when an Iranian judo champion refused to compete against an Israeli opponent at the Olympics—and even then the Iranian was excused by the International Judo Federation on the spurious pretext that he was “overweight.”

Even more bizarre was the case of Kenyan-born Mushir Salem Jawher, who once represented Bahrain as an international marathon runner. Jawher chose to compete in an Israeli marathon, becoming the first athlete from an Arab country to do so—and won. He was rewarded by the Bahraini government by having his nationality revoked and having his name struck off the sporting union records.

Vintage apartheid stuff. But Israel—which has produced outstanding Arab athletes such as welterweight boxing champion Johar Abu Lashin and national goalkeeper Dudu Awat, among others—is accused of apartheid. The hypocrisy is mind-boggling. Orwell once argued that sport was a bad way to settle international conflicts, and he may have been right. But refusing to compete may guarantee that wars continue.

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