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Israel and a Sports Boycott: Lessons from South Africa

January 24, 2014 at 1:53 am

Sports events celebrating physical culture and competition have long had underpinnings in political and social motives. From the ancient Greek Olympics and Gladiator tournaments in Rome  to the elitist polo fields and underground bare knuckle boxing rings of Victorian Britain. All realms have served to uphold a certain image of that society and its core values. With the dawn of international sports events within the last 150 years, there has been a new set of principles attached to the underlying political motives; one of ethnic, religious and political parity in an emerging global civil society. In order to engage in this civil society, the nation state must adhere to its rules of fair play and tolerance. This year Israel will be hosting the Under 21 Euro Championship. The decision of UEFA to award this to Israel comes 4 years after the state attempted to bomb the Gaza strip back to the Stone Age.  Despite the evaluation of this attack as tantamount for war crimes, Israel has side stepped international condemnation and has since attempted to flatten Gaza again, amidst the rapturous applause of mainstream Israeli political activists. Meanwhile illegal settlement activity in the West Bank develops in earnest and Arabs living in Israel experience growing trends of racism and discrimination. But what happens if a state like Israel attempts to use these international spectacles like the Euro Championship to portray a sanitised version of themselves, in turn whitewashing their policies of racism and warlike belligerence? The international sports boycott of South Africa provides the reader with an interesting insight into the tactics and methods which can be used.

The legislated racial segregation in South Africa, known as Apartheid (1948 – 1992), was underpinned by a set of principles which could be aggregated under the white Afrikaner term “Baaskaap”. “Baaskaap”, or “Bossship” to the English tongue, was the general attitude of the White minority government toward the Black, “Coloured” and “Indian” communities that resided in South Africa; this being that the Whites were above them, and indeed needed to be kept separate in order to maintain their pure racial development. Races were segregated and Black Africans were at the bottom of the social order, above them were the “Coloureds”, then the “Indians”, and then the Whites. Life for Blacks in the Townships and “Bantustans” (tribal homelands, oddly enough, created by the White government in Pretoria) was horrific. They were usually subject to brutality at the hands of South African army or funnelled into indentured servitude in the hospitality industry in White areas or in the hazardous diamond mines in Kimberly, or in back breaking Afrikaner owned farms. “Baaskaap” would be central to Afrikaner nationalism, and would find its place in one of the most sacrosanct Afrikaner cultural pillars: Rugby.

Rugby played a central role within the Afrikaner self-perception which in turn would develop the mentality of Apartheid structure.  Bouilion and Archer state in their book The South African Game: Sport and Racism that rugby was a sport “ideally suited to ideological investment and the Afrikaners, who considered themselves to be civilising elite, a pioneer people conquering barbarism, recognised an image of their own ideology in its symbols.” As the fifties progressed, and African nation after African nation began to break the chains of colonialism and revolt against their settler minorities, this mentality would bleed into the neurosis of the entire white South African establishment.

In 1960, South Africa’s international image began to nose dive. That year, the Sharpsville Massacre of 69 demonstrators was broadcast globally to international condemnation. The self-esteem of the white minority was shaken as South Africa became a republic and suffered increasing isolation. International Rugby games served as an opportunity to project the “pure” and “personable” face of the Apartheid project. Four years after the brutal massacre, Danie Craven stated at the 75th anniversary of the South African Rugby Board;

“South Africa, this is your celebration, your festival, for the game belongs to you […] You have seen bright and dark days, smiles and tears; you have experienced tension and gaiety; certainty and uncertainty, but they have made you stronger and nobler. They have welded you together as nothing else in our history; and it has been this game which has provided you with a feeling of belongingness, of a oneness which so few people ever feel. It has taken you away from your own world into a larger world […] it has given you friends”.

South Africa was free to “make friends” through the purest of avenues – sport. The screams from the townships would be muffled by the thunderous applause the infamously talented Springboks would receive in venues throughout the world.

Former Honorary Secretary of the British Anti-Apartheid Movement, Abdul Mindy, commented in the Connie fields documentary Fair play; “We understood as South Africans, the importance of sport for White South Africans. It was like a religion; and if you then hit them hard on that, then you were really getting the message across”. This was the general premise behind the international sports boycott of South Africa, pioneered by African National Congress cadres in exile in alliance with international activists and sports personalities. By 1971, due to their intransigence in the face of grassroots international criticism coupled with the inability of Western governments to do anything, South Africa had been barred from international:

  • Table Tennis
  • Boxing
  • Weightlifting
  • Judo
  • Tennis
  • Football
  • Cycling
  • Swimming


Rugby was under attack as well. In 1969 the South African Springbok team toured the UK and Ireland and encountered mass protest and match disruption losing games which normally would have been easy wins for the titans of rugby. In 1971 Australia was brought to a grinding halt as trade unionists staged industrial action in the face of a Springbok tour, helping to invigorate the anti-racism movement in Australia and prompting further investigation into the treatment of the Aboriginal communities there.

The showdown was to be with the All Blacks in 1981, when these two rugby powerhouses came head to head. Despite intense grassroots pressure for the tour to be called off, Prime Minister Muldoon stated that there would be “no politics in sport” and the tour would go ahead. What would follow his uncompromising declaration, almost led to civil war in New Zealand. In Hamilton, the game was called off due to the heroic pitch invasion of the dedicated activists of HAART: NZAAM, the New Zealand wing of the International anti-apartheid movement. Police used batons on anti-tour protesters for the first time, and previous predictions that a tour would result in “the greatest eruption of violence this country has ever known” looked like they would unfold with frightening prophetic accuracy.

