Posted by on June 06, 2014 in Blog

By Elizabeth Adams
Summer Intern, 2014

In a world where rivalry between nations often ends in conflict, sports provide many societies with an avenue to come head to head and provide an excuse to be unabashedly proud of one’s homeland: to fly the flag and sing the national anthem without pause.

They are also an avenue for fans and players to express their political views in a public forum. Players sew political slogans onto jerseys, activists gather with signs and flags, and spectators chant songs with lyrics like, “This is Kadıköy, and this belongs to Fenerbahçe! We won’t let the police take this neighborhood!” (Turkish fans protesting police brutality).

However in Houston, Texas’s BBVA Compass Stadium, this freedom of expression appears to be reserved to non-Palestinians only. Unlike in Europe, where Israeli teams are often greeted by Palestinian flags at sporting events, the BBVA stadium’s staff did not how to react to Arab American of Palestinian origin, Buthayna Hammad’s green, red, black, and white flag flying amongst a ”sea of blue and white” at a match between Honduras and Israel.

Sporting a Honduras jersey and cheering on her Honduran friends’ team, Hammad brought the flag as a method of representation. “That’s just what you do,” Hammad stated in an interview, “You bring your flag”. It’s not an unusual claim. Many soccer fans would feel the same way – soccer is often directly tied to politics, nationalism, and can even be used as a method of organizing social and economic class.

Hammad was promptly escorted out of the stadium by security and told us she was physically barred from returning until she surrendered the flag. According to the head of security at BBVA, the flag “implied a racial slur.” When questioned further, the spokesman for the local soccer team said that Hammad had “instigated” the crowd by waving the Palestinian flag. There were many flags flying that day, but the Palestinian flag was apparently the only one considered racist.

In our conversation with Hammad, she questioned the accusation of her flag being racist, stating, “How can you say that it implies a racial slur? This is my identity.”  The idea that anything pro-Palestine should also be considered hate speech is racist in and of itself, but unfortunately it is a growing issue across the United States Hammad shared that, “I live in Texas, I’ve encountered racism all the time, but just not to this degree. What affected me so much was that I felt like this was Israel’s influence and that I’m here as an American, and Israel has reached so far to affect Palestinians even on U.S. soil.”

One has but to look at the culture that has been created in various places across the country, including college campuses. When a student organization supporting Palestine hosts an event, they are immediately met with opposition claiming “anti-Semitism” - never mind the fact that Arabs can be considered “Semitic” as well.

This kind of lazy thought process has seeped into the governmental level as well. For example, California’s state assembly passed resolution “HR 35” which disallows anti-Semitic activity, examples of which are “accusations that the Israeli government is guilty of ‘crimes against humanity’, accusations that Israel has engaged in ‘ethnic cleansing’, and student and faculty-sponsored boycott, divestment, and sanctions campaigns against Israel”.  To equate questioning Israeli policies with anti-Semitism minimizes the meaning and the history behind the word; being pro-Palestinian does not necessarily mean that one is anti-Israeli, anti-Semitic, or racist in any way. Anti-Semitism is a very real and inexcusable problem. Opposing the occupation is necessary and unrelated. The two should not be conflated for political reasons. 

The first amendment guarantees citizens the right of expression, whether it be in support of a Honduran soccer team or against the occupation. Buthayna Hammad had the right to wave her flag at this game just like the other fans and it was by no means a “racial slur.” As Americans, we are supposed to have the freedom to disagree and debate important issues so that we can form a more just society and have an honest conversation about issues that may seem distant and unfamiliar and are therefore perceived to be unimportant. If this is the goal, then people with diverse opinions should be embraced; they should be honored for standing out in the crowd, not escorted out.

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