Editor’s note: This is the third and final installment in a Special Series based on the Master’s thesis of Aubrey Bloomfield at the New School in New York. It is comprised of three articles that, together, discuss the role of sports in the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. Bloomfield considers the South African Apartheid precedent to highlight the relationship between BDS and sport, positing the question why a broad sporting boycott of Israel has not emerged despite major successes for the movement in other arenas such as academia, entertainment, and business. Read Part 1, Part 2.
A “game-changer,” that is how the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights (USCPR), a national coalition of groups that advocates for Palestinian rights, described the decision by six National Football League (NFL) players to boycott an Israeli government-sponsored propaganda trip. In an email to supporters on 21 February, USCPR claimed that “never before have we seen U.S. sports players on this scale engaged in the boycott of Israel’s propaganda efforts” and called the sports boycott of Israel “an extremely effective instrument of change.”
According to one commentator, “celebrity junkets to Israel have been an effective public relations tool for decades—bringing high-profile Americans and other foreigners to have a fabulous time in Israel and spread the word.” The logic of this strategy is to “play down politics as much as possible.” But it didn’t work for Israel this time. Instead, what was meant to be an easy publicity win for the Israeli government backfired spectacularly.
While five players still went on the trip, their travels in Israel received little attention. Meanwhile, Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett decided not to participate, and invoked 1968 Olympian John Carlos’s statement that there can be no partial commitment to justice. His brother Martellus Bennett, along with Kenny Stills, Carlos Hyde, Justin Forsett, and Cliff Avril, also decided not to participate. The players’ withdrawal from the trip led to widespread media coverage, including reports in mainstream outlets such as CNN, Newsweek, ESPN, the Associated Press, the Washington Post, and USA Today. The story reached millions of people around the world, including, as USCPR observed, “many audiences that do not normally hear about injustices being done to Palestinians.” That is the power of sports. That is the role they can play in the BDS movement.
Israel and its supporters are clearly worried about the potential impact of a sports boycott movement. Israeli diplomatic cables pointed to the 2015 campaign to expel Israel from FIFA, world soccer’s governing body (see Part 2 of this series), as a turning point in BDS efforts, noting that the movement was heading in a “more populist direction, probably because they [BDS activists] noted that it garnered more attention and was more effective.”
One Israeli observer wrote that his country’s reaction to the threat of expulsion from FIFA was one of “quasi-hysteria,” and described the prospect as a “virtual nightmare for most Israelis, whether they are football fans or not.” Simon Johnson, the head of the UK-based Jewish Leadership Council, which actively works to counter BDS efforts, also said in 2015 that, “there was no question that the sporting boycott proposed by the Palestinian Football Association (PFA) would have been the most visible act of boycott…[and] would have resonated around the world and led to a potential domino effect of other high profile boycotts.”
Israel’s vulnerability to a sports boycott hinges on its close connections with the West and its fear of international isolation. Israel’s political identity is grounded in a deep identification with the West, particularly Europe, which was the birthplace of Zionism. Any challenge to Israel’s place among or access to Western nation states, such as the possibility of its soccer and basketball teams being barred from competing in Europe, or the prospect of Israel’s expulsion from the relevant international sporting institutions, prompts deep anxiety in the Israeli body politic. Despite the lack of significant concrete results from sports boycott and sanctions efforts so far, any hindering of Israel’s ability to whitewash its illegal occupation through international sports competitions already reveals the extent to which sports and BDS can effectively challenge Israel human rights violations.
While Israel may be looking away from Europe for political support, given an increasingly rocky relationship with some European countries, the continent remains an important site for BDS activism because Israel’s highest profile sports teams compete there on a regular basis. But the failure of the NFL propaganda trip also demonstrates that sports-focused activism can generate attention in countries where Israeli’s sporting ties are not as strong, most notably, the United States.
It seemed most likely that soccer players would lead the way in boycotting Israel given that the majority of sports-related BDS activism has been in the soccer world. And, as discussed in Part 1 of this series, some soccer players previously spoken out against Israeli violations. Yet Michael Bennett’s refusal to become a tool of Israeli propaganda has arguably been the most explicitly political stance, to date, by a high profile athlete. Furthermore, it also makes sense that this message would come from a black athlete in the United States. Bennett’s decision comes in an environment characterized by the growing profile of the Palestinian rights movement in the United States, the deepening of black-Palestinian solidarity, and the increased prominence of sports within BDS more broadly.
In the sports world, Bennett’s position mirrors a trend already evident in the music scene, where Roger Waters, Pink Floyd’s front man, has been an outspoken supporter of the BDS movement and very vocal in encouraging his fellow artists to respect the call for a cultural boycott of Israel. This does not mean Bennett will necessarily become the Waters of the sports world, although his commitment to fighting for justice is increasingly clear. But it shows that the environment is certainly ripe for such a figure to emerge.
One of the criticisms of sports boycotts and sanctions against Israel is that sports should be a mechanism for bridge building and promoting coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians. Various initiatives with this aim already exist, including the University of Brighton’s Football 4 Peace program and the Twinned Peace Sports Schools run by the Peres Center for Peace. However, as well intentioned as such efforts are, they do nothing to address the underlying structural oppression and discrimination that define the relationship between Israel as an illegal occupier and the Palestinians as an occupied people.
Furthermore, using sports as a bridge building tool that ignores Israeli apartheid can be a distraction from efforts to dismantle this unjust system. Bridge building programs have often been used as propaganda tools, focusing international attention on Israeli soccer as an “integrative enclave” (see Part 1), which encourages a false image of coexistence and equality.
In addition to challenging false images of coexistence and equality, sports boycott efforts must also involve challenging uncritical media coverage of Israeli sports teams competing internationally. The recent hype over Team Israel’s surprise run at the World Baseball Classic is a prime example. Fawning media coverage presented the team as a “plucky, loveable underdog,” with one writer even claiming “team Israel is very much the story of Israel itself,” without mentioning the Palestinians. The absence of political context from the soft coverage of Team Israel meant that it simply helped contribute to the “further normalization of Israeli apartheid.”
The BDS movement is officially agnostic in terms of advocating for a particular political solution for Palestine and Israel (two states, one state, or something else). Yet Israel and the United States have taken great pains recently to emphasize, both through their rhetoric and actions, that the two-state solution is well and truly dead.
Given this reality, one democratic state with equal rights for everyone is increasingly emerging as the only realistic and just future for Palestinians and Israelis beyond the status quo of one state defined by apartheid.
As Palestinian footballer Iyad Abu Gharqoud argued in 2015, when the injustices of the existing system have been confronted and dismantled, as the BDS movement seeks to accomplish, and “Palestinians and Israelis are equal under the law,” then sports can truly be a means for reconciliation and bridge building. For now, sports should continue to be promoted as a vital part of the BDS campaign.Indeed, a recent UN report that concludes Israel has established an apartheid regime, and has subsequently been withdrawn at the behest of the United States and Israel, highlighted the role of “economic sanctions and sports boycotts” in helping to end the South African Apartheid, and thus urged governments to support BDS efforts aimed at challenging Israeli violations.