Incidents of Anti-Semitism in Rio: Distressing but Surprisingly Common

Israeli and Jewish global media have been flooded with news and commentary on the anti-Semitic handshake scandal that took place during the recent Olympics in Rio. Sadly, the focus on something so basic as acknowledgement has become a teaching moment for our community, and our world.  At the event, an Egyptian Judo competitor refused to shake the hands of an Israeli competitor. He did reluctantly agree to actually fight the Israeli bronze medalist, unlike incidents that took place in the qualifying rounds, when competitors representing Syria and Saudi Arabia forfeited to Israeli athletes to avoid recognizing their official presence and identity. In both cases, the sports were Boxing and Judo, and I like to think it’s really because they couldn’t stand the idea of losing to Israelis, of all people, in a hand to hand, honest fight. But I wasn’t surprised by any of the incidents and didn’t need the news to fill me in on the background or the why. These incidents are emblematic of disproportionate anti-Semitism that reigns in so many countries of the Middle East.

I’m glad that upon the pressure from the International Olympic Committee el-Shehaby was sent home by his own team, and wonder how the games could carry on into the future if they hadn’t. Sports without sportsmanship is without merit. At the same time, I feel sorry for him because no matter the years of sweat and pain and dedication that he undoubtedly poured into Judo for most of his life, all of that ended with his expulsion, shamefully brought on by the crippling requirement of anti-Semitism. In the end, el-Shehaby’s refusal to shake hands hurt him more than anyone, on a profoundly personal level.

Sasson is a significant talent, and I remember his success last year, taking silver for Judo in the 2015 inaugural European Games. I remember that Sagi Muki, also Israeli, took the Judo gold. Interestingly, those games took place in a majority-Muslim country, although it’s hardly worth comparing the experience of Israeli competitors in Azerbaijan to the blights of Rio. Last summer, 141 competitors traveled from Tel Aviv to Baku to compete in the European Games; it was the largest ever Israeli delegation to a sporting event in all of history.

At the opening ceremonies of the European Games, when a crowd of Israeli athletes walked the stadium waving an enormous Israeli flag, the enthusiasm and support from across the entire arena of 70,000 was overwhelming.  A roaring crowd cheered the Israelis with the same enthusiasm as for all of the 6,000 athletes that joined in Azerbaijan’s capital city of Baku, to compete across 20 sports. During the Games, Baku’s major landmark building - the Flame Towers - was even covered in Israeli flag.

This was not surprising, because anti-Semitism is antithetical to the culture and character of Azerbaijan. Unlike many nations in its wider neighborhood and the Middle East, it is a country built and secured by the values of tolerance and inclusivity for people of every religion. That Azerbaijan is safe home to over 30,000 Jews today, and shares strong, lasting ties to the State of Israel, are only a few examples of this identity; of a nation that has stood out for centuries.

Perhaps the frequency and intensity of anti-Semitism across the globe makes what happened in Rio seem less shocking than it might have before, or maybe it’s just common sense that an athlete raised in an environment of hate would bring that to the Olympic stadium. The same logic explains why Israeli athletes were treated so well in Azerbaijan. On that basis, it’s safe to say that if shamed Judo champion el-Shehaby had been raised in Azerbaijan, instead of Egypt, he would not have been disqualified from Rio. Not only would he compete unburdened by the kind of government and society that unabashedly demand such prejudice, but as is the case in both government and society in Azerbaijan, he would actually be offended by the very idea. If el-Shehaby was given such opportunity as to be raised in a nation that champions positive multiculturalism, this blight on his career and Olympic embarrassment would most likely have never taken place.