Posted by Guest on June 14, 2018 in Blog

By Blaise Malley

This month, in two countries halfway around the world from one another, sports took the center stage in important political disputes, with athletes taking a stand for justice in two very different arenas.

Israeli Soccer Team pays the Price for Government’s Actions

After weeks of unarmed protests in the Gaza Strip were met by Israel’s use of lethal force and resulted in more than 13,000 casualties, the international community started to take notice.

On 5 June, the Argentinian national football team cancelled their final World Cup tune-up match, scheduled to be played against Israel, in Jerusalem, on June 9th. The decision was made after the team was subject to some political pressures following Israel’s announcement that the game would be played in Jerusalem instead of Haifa, as was originally scheduled, to coincide with Israel’s 70th anniversary. The move would turn the event into as much of a political spectacle as a sporting match. Israel paid the price for this decision. Palestinian Football Federation chief Jibrid Rajoud implored the Argentinian team to cancel their visit and urged Arab fans to burn their pictures and jerseys of star Lionel Messi, widely viewed as one of the best (if not the best) players in the world.

The Argentinian team was also greeted by pro-Palestinian Catalan protesters at their training camp in Barcelona, Spain throughout the week. The demonstrators waved Argentina jerseys marked with red paint to represent the bloodshed that Israeli forces have been responsible for.

"I think it's a good thing that the match between Argentina and Israel was suspended," said Argentine Football Association vice president Hugo Moyano “The right thing was done, it's not worth it. The stuff that happens in those places, where they kill so many people, as a human being you can't accept that in any way.”

Argentina striker Gonzalo Higuain added on that “they've finally done the right thing," by cancelling the match. Although Israeli officials have maintained that Argentina pulled out of the friendly because of threats against Messi, including depicting Rajoub’s statements as “terror threats”. Still, most saw the decision as a clear victory both for Palestine and for the leaders of the movement to boycott Israel. The match being scrapped, regardless of the exact reasoning, is an important political moment. The reaction from all sides makes that much clear.

"I congratulate Palestine at such a great sport victory and the tough blow to the occupation," Abdel-Salam Haniyeh, a Palestinian who is on the higher council of youth and sport, wrote on Facebook after the news broke.

The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) also sent out a statement after the announcement, tweeting “We welcome news that @Argentina's ‘friendly’ football match with Israel has been canceled! The team responded to creative campaigning from fans around the world denouncing Israel’s sports-washing of its crimes against Palestinians. @FIFAcom: Take note! #NothingFriendly”

While many Israelis responded by arguing that the decision was not about security rather than politics, others, like Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman took a different approach: “It is ‘too bad’ that the Argentines did not ‘withstand the pressure of the Israeli-hating inciters,’” he tweeted, according to a BBC translation. "We will not yield before a pack of anti-Semitic terrorist supporters."

The events of the past days have led some to liken the match’s cancellation to the apartheid-era boycott of South Africa. This is the early stage of the campaign, but as history has shown, athletes have the ability to make real impacts and shift the paradigm around certain issues.

Trump Continues War with NFL

Athletes were also thrust into the spotlight across the ocean in Washington, DC where President Trump disinvited the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles from the traditional celebratory visit to the White House, allegedly because of their protests during the National Anthem, although no player who won the championship with the Eagles actually kneeled during the Star-Spangled Banner.

Instead of celebrating members of the Eagles’ organization at the White House, Trump elected to host a short celebration that would honor the country and to allow the fans who had travelled to Washington, DC an opportunity to participate in something, although questions have been raised as to how many of the attendees were actually fans of the franchise.

The conflict between Trump and the Eagles represented the culmination of months of tension between the President and the NFL. Back in October, Trump referred to those players who kneeled as “sons of bitches” and recently suggested that perhaps they should leave the country. 

Trump scored a political win when NFL owners implemented a rule that would fine players who did not stand during the playing of the National Anthem. However, players have continued to fight back and have tried to stop Trump from hijacking the narrative around the protests. An act that has always been focused on raising awareness about police brutality against minorities in the United States had been falsely conveyed as disrespect directed toward the military. By shifting the center of the argument, Trump and his supporters have managed to avoid a difficult discussion about police brutality, instead forcing a more comfortable conversation centered around patriotism.

The Eagles have not backed down from the fight, as a number of players, along with the city’s Mayor, issued statements disputing Trump’s reasoning and criticizing his leadership style as egotistical. The White House tried hard to regain control over the narrative, arguing that the Eagles had been playing politics, when, in fact, the inverse was evidently true. The strong response by Philadelphia, along with other prominent athletes like NBA stars LeBron James and Stephen Curry, ensures that this story will continue to drag on as athletes continue to assert their right to express themselves freely.

People everywhere are fighting for justice. These athletes have a special platform: They are seen, heard, and revered by people around the world and from diverse backgrounds. The players of the Argentinian national team and the Philadelphia Eagles have used this platform to fight for justice. They are using their voices to combat repressive regimes and, hopefully, as a first step towards some level of change in the world. It was George Orwell who once remarked that sport was “war minus the shooting”. Athletes have noticed that the arena for these wars has expanded, and are doing their part to shift public discourse in the direction of justice.

Blaise Malley is a Summer 2018 intern at the Arab American Institute.