A double-edged sword

At just 16, champion fencer Yuval Freilich has won the battle against being excluded from competitions due to his religious observance.

Yuval Freilich 520 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Yuval Freilich 520
(photo credit: Courtesy)
After making history in the High Court of Justice, 16-year-old Yuval Freilich has his sights on setting even more precedents, this time in his beloved sport of fencing.
Two and a half years ago, Freilich’s appeal to the High Court not to compete in junior competitions on Shabbat was accepted by Justice Hanan Meltzer. All Freilich wanted was to have a chance to compete for a place in the European junior championships, but the groundbreaking ruling in his favor had far-reaching implications.
The religiously observant Freilich petitioned the High Court in October 2008 to reschedule a decisive competition, as taking part in it would require him to violate Shabbat. His appeals to move the event to Friday were ignored by the Israel Fencing Association, but not by the High Court.
“Fencing is my entire world,” Freilich told Meltzer in court. “I train four to five times a week and feel terrible that by being an observant Jew in the Jewish state, I am denied the opportunity to represent Israel in international competitions.”
Meltzer accepted Freilich’s arguments that the Fencing Association’s insistence on holding its competitions on Shabbat constituted discrimination against religious Jewish athletes, and that it went against the Equal Opportunities Act. The judge ordered that the event be moved from Shabbat or that the fencer be awarded a technical victory in any competition in which he could not compete due to his religious beliefs.
The Fencing Association refused to move the competition, but the court’s ruling eventually left the association with no other option but to avoid scheduling future events on Shabbat.
Since that time, Freilich has become one of Israeli sports’ most promising Olympic prospects.
Last month he was crowned as the Cadet (under- 17) European champion in the epee, one of the competitive fencing categories in the Olympic Games. And Freilich has excelled against much older fencers, finishing in eighth position in the Under-20 European Championships earlier this year.
However, his success has also resulted in criticism.
Freilich chose to compete on Shabbat on his way to winning the bronze medal at the Cadet World Championships in Azerbaijan last April, angering many people after competitions in Israel were moved following his petition to the High Court.
“I think it was quite hypocritical on my part,” he admitted. “I can understand why people got upset.
I had already separated myself from the whole High Court business because I knew this would eventually happen. I knew there would be a massive media upheaval about it.”
Freilich, who lives in Neveh Daniel in Gush Etzion and trains in Kfar Saba, wears a kippa and considers himself a religious person, admitted that he is willing to make compromises to further his fencing career.
“My fencing career comes first,” he said. “I try to observe Shabbat as best as possible when I am away at competitions. I’ve had one or two competitions that have been on Shabbat, no more. We are usually very close to the competition venue, so I’ve been able to walk there most of the time.”
Although he would like to leave the whole High Court episode behind him, he doesn’t regret that it happened, as he feels it has helped many other religious teenagers.
“For me that story is finished; but now that it has been done, there are a whole lot of fencers who are benefiting from it,” he said. “My father will do whatever he can so that other people who are inflexible religiously can compete on weekdays.
I think most people also want to have Shabbat off. My coaches also want to be with their families on Shabbat.”
While sporting success seems to be an obsession for most top-level athletes, Freilich is adamant about taking it all in his stride, even saying that he wants to put school before sports.
“I come back from training and study as much as I can,” the 11th-grader said. “I’ve put fencing first this year, which is something I didn’t want to do at the beginning of the year. I wanted to put school first, but that’s the way it went. It’s not very easy having a career in fencing.
It’s always a good hobby to have, but I’m going to have to do something apart from fencing.”
He is targeting reaching the 2016 and 2020 Olympic Games but sounded almost nonchalant when speaking about participating in the Olympics.
“Competing in the Olympics hasn’t really been a dream for me,” he said. “If it comes, it comes. I will be very happy if I get the chance to compete, but I don’t dream about it.”
He has dominated his opponents in recent years. He is the twice and present under-17 national Israeli champion and is currently the top ranked under- 17 and under-20 fencer in the country, being named the Wingate Institute’s Outstanding Junior Athlete of the Year two years running.
“I am expected to do well in continental competitions, but I don’t know if I am expected to win,” he said. “In under-16 events in Israel I expect to win, but not overseas. I always tell myself to expect the least.”
Next week Freilich will lead Israel in the under-17 and under-20 World Championships in Jordan, hoping to prove once more that he has what it takes to make it to the next level.
Although the early signs are encouraging, only time will tell if Freilich will go on to become an Olympic star for Israel.
However, he has already shown that he is not afraid of going against convention, and that may well prove to be the key to any future triumphs.