Fighting the Good Fight: Israeli Athletes Facing Discrimination

January 3, 2018

by: Abigail Gilbert, BFP Staff Writer

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“I think not going is losing.” — Gili Cohen

Gili Cohen first hit the judo mat when she was four years old. An Israeli citizen from Ra’anana, just 20 minutes north of Tel Aviv, the 26-year-old is now a leading judoka who competed in the 2016 Rio Olympics.

In October, she climbed the podium at the International Judo Federation’s (IJF) Abu Dhabi competition in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) with a hard-won bronze medal. Her teammate Tal Flicker won gold. Unlike every other competitor, the two Israeli athletes were not allowed to wear Israel’s flag on their uniforms; the IJF flag hung over the podium, and Tal Flicker was forced to sing Hatikvah to himself while the IJF anthem played instead.

“It’s hard to explain the feelings of singing Hatikvah while the IJF flag is rising instead of Israel’s flag,” he wrote in a post after the event. “Winning was important not only for me but also for Israel and all the Jewish people [around] the world.”

For Gili Cohen, it was also a disappointment.

It was her second time at the Abu Dhabi competition. She was there two years before for the Olympic judo qualifications. She said the team was treated well by locals but faced a “hassle” getting their visas approved by the government.

Deciding to Attend

This year, the team knew ahead of time they would not be allowed to wear the Israeli flag. “There was criticism that we shouldn’t have gone if we weren’t going to represent the country and have a flag,” Cohen said. “But not going and not competing is in a way a loss. The fact that we did go—that the team won gold with Tal’s medal and some more bronze medals—even just being there and fighting in the competition is a statement, and I think a step in the right direction.”

The United Arab Emirates has no diplomatic relations with Israel, and all 12 Israeli athletes at the tournament were prevented from wearing the Israeli flag or even the three-letter country code, ISR (Israel). Still, Cohen says the attempt at delegitimizing Israel fell flat.

“Everyone knows where I’m from; everyone knows where Tal’s from,” she said, adding that the team isn’t going to back down in the face of discrimination. “We have to show that we want to be there; that we’re not going to miss out on sporting events.”

Widespread Discrimination

Unfortunately, the Abu Dhabi instance is one of many examples of the prejudice that has targeted Israeli athletes in recent years. In the 2016 Rio Olympics, Israel’s delegation was preparing to get on the bus for opening ceremonies when the Lebanese delegation, already on board, stood at the bus door and wouldn’t let them enter. Organizers gave in, moving the Israeli team to another vehicle.

In another headline incident at Rio, defeated Egyptian judoka Islam El Shehaby snubbed Or Sasson of Israel after Sasson beat him in a judo bout. El Shehaby refused to shake Sasson’s hand.

Countries like Kuwait, Syria, Indonesia, Algeria and most commonly, Iran have at various times boycotted competitions where Israel was represented, pulling out of sports where their athletes are scheduled to compete with athletes representing the Jewish state.

Even if athletes from these countries stand up to the pressure and compete with Israel, they face extreme prejudice and repercussions upon returning home. In 2007, Mushir Salem Jawher, a Kenyan-born marathoner, lost his Bahraini citizenship after competing in the Kinneret Marathon in Israel.

Gili Cohen (third from the left) on the podium at the Abu Dhabi judo competition in the United Arab Emirates last October.

In 2009, Israeli tennis star Shahar Peer was denied a visa to participate in a tournament in Dubai, UAE. The Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement has been trying for years to get Israel barred completely from the Olympics and from FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association), even though Israel has never made any attempt to get their hostile Arab neighbors barred from the sports arena.

Rising Above

Cohen says, as an athlete, she’s honored to compete with people from all over the world; sport is an opportunity to break down walls and build bridges. She says the discrimination is encouraging the opposite.

“It’s a shame that something so pure gets mixed up in politics,” she said.

Sports and Culture Minister Miri Regev called the incidents in Rio, “anti-Semitism and racism,” calling for the world to condemn the anti-Israel behavior. Cohen said as an athlete she appreciates the injustice coming to light, but added that it’s important for those closest to the issue to come forward.

“What’s most important is to hear voices from athletes who will rise up and say ‘this isn’t right,’” Cohen said. She’s been encouraged by athletes and coaches both at the Olympics and at Abu Dhabi who are standing against the prejudice.

One such athlete, Portuguese judoka Joana Ramos, is a long-time professional rival of Cohen’s—the two often face off against each other in competitions. At Abu Dhabi, Cohen beat Ramos, and afterward Ramos shook her hand, pulled her into a hug, and told her she was proud of their fight. When they met backstage before the medal ceremony, Ramos again told her how happy she was that Cohen won the medal.

“I think that was just in such contrast to what we’d experienced,” Cohen said about Ramos’ kindness. “It really was an emotional moment.”

Ironically, all the hype around the Abu Dhabi incident put both judo and Israel in the spotlight, rather than minimizing the country as was intended. Cohen says she hopes the attention brings the issue to light and increases the chances for Israel to compete in competitions around the world.

“I’m Israeli. I was born and raised in Israel,” she said. “It is a big part of who I am; I’m Israeli no matter where I go or who I represent.”

Photo Credit: International Judo Federation

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