Despite the violence a message had been sent to the Rugby mad whites in South Africa. They were not welcome to perform their most hallowed past time abroad as long as they practiced enforced racism and segregation. For the duration of the eighties, the Apartheid regime drifted into increasing isolation and pariah-hood.  They never did play rugby abroad again until the Rainbow nation was born in 1992, with Rugby serving to be a uniting force amongst all South Africans.

It has been said that “History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes”- this seems to be very much the case when looking at Israel. South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu has likened the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land as haughtily familiar to the Apartheid regime he tirelessly battled against. According to the journalist and author Ben White, when Israel was created in 1948, two thirds of the Arabic population was exiled due to a systematic policy of expulsion by the Israeli army. By 1970, three years after Israel invaded the West Bank and Gaza, around half of all Palestinians were living outside of Palestine as dispossessed, denationalised refugees prevented from returning home. One in every seven Palestinians lived as second-class citizens in a state that defined itself as the Jewish homeland. One in three Palestinians was living under military rule, increasingly subject to a regime of apartheid separation designed to facilitate the colonisation of the Occupied Palestinian Territories by Israeli settlers.

Palestinians living in Israel have the right to vote for the Israeli Knesset, but certain structural realities make this form of democracy redundant, according to a report by Israeli NGO Sikkuy, the inequality between Arabs and Jews in the area of housing increased by about 7.4 percent to the detriment of the Arab population in 2009. Furthermore, a study from Israel’s own government website states “Arab schools – more than any other educational sector – suffer from a severe shortage of classrooms and substandard classrooms,”. This inequality is nothing new; Adalah found in 2011 that inequalities between Palestinian and Jewish citizens of Israel span all fields of public life and have persisted over time. Direct and indirect discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel is ingrained in the legal system and in governmental practice. Left wing Israeli and Palestinian civil society has often picked up the pieces of the belligerent ethnocentric policy of Israel. However in 2011 two bills were passed through the Knesset which strips huge amounts of foreign funds to progressive NGO’s battling the Israeli state for civil rights on behalf of Palestinians in Israel.

Since 1970 Israel’s apartheid policies have only become more aggressive in regards to the indigenous Palestinian population of Gaza and the West Bank. The Gaza strip is under a complete Israeli siege, Palestinian fishermen are restricted to strict coastal fishing spots, farm land has been decimated and water availability is at a minimum and is heavily contaminated- 26% of all infections in Gaza are water related and the strip is currently in the throes of a humanitarian crisis. Gaza is often subject to air raids from Israel as well as constant incursion and border raids. A separation barrier was constructed around the West Bank in 2006 with the purported aim to prevent suicide bombers infiltrating Israel. However it cuts into Palestinian land, annexing territory; often farms and water supplies. The wall has cut off Palestinians in Jerusalem, making a viable two state solution with this wall in place impossible. Palestinians in East Jerusalem receive no amenities from the Israeli state or the local Palestinian authority, and so running water and sewage facilities operate precariously, they are also subject to constant house evictions, demolitions and settler aggression. Settlements and outposts have increased dramatically since the beginning for the ill-fated peace process of 1993 and are often situated around precious water supplies and access roads, inhibiting freedom of movement and creating a water crises for many West Bank governorates. As of July 2012, according to the Israeli interior ministry, 350,150 Jewish settlers live in the 121 officially-recognised settlements in the West Bank, 300,000 Israelis live in settlements in East Jerusalem. Whilst Palestinians in Ramallah and Bethlehem do not feel the pinch of occupation in quite the same way Jerusalemites do, there are plans to build a new settlement near the ancient Christian village of Beit Sahur in Bethlehem governorate and several plans to build settlements around Ramallah. The aims of this is to link up the huge settlement blocks of Ariel in the North, to the East Jerusalem bloc in the middle and the Gush Etzyion bloc around Bethlehem, in order to strangulate any prospective Palestinian state.  Palestinians in the West Bank are blocked from travelling to Jerusalem and the Gaza strip; Gazans are blocked from visiting Jerusalem and the West Bank. This form of separate development has created a fractured Palestinian nation and is tantamount to apartheid.

Israel will use this tournament to present a sanitized image of itself to the world and join the ranks of European civil society. However Arabs are routinely blocked from joining the ranks of Israeli football and Israeli Arabs are often jeered when they play in the league. Like with South Africa, sport in Israel has come to be a symbol of national unity and a way to give credence and respect to a state programme predicated upon a hierarchical hand-out of rights in order to divide and rule the Palestinians. Yair Gailley of the Israel Football association believes that “Football provides a space where people can share a passion that transcends their differences. It is a place where you get to meet the ‘other’ and realise how much you have in common.” However his president, Shimon Peres has recently denied the historical existence of the Palestinians. Football beyond Borders and Red Card Israeli Racism calls on UEFA to live up to the code of conduct which governs the beautiful game on the pitch and ban Israel from all sporting events connected to its authority. We also call upon all advocates of justice and anti-racism to march with us on the 24th of May at Grosvenor House Hotel, in Park Lane outside the meeting of UEFA’s top officials to demonstrate that Racism and apartheid has no place in football and the representatives of the Israeli state, the national football team, must be sent a clear message.

Football Beyond Borders is a student lead initiative that was set up in 2009, it aims to break down social boundaries and fight injustice and inequality through football based educational programmes, tours and tournaments.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.