Individual sporting boycotts against Israel aren’t new – but can they be effective?

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Two judo competitors withdrew before facing an Israeli opponent at this year’s Tokyo Olympics (PA Wire)
Two judo competitors withdrew before facing an Israeli opponent at this year’s Tokyo Olympics (PA Wire)

The Olympics would not, of course, be the Olympics without at least one geopolitical tremor. That said, the cases of the two judo competitors who withdrew before facing an Israeli opponent are slightly different from each other.

Sudan’s Mohamed Abdalrasool, who was a no-show on Monday against Israel’s Tohar Butbul, is 429th in the international judo rankings (Butbul is rated seventh). He had weighed in for the bout earlier, but the explanation from Abdalrasool’s team was that he had a damaged shoulder. However, Saturday’s withdrawal by Algeria’s Fethi Nourine – who sought to avoid a potential match-up with Butbul – was overtly political. He was sent home by his own country’s judo organisation and suspended by the International Judo Federation (IJF), along with his coach. “We worked a lot to reach the Olympics,” he said. “But the Palestinian cause is bigger than all of this.”

Which, along with the predictable rumbles and calls for Algeria to be disqualified by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in sections of the Israeli press, raises yet again the whole fraught – and often misunderstood – question of boycotts in protest at Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians.

It isn’t hard to make a case against singling out Israel for such treatment at the Olympics. What about Saudi Arabia – whose cruelties go beyond the grisly murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi – and other repressive Gulf states? Or China for its treatment of the Uyghurs and its ever-tightening grip over the people of Hong Kong? Or Russia (which it seems has managed to rebrand its Olympic team to get round the ban imposed on it over doping) for the invasion of Crimea and its treatment of the dissident Alex Navalny? And so on. Nor was Nourine’s gesture that effective, since Butbul went straight through to the quarter-finals where he lost to a South Korean judoka – and then to a Canadian in a repechage (best losers) bout, which had given him another chance for a medal. Tactfully the Israeli judoka refused to talk about the politics when he spoke to reporters, concentrating instead on his disappointment with his own performance in the contest.

Which doesn’t mean that all boycotts directed at Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories are always wrong per se – or ineffective. In Israel, a vastly bigger story than the relatively trivial episode in Tokyo has been the recent decision by Ben & Jerry’s, now an autonomous ice cream subsidiary of the global giant Unilever, to stop the sale of its products in the Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank which most of the international community, including Britain, regards as violating international law. Despite Ben & Jerry’s clear insistence that its action is not directed at Israel proper, where it hopes to continue operations, Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennett has denounced it as a “boycott of Israel”, conveniently ignoring the company’s important – and deliberately limited – statement that, “we believe it is inconsistent with our values for Ben & Jerry’s ice cream to be sold in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.”

Perhaps in the hope of persuading Israel’s supporters in the US to boycott the Vermont-based company in return, Bennett’s interior minister, Ayelet Shaked, has complained that “the management of global Ben & Jerry’s has chosen to suck up to terrorism and antisemitic organisations.” Which it manifestly hasn’t.

Those western pro-Palestinians inclined to welcome Nourine’s refusal to compete against an Israeli in Tokyo might do better to focus on the failure of Fifa to respond to the call four years ago for banning – or relocating – six Israeli football teams based in West Bank settlements. For Fifa’s inaction is only acceptable if you buy the argument – rejected by most other democratic governments – that Israel stretches way across the 1967 green line to the Jordan River.

It’s unlikely, to say the least, that Nourine, having presumably known from when he set out for Tokyo that he might be drawn against an Israeli at some point, will stop or even modify Israel’s policy of ever deepening encroachment into Palestinian territory. If more big and international companies operating within or in cooperation with West Bank settlements, followed the example of Ben & Jerry’s, they just might.

Donald Macintrye is the author of ‘Gaza: Preparing for Dawn

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