When It Comes to Celebrating Olympic Medals, Israel Comes Last

It's great that Yarden Gerbi won a bronze medal for Israel at the Olympics, but the predictable, jingoistic nonsense that followed was nauseating.

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2016 Rio Olympics - Judo - Victory Ceremony - Women -63 kg Victory Ceremony - Carioca Arena 2 - Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - 09/08/2016. Yarden Gerbi (ISR) of Israel kisses her medal.
Yarden Gerbi (ISR) of Israel kisses her medal on the podium of the women's -63kg judo contest of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro on August 9, 2016. Credit: Kai Pfaffenbach, Reuters
Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy

It’s just what I was afraid of – an Olympic medal for Israel. It’s not that I wasn’t happy to see Yarden Gerbi win bronze in the women’s 63-kg. judo class. It’s not that I wasn’t thrilled by the sight of the flag – which arouses all kinds of emotions in me – as it flew high, because it’s also mine. No, I was afraid of what would come straight afterward.

My fears were justified. No sooner had the country recovered from the shock of the poisoned cornflakes and the existential danger of the lurking salmonella monster than this celebratory, national, wild rumpus burst out, and in the exact same dimensions. One day there’s a scandal, the next there’s a festival – and both are exaggerated out of all proportion.

The warning signs were there the day before Gerbi’s success, when Israel deluded itself into inventing a new medal: the “almost-bronze” – which is like a medal, but a little less. There is no such thing, of course, and it’s doubtful the International Olympic Committee will recognize it, but judoka Sagi Muki was “within touching distance” of breaking the floodgates: a national hero.

Front-page headlines, history and hysteria, in a land that knows only evanescent heroes – most of them fabricated. People who don’t have a clue about the difference between an iPhone and an ippon interpreted Muki’s loss as a victory: “We wanted it so badly,” wrote the newspapers, in the name of us all. It was grotesque. An unknown sportsman, in a relatively obscure branch of sport, lost – and became a national hero. That was the ominous omen ahead of the main event.

Gerbi was impressive and exhilarating, and she deserved her win. But we didn’t deserve what happened immediately after. The river of words, the raft of clichés, the double-page spreads, the interviews with her parents and uncles. Her picture plastered over entire pages. “Yes!” “Respect!” “Queen!” Madness. Truly, the atmosphere was more restrained at the state’s declaration of independence, the victory more modest after the Six-Day War.

And instantly, the politicians. Oh, the politicians! That renowned judoka Isaac Herzog, Zionist Union MK and leader of the opposition, tweeted: “You are a source of pride for the flag.” His mat mate, MK Bezalel Smotrich (Habayit Hayehudi): “There is a G-d!” And President Reuven Rivlin, in a special column, “Pointing to the flag and with the flag on her heart, that’s Yarden. Our Yarden.”

The celebration, of course, has only just begun: wait until the heroine comes home. A bronze in judo! Yes, it’s a bronze in judo.

The explanations are well-known. They all derive from the (sick) psyche: the desperate thirst for love; the yearning for victory; the need for recognition; and the insecurity that has become, as it inevitably does, boasting.

Israel so very much wants to be proud of something. It so very much wants to be loved. But it isn’t prepared to do anything to get this love, apart from sending judokas. The only country in the world whose delegation was greeted by boos in the opening ceremony. What a shame – it wants respect.

Maybe judo will do it for Israel. It is, in fact, a sport from which Israelis could really learn something: It places limits on the use of force and immediately punishes any deviation. But the deluge of cheap patriotism will blur even that. Israel has won, it doesn’t matter at what.

Israel doesn’t know how to lose, but it knows even less how to win. Ever since our biggest victory, the one in 1967 – the blessing that is its greatest curse – Israel has hardly won at all, but its victories have always ended badly. It has never known what to do with its excess strength. The ippons on the West Bank ended badly, and the waza-ari on the Gaza Strip didn’t end any better. In fact, its losses brought it blessings – in 1973, for example.

I was afraid of a medal for precisely the same reason I was afraid of Israel’s other victories – because I knew what would follow. The excessiveness made the achievement loathsome to me, and dwarfed the victory. A real pity.

How lovely it would have been if Israel had been modest about it. Yes, there is something touching about a country that gets so excited about nothing, that yearns for achievements and yearns to be liked, that so very much wants to invent heroes for itself. But that is not the judo way. Not even with another 100 medals.

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