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Give Israel a sporting chance 

 
Evelyn Gordon 

From chess to European soccer there's foul play afoot

Many critics of Israel like to say that their problem is not Israel, but Israel's policies toward the Palestinians. And for some of these critics, that is undoubtedly true.

Nevertheless, this argument would be more persuasive were anti-Israel discrimination not so rampant even in areas far removed from the conflict. And nothing better illustrates this than the world of international sport.

The sports world's anti-Israel bias briefly made world headlines during the Athens Olympics, when the International Olympics Committee declined to censure an Iranian judoka who, in defiance of Olympic rules, refused to compete against an Israeli opponent.

Yet that incident was a comparatively minor one - because despite the insult, the Iranian actually hurt no one but himself. He was the one who forfeited his chance of a medal; Israel continued to compete, and an Israeli judoka later won a bronze.

Usually, however, it is the bigots who emerge victorious - as was the case with the World Chess Championship two months earlier.

Libya hosted the tournament, which ran from June 18 to July 13, and initially, the World Chess Federation (known by its French acronym, FIDE) quite properly insisted that all players be welcome. If Libya felt unable to meet this requirement, FIDE said, the tournament would be split, with half the games in Libya and half in Malta.

But Libya agreed, so the plans for Malta were dropped.

Then, on May 6, Mohammed Gaddafi, the head of the tournament's organizing committee and son of Libya's leader, held a news conference at which he announced that, despite this promise, "we did not and will not invite the Zionist enemy to this championship even if that leads to canceling holding the tournament in Libya."

Israel (which, incidentally, is a serious contender in chess, currently ranked eighth among 132 countries in FIDE's standings table) promptly demanded that FIDE revive the Malta plan. It was backed by the international Association of Chess Professionals, which sent FIDE a strongly-worded letter on the subject on May 26.

Nor was there any logistical barrier to the move: A chess tournament, unlike, say, a soccer match, does not require an elaborate stadium setup; a few ordinary rooms will suffice.

Nevertheless, FIDE refused. Despite Gaddafi's very public statement, which was widely disseminated by the international media, the chess federation insisted that it was unaware of any problem.

Then, in response to the ACP letter, FIDE President Kirsan Ilymzhinov had the gall to declare that Libya had behaved impeccably; everything was the fault of those stubborn Israelis, who would not come to Libya without visas - they were the only players to whom Libya refused to grant them in advance - and trust to FIDE's assertion that they would be welcomed anyway.

"I am somewhat surprised that you don't see the importance of having the World Chess Championship in Libya, during the time when the country is opening up to the international community," Ilymzhinov concluded loftily.

The net result: Libya successfully barred Israeli players from the tournament, with the blessing of the sport's top international body.

BUT IT turns out that international sporting bodies are happy to make life tough for Israel even when Arabs or Muslims are not involved - as was proven by UEFA, the governing body of European soccer, last week.

The problem at first appeared to be a simple oversight: UEFA had scheduled Maccabi Tel Aviv for a match on September 15, the first night of Rosh Hashana. Maccabi thus asked that the match be moved forward one day, so as to avoid playing on the holiday.

Maccabi's opponent, Bayern Munich, graciously agreed, and the German television station with broadcasting rights to the game was similarly accommodating. Nor was there a problem with the venue: The match was due to be played in Maccabi's home stadium in Ramat Gan, which was available on September 14.

Nevertheless, UEFA refused.

"We cannot take into consideration every national, religious or political holiday as an argument for rescheduling matches," declared UEFA spokesman William Gaillard. "So now the people of Israel have to decide between synagogue and football."

That statement was, of course, as ridiculous as it was offensive: Rosh Hashana is not just any holiday; it is the second holiest day on the Jewish calendar. I seriously doubt that UEFA would schedule a tournament on Christmas or Easter.

In fairness, Maccabi undercut its own argument in this case: Its chairman, Loni Herzikovic, is no Sandy Koufax, and even before UEFA issued its decision he told the Israeli press that Maccabi would play if the game were not moved.

And if Maccabi is not willing to forfeit a game over the issue, one can understand UEFA thinking that Rosh Hashana is no big deal.

Yet disgraceful though Herzikovic's decision was, it in no way detracts from the disgracefulness of UEFA's decision: Faced with a situation in which all the parties concerned were perfectly willing to accommodate a major Jewish holiday, UEFA nevertheless insisted, out of sheer contrariness, on making Israel choose "between synagogue and football."

Any one of the above incidents could have been considered a fluke. But three in the space of as many months, each involving a different organization, indicates a definite trend.

Clearly, this trend shames the sporting world. But it also raises serious questions about the real motivation behind anti-Israel bias - unless, of course, you believe that chess games and Rosh Hashana services are really just subtle Israeli plots against the Palestinians.

The writer is a veteran journalist and commentator.

9/7/2004 

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