It was the model of dignity and decorum in a ludicrous situation. When Israeli judoka Tal Flicker won a gold medal last week at the Judo Grand Slam in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates, his excitement was diminished by the Emirati host federation. Because of Flicker’s nationality, the UAE refused to play the winner’s national anthem or raise his nation’s flag. Instead, while the gold medal winner stood under a flag of the International Judo Federation and the federation’s theme song played, Flicker had to quietly sing his own private rendition of Hatikvah, the Israeli anthem.
Similarly, when Israel’s Tohar Butbul beat an Emirati judoka, the defeated competitor turned his back on Butbul’s extended hand, carrying through the tournament’s motif of betraying the values of judo in particular, and sports more generally.
Israel went on to win five medals in all at the tournament, with the rudeness by Emirati organizers repeated again and again. (The Israeli team was also forced to remove their nation’s flag from their uniforms.) Yet Flicker’s grace, and that of the other winners, was a model that Israelis and Jews worldwide – indeed, anyone with a smidgen of sportsmanship – should admire.
In what was a small consolation, two senior Emirati sports officials later apologized to the head of the Israeli judo delegation for the loser’s refusal to shake Butbul’s hand. But there has been no apology for the larger silliness around the Israelis’ participation in the competition.
In an ideal world, international sports federations and other bodies would reward behaviour like the UAE’s by preventing them from hosting major events for a specific period and demanding in advance that the most basic tenets of sportsmanship be respected by any country that hopes to host.
In the bigger picture, the incident demonstrates the absurd treatment Israel receives in the international community more broadly. The latest example, which also happens to involve the UAE, occurred on Monday in Paris at the 39th general conference of UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. The UAE struck a commemorative medal to mark the renovation of UNESCO’s conference room. The medals feature a portrait of Hamdan bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the UAE’s finance minister (a keepsake for sure!) and one was left on the desk of every UNESCO member-state except … the Jewish one.
“The state of Israel has no need for gifts,” said Carmel Shama-Hacohen, Israel’s ambassador to UNESCO, “but this ugly and uncivilized step, here in the world’s organization for culture and education, which follows the outrageous treatment of our judokas during the tournament in the UAE’s capital, shows how much hatred, incitement and dark mentality surround these people.”
And so it seems.