The Israeli national team at the Rio Olympics made headlines twice for reasons related not to their athletic accomplishments, but rather to politics.
The first incident occurred when the Lebanese team prevented the Israeli athletes from boarding the same bus as them for transportation to the opening ceremonies. The second occurred when Egypt’s Islam El Shihabi refused to shake the outstretched hand of his Israeli rival Or Sasson, after the latter beat him in a judo match.
In both cases, Israeli and Jewish media outlets immediately claimed that the Arab athletes acted as they did because they were anti-Semites. And once the accusation of Jew-hatred is released, you can pretty much guarantee there will be no attempt by other media outlets to look for nuance in the complex historical, social and political circumstances lying behind the incidents.
If you push back against the claim of anti-Semitism, you run the risk of being perceived as an apologist at best or a Jew hater at worst. Why stick your neck out? There’s nothing to be gained but trouble: nasty emails, campaigns leveled by Israel advocacy NGOs and many, many trolls on Twitter. But this extreme reluctance to look beyond the binary, simplistic explanations (“they hate us because we’re Jews”; “they want to throw us into the sea”) is itself dehumanizing and toxic.
One could, for example, say that yes, El Shihabi behaved badly. He should have taken his Israeli rival’s outstretched hand. On the other hand, he was under a lot of pressure on social media, reflecting popular sentiment in Egypt, which is undeniably anti-Israel. While there is never any justification or rationalization for real anti-Semitism, there are historical reasons why anti-Israel sentiment took root in Egypt. For starters: Nearly every family in Egypt lost a relative in one of the wars between 1967 and 1973. And when Sadat made peace with Israel in 1979 but failed to bring an end to Israel’s military occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, Egypt lost its leadership role in the Middle East. Finally, the Middle East today is deeply divided as civil wars rage simultaneously across the region, but there is only one issue that animates nearly all Arabs, and that is Palestine.
Perhaps El Shihabi backed away from Sasson’s hand because he was afraid of criticism from his fans, or because he was a patriot trying to make a populist statement. Or perhaps he was raised to be afraid of Israelis, or to loathe them. You can criticize any or all of these attitudes. But to characterize them as anti-Semitic and to extrapolate that El Shihabi’s attitude reflects a genocidal point of view — that’s wrongheaded. When we do so, we muzzle debate, we cheapen real anti-Semitism and we deny the existence of complexity.
And the situation is more complex than those who cry anti-Semitism would have us believe: If the Egyptian’s judo rival had been a Jew from any other country, he would not have refused to shake his hand. The issue was Israel — not Jewishness.
What’s more, reactions among Egyptians were not monolithic. Plenty wrote on social media that they were embarrassed by the judo player’s having violated protocol by refusing to shake his Israeli rival’s hand. El Shihabi, they wrote, had made their country look bad with his unsportsmanlike behavior.
We don’t really know what happened with the Lebanese-Israeli fracas over the bus. According to some reports, the Israelis had their own bus but tried to force their way onto the Lebanese bus. Why? No one offered an explanation or a denial. Other media outlets reported that there was a misunderstanding, or confusion. Who knows? Here is what we do know: Lebanese law forbids interaction with Israelis. There are real consequences for Lebanese citizens who are photographed with Israelis or seen fraternizing with them — for example, in a selfie posted on social media that was taken by an Israeli sitting next to a Lebanese on a bus at the Rio Olympics.
So when the Lebanese team acted to physically bar the Israelis from boarding their bus, they weren’t expressing anti-Semitism. They were protecting themselves from legal consequences back home.
Contrast that with the consequences for Israelis. None of the Israeli athletes risked censure for shaking an Arab rival’s hand, or an unpleasant interrogation with the police if they were seen sitting on a bus next to a Lebanese. In fact, these incidents were pretty good for the Israel team’s image on the world stage.
We Jews carry our historical baggage heavily. We see a rejected handshake or a refusal to share a bus and we think of Nazi concentration camps, Russian pogroms or a massacre that took place at the Munich Olympics in 1972 — 44 years ago. Would it help to reiterate that Israel today has the most powerful army in the Middle East and the fourth most powerful military force in the world? Or that no country in the Middle East has more powerful protectors in the diplomatic arena than Israel does? Perhaps not. These fears, after all, are more emotional than rational. But we could at least make an effort to overcome them.
Lisa Goldman is a senior editor at Vocativ.com and a contributing editor to +972 Magazine, which she co-founded. She lives in New York City. Follow her on Twitter @lisang