Opinion |

From Jesse Owens to Lionel Messi

Sports stars who are admired by millions can influence and shock public opinion far more effectively than politicians, academics and intellectuals

Daniel Blatman
Daniel Blatman
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Messi, Belo Horizonte, Brazil, on June 21, 2014.
Argentine striker Lionel Messi celebrates his goal against Iran during their World Cup football match in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, on June 21, 2014. Credit: AFP
Daniel Blatman
Daniel Blatman

Perhaps in 50 years, when a scholar of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict settles down to write its history, he will begin his book as follows:

In 1971, the United States sent its ping-pong team to a showcase competition in China. This was the first step toward breaking the wall of hostility that had existed between the two powers since the Korean War. It was the first step toward rapprochement between the two powers. In 2018, the Argentine national team canceled its showcase match against the Israeli national team, under heavy pressure from opponents of the occupation in Argentina and Spain. This was a significant step on the long route toward ending the occupation and establishing an independent Palestinian state alongside the State of Israel.

Excitement over sports has a cathartic effect, like a strong national or religious experience. A month after the evangelical-fascist spectacle in Jerusalem starring Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Trump family and some Christian clergymen, a display that bowled a whole nation over with just that type of excitement, came the great fall.

It had seemed as if nothing could stand in the way of Netanyahu and U.S. President Donald Trump, the two smug thugs who were drunk with success and going from strength to strength, accompanied by a vulgar and delusional cheering squad led by Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev. And then came a soccer team – one of the best in the world, headed by a superstar with millions of fans in Israel and abroad – and said, “We’re not playing your game.” And despite all the excuses that the cancellation was due to professional considerations of a team preparing for the World Cup or because of security concerns, the meaning is clear. Argentina has determined that an Israel holding spectacles in Jerusalem while the Palestinians are being oppressed and gunned down is not its playing field.

The cancellation of Argentina’s game in Israel must be a holiday for all peace-loving people and those who support a vision of a different Israel. It requires millions of Israelis – not just soccer fans – to look in the mirror and ask themselves honestly: Why is this happening?

The effect of canceling the game could be much more dramatic than canceling a researcher’s invitation to a university conference abroad, or removing cherry tomatoes grown in the settlements from the shelves of a few supermarkets in London. After all, what will Lionel Messi’s hundreds of thousands of Israeli fans do now? Will they stop traveling to Barcelona to watch him play?

If they do that, it will be a real crisis; for a sports fan, abandoning a beloved team and transferring support to its rival (Real Madrid, alas!), is almost like converting to another religion. That’s exactly what the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement is trying to do – get masses of Israelis to deal with the consequences to their comfort zones of oppression and occupation, and to make their daily lives less convenient. That’s why the cancellation of the game is so significant.

Sports stars and artists who are admired by millions can influence and shock public opinion far more effectively than politicians, academics and intellectuals. There are quite a few examples of athletes who have shaped historical memory and become symbols of the struggle against oppression, racism and violence, even if that was not their original intention.

Jesse Owens, the black athlete who gave the finger to the Nazi dictator when he defeated all those German purebreds at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, is a good example. Another example is Tommie Smith and John Carlos, also black American athletes, who stood on the podium at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics after winning medals in the 200-meter dash, wearing human rights tags and raising black-gloved fists while the American national anthem played, to protest American racism. This gesture advanced the struggle for civil rights in those years more than any academic conference. Messi’s thunderous absence from the soccer field in Jerusalem – the capital of Israel and the symbol of the occupation – may lead him to be remembered for more than just the way he plays.

In light of the debate over the last few weeks in Haaretz about the correct path for the Israeli left – partial annexation, no partial annexation, yes to the Labor Party, no to the Labor Party – Argentina’s decision not to come here presents a new challenge.

The next likely stage will be a major effort in Europe to pressure artists and public broadcasting corporations not to participate in the next celebration planned in Jerusalem – the Eurovision Song Contest in 2019. The voice of peace-seekers and opponents of the occupation in Israel must be heard. As long as Israel turns sports and culture events into showcases that give legitimacy to “Miri Regev Productions,” we will not attend them and we will convince others in Israel and around the world to do the same.

Such a decision has moral, Jewish and historical legitimacy. In March 1933 there was a meeting in New York of Jewish public figures led by Rabbi Stephen Wise, president of the American Jewish Congress and an important Zionist leader, where it was decided to call on the American public to boycott German products being imported to America because of the anti-Jewish policies of Nazi Germany. It was not a simple decision. It was not clear what the U.S. administration’s response would be and there was also a risk that American anti-Semitism would intensify. But Wise tipped the scales in favor of the decision, saying, “The time for moderation and caution has passed. We have to make our voices heard as human beings.”

Prof. Blatman is a historian at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

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