This past week the Israel sports world has been abuzz with a number of high-profile events taking place in Israel led by international athletes.
The impressive showing is not only a demonstration of Israelis’ passion for sport, but also an example of how attempts to use sports as a political tool for activities like boycotting Israel are antithetical to everything sport should be. These events in Israel not only are a strong rejection of movements like Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, but they actually bring Israeli-Arabs and Jews together within Israel as well.
To kick things off, literally, Israel welcomed the English Premier League’s Tottenham Hotspur, who faced off against AS Roma in Haifa at Sammy Ofer Stadium. Thousands of Israeli fans packed the stadium Saturday night to see some of the biggest names in soccer, such as Harry Kane, Lucas Moura and Paulo Dybala.
As fans walked into the stadium, English, Arabic and Hebrew could be heard in nearly every direction; and as lines grew to enter, you could see Israeli Muslims, decked out in AS Roma merchandise, saying evening prayers next to the entrance of the stadium.
But AS Roma vs Tottenham Spurs wasn’t the only show in town. Soccer legends Lionel Messi, Sergio Ramos and Neymar Jr. arrived last week in Israel for the Sunday French Super Cup between Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) and FC Nantes, where approximately 30,000 Israelis filled Bloomfield Stadium in Tel Aviv.
On the first day in Israel, PSG visited the Israeli NGO Save a Child’s Heart, which brings children from all over the world to Israel for lifesaving procedures. The soccer players met the children, took photos, and heard about the incredible work of the nonprofit organization.
In another heartwarming moment, Sergio Ramos took time to meet with five-year-old Ramos Setawi, an Israeli Druze child whose father was killed in the Temple Mount terrorist attack in 2017. The child, who is actually named after the footballer, videotaped himself asking to meet the star, and the footballer made his dream come true, meeting him in Tel Aviv.
Last week also saw the launch of the Enes Freedom basketball camp for Jewish and Arab youth, hosted by NBA star Enes Freedom, a vocal activist for peace and human rights, and the “Jewish Jordan,” Tamir Goodman.
The camp, occurring for the first time in Israel, was held in Jerusalem and Haifa, and included children from east Jerusalem, Druze villages, northern Israel, and even the West Bank. The children got personal training from Freedom on technical skills, but also received coaching from Freedom, Goodman and guest speakers, such as Israeli-Arab activist Yoseph Haddad, about the importance of sport in bringing people together and seeing beyond politics.
On Sunday, Freedom asked the children to introduce themselves and describe what they’d learned so far and what they’d like to change about the world. Many of the children, both Arab and Jewish, stated that they wished for peace. In one heartwarming answer, a Jewish child stated that through this camp he’d already learned that people he had heard from others were dangerous, were actually his friends. This is the power of sport in destigmatizing and deconstructing hate, and it is precisely for this reason that insidious BDS efforts to politicize sport as a tool for division will never succeed.
Of course, it’s exciting to see major stars in Israel sharing beautiful pictures from Tel Aviv and talking about Israel on their social media, but the real win this summer is the win over bigotry and division. Not only was the BDS movement completely rejected with these recent events, but, more importantly, these iconic players, across disciplines, have set an example of how sport can, and should, unite Muslims, Christians, Jews and people of all beliefs and backgrounds.
The writer is the CEO of Social Lite Creative LLC and a human rights activist.