The following is a write up of an action that occurred over the weekend by a dear friend/chosen family member of mine, Joshua Stephens. Enjoy. –Harjit
I don’t really consider myself a sports guy. While I grew up in the Mediterranean, where futbol is part of the ether, as is the case in much of the world, I attended an American high school in which athletics were largely a vector for securing impunity (or even validation) for the worst of American behaviors. Like clockwork, one inter-cultural incident bordering on diplomatic ordeal after another bore the fingerprints of, and was swept under the rug for the sake of athletes with whom I shared classrooms. What I observed in professional sports mostly inflated that narrative: a realm shot through with idiot man-child antics, rewarded with million-dollar contracts – to say nothing of a relentless and bright, flashing sign to young men of color that their value is pegged to precious few options, and even then features a stark expiration date. Virtually everything about the enterprise felt contemptible, to me.
That said, maturity can largely be measured one’s capacity for abiding complexity and contradiction. Both my work in Palestine solidarity circles and my exposure to works like Gabriel Kuhn’s brilliant Soccer Vs. the State: Tackling Football and Radical Politics sort of forced on me an acceptance (if somewhat begrudging) that the history of sport is intimately bound up with colonialism, struggles against racism and political authority, and even simple survival. When Ayed Morrar, a political prisoner from the First Intifada and one of the protagonists of the documentary Budrus, was in DC for the Silver Docs festival the summer of 2010, I took him out to breakfast at a joint around the corner from my old apartment, to watch Brazil play Portugal in the World Cup. As our coffee was poured, he leaned over and intimated that, during his time in Israeli prisons, “one month never felt like incarceration – World Cup.”
Indeed, as frequently as I hear anything else when visiting Ramallah, it’s the running joke that the most enduring point of unity among Palestinians is FC Barcelona, and my first night in town last Spring involved journalist Joseph Dana sitting me down and forcing me to watch the documentary Fire in Babylon, on the rise of the West Indies cricket team in the late 1970’s. He subsequently hauled me into his front yard at regular intervals to practice pitching/batting with him. I was, and remain, terrible at both. Nonetheless, I’ve come to appreciate how sports narratives hold a central place in the history of a host of struggles, for many of the people around me.
This past weekend, Israel’s national team faced off against Honduras here in New York City, and fittingly, local boycott champions Adalah-NY had acquired tickets, determined to throw, at least, a fleeting light on Israel’s occupation, apartheid policies, and ethnic cleansing. I enthusiastically accepted an invitation to participate, in part because it meant carrying direct action into a terrain with which I had pretty much zero familiarity, and in part because futbol has recently featured quite prominently in both Israel’s attempts at normalizing colonialism, and Palestinians’ attempts to resist it. Much as my acceptance of sport’s place within the history of various struggles, it felt like meeting someone where they’re at.
Israeli-Palestinian sociologist Tamir Sorek has written extensively on soccer in Israel, pointing out “Football is an effective vehicle for Israel to rehabilitate its image with the international community. A large sporting event is an ideal opportunity for Israel to present itself as a normal country.” The last month has seen protests in a number of international locales stemming from UEFA’s decision to hold its under-21 tournament in Israel. Desmond Tutu has joined in calls from fans and human rights voices alike for a sports boycott of Israel, modeled on similar, successful challenges to Apartheid South Africa. “The most fundamental principal of international sports is fair play,” said David Zirin, sports editor for The Nation. “The fact that Palestinian national team members have been assassinated, bombed, imprisoned without charges, and of course physically prevented at checkpoints from participating, all point to a disturbing truth: Israel doesn’t play by the rules. Their targeting of ‘a national team without a nation’ is about more than politics. It’s about killing hope and all fair-minded people in the international sports community should call it out for what it is.”
Leading the boycott calls are Palestinian national footballers Honey Thaljieh and Mahmoud Sarsak, the latter having made international headlines last year with a 92-day hunger strike to protest his nearly three years in Israeli detention without charge or trial – an ordeal that wrecked his otherwise promising career. His actions set off global protests and prompted heavy pressure from FIFA for his release, while other national footballers remain in Israeli detention, namely goalie Omar Abu Rouis and striker Muhammad Nimer.
The action itself, our hoisting of a banner reading “RED CARD ISRAELI APARTHEID” just after Israel’s first goal at the outset of the second half, was rather shockingly uneventful – situated as we were in a section with a considerable number of Israel supporters. We anticipated everything as serious as physical confrontation, not least because a stunning number of attendees showed up in full-on fatigues, sporting Israeli Defense Force tshirts – one older fellow rocking an IDF yarmulke, and shouting “IDF!!!” as though he’d mistaken the match-up for a military rally. The nationalism that predictably accompanies sporting events pitting one country against another merged with a romance for military aesthetics evocative of straight-up fascist themes.
This was made all the more creepy when Benjamin Netanyahu appeared sitting at a desk on the video display during halftime, repeatedly beseeching attendees to “celebrate Israel” on this or that grounds – a demonstration of the obvious insecurity the event was staged to paper-over. The government of Honduras, whatever its national faults, didn’t seem similarly compelled. On another massive screen, just above the concessions adjacent to our seats, a video timeline of Israeli history played, beginning well before 1948. No mention of Palestinians. No mention of expulsions or massacres. No mention of refugees. No mention of occupation, illegal settlements, resource theft, or the construction of the Apartheid Wall.
In the end, we left the stadium – as we’d likely been doomed to – not altogether clear that we’d accomplished anything terribly measurable. Adrenaline can skew one’s metrics that way. Anything eight of us did was bound to feel underwhelming, I’m sure. What we did accomplish was a certain refusal, one my sport-loving radical friends emphasize over and over, likely feeling unheard by the rest of us: A refusal to be absent; a refusal to cede any given terrain to the intolerable, however outnumbered, and however overwhelming and futile it feels.
Appropriately, this is often the texture of Palestinian resistance, as well, recalling my own encounters with those building houses doomed to demolition or planting almond groves doomed to be razed, in the shadow of Israeli settlements immunized and emboldened by massive diplomatic and military power. How we refuse to be absent matters, whatever our inhibitions, cherished comforts, or expectations. I’m humbled to have learned something of this from sporting radical friends – those who refuse all refuge to tyranny, and hold out potential for the liberatory reclamation of all aspects of life.
Joshua Stephens is a board member with the Institute for Anarchist Studies, and has been active in anticapitalist, international solidarity, and worker-cooperative movements across the last two decades. He currently divides his time between Brooklyn, NY and various parts of the Mediterranean. Follow Joshua on twitter
For more information on the campaign to send Israel off the pitch, please click here.