Liel Levital just turned seven years old. She was also just crowned as the European School Individuals Chess Champion for her age group, earning her a spot to represent her country, Israel, at the upcoming World School Individual Chess Championship.
But she can’t go.
The World Chess Federation (FIDE), has granted the hosting of the upcoming championship games to Tunisia, a country that has no diplomatic ties with Israel. Tunisia bars entry of Israelis into its borders, essentially leaving Levital and other Israeli chess champions unable to compete.
This is not the first time Israelis have been discriminated against in international chess. In the 2017 World Chess Championships held in Saudi Arabia, Israelis were forced to forfeit the chance to compete due to the country’s visa laws, which bar entry for Israelis.
Chess is by no means a special case. Discrimination of Israeli athletes is rampant in international sports. World sporting events held in Arab and Muslim countries essentially rob Israelis of a chance for fair play if the host country does not recognize Israeli passports. In some cases, such as the recent Abu Dhabi Grand Slam Judo competition, Israelis are allowed to compete, but as second-class athletes. In the case of a victory for an Israeli athlete, the Israeli flag is not displayed, nor is the Israeli anthem played, as is the case with every other country. The biggest stage in international sports, the 2016 Olympic games held in Rio, saw victorious Israeli athlete Or Sasson snubbed after trying to shake the hands of his defeated Egyptian opponent, who was allowed to disrespect the Israelis with impunity.
Despite the rather bleak picture painted above, it seems that concerted efforts to hold international sporting organizations accountable is bearing fruit. Just recently, following a letter-writing campaign by Israel education organization StandWithUs, FIDE has announced that they are demanding written confirmation from the Tunisian chess body that all players will be allowed to compete before confirming the Tunisia’s hosting of the event. Dramatically, The International Judo Federation has stripped the United Arab Emirates and Tunisia from hosting two international tournaments due to their failure to guarantee equal treatment of Israeli athletes, following previous omission of Israeli symbols in the competitions. Private citizens are also taking action, such as Lior Aizenberg, who is organizing an inclusive Alternative World Chess Championships in Israel in response to the discrimination of Israelis in Saudi Arabia.
A key factor in this issue is the accountability of world sports organizations, not host countries, for taking responsibility for fair play and equal treatment of all athletes in the games. Though host countries are led by international politics and will try to “get away” with discrimination against Israelis, the world sporting organizations are accountable for the sport at large and have an interest in maintaining an inclusive image – despite the financial rewards of allowing the highest-bidding countries to host their events. Only after coordinated action aimed at these bodies will we see more positive change on the unacceptable discrimination of Israelis in sports.
Fair play for all.
The author is public affairs director for StandWithUs. @giladkabilo