My Dad Taught Me Never to Root for the Israeli Delegation, Now I Understand Why

I know that if there were highly accomplished Arab athletes, they would be Israel's Olympic delegation. The problem is that there are no such Arab athletes in Israel because the state’s symbols signify its boundaries and its character.

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Sayed Kashua goes Olympic for Rio 2016
Sayed Kashua goes Olympic for Rio 2016Credit: Amos Biderman
Sayed Kashua
Sayed Kashua

Watching the Olympic Games was always a ritual in the home where I grew up. Seeing the opening ceremony was mandatory, and sitting in front of the television and gaping at sports we’d never heard of was part of the experience of every leap year. It created order and logic, and furnished a good reason to live another four years – well, two, actually, because one of the best things about the Olympics was that it signaled that there were only two years to go until the next World Cup in soccer. I never watched other sports, although I did take an interest in soccer. But when the Olympics arrived in my hometown of Tira every four summers, I found myself sitting with the whole family, cheering wildly for a female weightlifter from Azerbaijan.

We knew from my father whom to root for. Back then our favorites were the Soviet athletes. They were our heroes, and their battles against the U.S. team were the most important of all contests. A Russian gold medal in gymnastics would transform the social order, improve our economic situation and save humanity from the clutches of the oppressors. If there were no Soviet competitors in a particular sport, or if, heaven forbid, a Soviet athlete did poorly, we were urged to cheer for an Arab athlete, even if he was from some despicable Gulf state. We have to separate the people from the rulers, my father always said.

Next in line for cheering after the Soviets and the Arabs were the athletes from poor countries. They had nothing to eat, their living conditions were worse than ours. After the poor, we backed everyone who had some sort of red mark on his clothing, even if only the shoelaces were red. The rules were always very clear, at least until perestroika, when things grew less clear.

Decades have passed since then, and I am trying to convey the ceremoniousness of the Olympics to my children, but without much success. True, I don’t park myself opposite the TV screen, as in the good old days, but occasionally I take a break of a few minutes and have a peek at what’s happening in Brazil. After supper I always watch the daily summary, and sometimes the children join me, showing an interest mainly in the diving competitions and gymnastics.

I still cheer for the poor; I no longer care about the Arabs, because I have difficulty separating the people from the rulers. I’m starting to like the Americans. I see in the athletes of the U.S. delegation facial expressions, ways of speaking and a spirit that I’ve come to know from the young students at the university and from the general atmosphere in our city.

American broadcasters naturally root for their athletes, but they’re nothing like the Israeli broadcasters as I remember them. They never shout and gush patriotically when an American wins a gold medal, and they don’t castigate others who do a little less well. A national spirit exists among the Americans, certainly – after all, it’s the Olympics – but it’s definitely not the same spirit that accompanies the Israeli delegation, which is that of a combat operation behind enemy lines. The swimming pool is nothing less than Entebbe, the judo arena recapitulates the takeover of the Sabena plane.

I try to imagine the news and sports broadcasters in Israel screaming and repeating their exclamations over and over when an Israeli wins a medal. I can all but hear them shouting “ours,” “we,” “historic event,” “moving moment” – and overflowing with emotion, knowing that despite the difficulties all is well, our way is the right one, we shall overcome. Maybe they’ll even shed a tear and utter to themselves, “The Temple Mount is in our hands.”

“You gave a whole country a wonderful feeling,” the prime minister told the judoka Yarden Gerbi after she won a bronze medal. The whole country – really? Are you sure about that, Mr. Prime Minister? And if there are some people who don’t feel wonderful about it? Are they considered to be outside the country’s borders? And where exactly are the borders that the prime minister is talking about? Are they also the borders of Israel’s Olympic team, whose 47 members didn’t include even one Arab? And isn’t that a good enough reason for anyone following the progress of the delegation to refrain from feeling wonderful? Is there another delegation, all of whose members are of the same religion, the same race, the same color? Is there another delegation from a democracy anywhere else whose composition is based on racial purity?

Yarden Gerbi is undoubtedly a fine athlete who worked hard and realized her personal dream before categorizing herself as someone who has successfully fulfilled a national mission. In a different situation I might have been able to be happy for her, as I’m happy when I read that Aharon Appelfeld has won a prestigious French prize. I might even have been happier because she’s a neighbor, from Moshav Herut, a village adjacent to Tira. But she’s “doing it all for the sake of the state.” The same state, mind you, where Tira, with a population of 25,000, has an area of 11,790 dunams (almost 3,000 acres), while Herut, where the Olympic medalist grew up, is part of the Lev Hasharon Regional Council, which has a smaller population than Tira but a total area of about 57,000 dunams. Herut has a rank of eight out of a possible 10 in the economic index, whereas Tira has a three. The population density amid which Gerbi lives is 400 persons per square kilometer, while in Tira it’s more than 2,000.

Those figures alone attest to the investment in gyms, pools, track-and-field sites and achievement-oriented education. And I’m not saying I want to see an Arab golfer, heaven forfend, or a tennis court, God forbid, in an Arab town. But there’s not even a sports hall in which to exchange blows like human beings, or a track where you can race in lanes marked with white lines.

I don’t follow the rules my father laid down about cheering for athletes at the Olympics, other than one: Always be against the Israeli delegation. The Israeli delegation whose athletes “give their blood and soul and dedicate the medal to the state”; an Israeli delegation that I would undoubtedly root for if there were Arabs on it, even if they had no choice and were forced to wear the Star of David or to stand at attention when “Hatikva,” the national anthem that excludes them, is played. I would cheer for them and for the team, on condition that they did not say things that toe the line of the flag and anthem. Even if they voiced no protest, their silence and the look in their eyes might get the picture across.

The only times I found myself rooting for the Israeli national soccer team was when it had Arab players on it; I hoped I would be able to credit a victory to them.

I know that if there were highly accomplished Arab athletes, they would be in the Olympic delegation, and the country’s leaders might even flaunt them with democratic pride. The problem is that there are no Arab athletes in Israel who chalk up achievements on behalf of the state, because the state’s symbols signify its boundaries and its character. Which is cause not for cheers but for shame.

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