The refusal of an Iranian Olympic superstar to compete against an Israeli opponent in a judo match shocked and outraged sports observers and Jewish communal leaders this week. But a Pittsburgh rabbi, Alvin Berkun, told the Forward he knew last week that such a controversy was coming.
The rabbi said that he had been tipped off by two Iranian clerics, Mohammad Taghi Ansari Poor and Hassan Ghanbary, who themselves walked out last week of an international interfaith conference on religion and the Olympic spirit in Athens. The clerics left when the Israeli ambassador to Greece — the only diplomat to address the gathering — rose to greet the participants.
Following the clerics’ walkout, which was reported exclusively in the Forward last week, Berkun engaged the Iranian clerics in a private and groundbreaking dialogue during the next 48 hours of the conference sponsored by Greek Orthodox Church Patriarch Bartholomew.
“These guys told me what was going to happen” four days before the media reported that Iranian Arash Miresmaeili was pulling out of his Olympic match against Israeli champion Ehud Vaks, Berkun said.
This week, the International Judo Federation is investigating whether Miresmaeili, the world judo champion in 2001 and 2003, deliberately avoided the match Sunday by showing up overweight. The Iranian press agency IRNA had quoted Miresmaeili, who carried the Iranian flag at the opening ceremony in Athens and was considered a favorite to win the country’s first gold medal in judo as saying: “I refused to play against an Israeli rival to sympathize with the oppressed Palestinian people.’’
Miresmaeili “was overweight and we need now to investigate more,’’ federation spokesman Michel Brousse told the Associated Press after his organization failed to resolve the issue at a Monday meeting. He added that another meeting is planned for August 23. “Everyone is innocent until proven guilty, and we don’t want to accuse anyone,” Brousse said.
If he were overweight, Miresmaeili could claim that his actions were not truly political, and thus avoid any sanctions.
After Miresmaeili was disqualified, Iran’s ambassador to Greece, Mehdi Mohtashami, was quoted by IRNA praising the athlete, saying: “On behalf of all institutions and Iran’s embassy in Greece, I congratulate you on your courageous move to refuse to compete with a judoka from the Zionist regime.’’
An Iranian government spokesman said: “Our policy is not to recognize the Zionist regime in any international event…. We cannot accept the presence of anyone in international events under the flag of that regime,’’ Abdollah Ramazanzadeh told a news conference.
Critics say Iran has violated the Olympic oath to practice good sportsmanship and leave politics out of athletics.
Israel’s top judo official, Eddy Koaz, reportedly said Iran should be penalized. “I think the IJF must stand and say that we cannot involve politics in sport and I think also they must punish them, because it is not the first time that [Iran has] done this,” Koaz was quoted as saying in media reports. “We cannot let them just do it because if they do it and nothing happens, other countries will do it again.’’
A spokesman for the International Olympics Committee declined to comment saying the issue had not been brought to its attention.
Outside the Olympics there have been previous instances of Iranians refusing to compete against Israelis. And at the 2003 world table tennis championship in Paris, Saudi and Yemeni players refused to play against an Israeli player.
But, in his interview with the Forward, Berkun suggested that a different spirit infused his dialogue with the Iranian clerics. He described the talks as an “extraordinary” series of private conversations between the rabbi and the imams over the course of 48 hours about Israel, Judaism, Palestinians and the potential for improving relations through interfaith dialogue.
Berkun, rabbi emeritus of Tree of Life, a Conservative congregation in Pittsburgh, and vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the rabbinical arm of the Conservative movement, was part of a four-person delegation of rabbis from the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations, which represented the Jewish community at the conference.
Berkun first noticed the Iranians when the Israeli ambassador got up to deliver greetings to the conference. The “two of them walked out and never came back into the room,” the rabbi recalled.
On the bus ride back to the hotel, Berkun sat next to the Iranians and engaged them in conversation.
“I said to them I have a question to ask: ‘Was what you did tonight a religious statement or a political statement?’” Berkun recalled. “I said to them I find it very interesting that as far as I know Iran never sent troops to fight against Israel. I said I found it interesting tonight that two Druze representatives, a woman representing the Islamic Council of Egypt, two Libyans, and a Maronite Bishop from Lebanon all stayed seated and did not leave the room, yet you walked out. I told them I think this was an insult to their host, the Patriarch.”
The clerics explained that the walk out was part of their policy not to have any contact with Israel. “Then they said that if any Iranian athlete is scheduled to compete against Israel, [he or she] will not.”
The clerics and the rabbi maintained a “civil relationship” over the next two days, finding themselves sitting together at meals. Berkun said that the clerics kept talking about the treatment of Palestinian refugees by Israel, and he explained to them the issue of Jewish refugees forced from Arab lands — something he said they were completely unaware of.
“I used the whole time to present Israel’s case,” he said. “A lot of these people live insular lives. I think what was gained is they heard another perspective they may not have thought about.”
The whole conference, he said, was a major breakthrough, because the Greek Church seems to have good relations with a wide variety of Muslim clerics, and can help foster dialogue with Jews.
“It’s really critical to have these kinds of opportunities for dialogue,” Berkun said.
Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly and co-chair of International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations, said that his conversations with the Iranians were pleasant and positive. “They said to me, ‘I hope we keep meeting like this, it’s very important,’” Meyers said.
Meyers said it was striking to realize that for the Iranians, Buddhists and some other religious figures, there is a “disconnect” between their feelings about Israel as a political issue and Judaism as a religion.
“They were very positive and open to discussion about the role of the religion of Judaism and Jewish people in the world to promote cooperation and peace,” Meyers said, “but when it came to Israel, it was like we entered a different world.”