Arab (and Iranian) apartheid: where are the progressives?

Egyptian judoka Islam El Shehaby refuses to shake hand of Israeli Or Sasson TWITTER PHOTO

It was hard to miss the apartheid images from the recent Rio Olympics: the Egyptian judo competitor who pointedly ignored the outstretched hand of his Israeli opponent; the Lebanese team captain who forcibly blocked the Israeli team from boarding the bus to the stadium; and the Saudi athlete, in time-honoured tradition, who faked an injury to avoid the possibility of facing an Israeli in the next round.

This form of apartheid – practised against Israel and Israelis for 68 years, is still going strong. It is not a minor and childish “spat” as depicted in some media headlines, (“Olympics spat as Lebanese stop Israelis joining them on bus,” according to the Associated Press), but reminiscent of the refusal to allow blacks in South Africa before 1994, or in the United States before the civil rights movement, to sit with whites on buses or drink from the same water fountains.

Many Israelis have experienced this racism in one form or another. I have been at academic conferences and diplomatic receptions around the world where Palestinian, Tunisian, Saudi and Iranian participants, including government officials, have demonstrably avoided shaking my hand and being contaminated. In South Africa, the practice of apartheid reflected disgust and the image of blacks as subhuman, encouraging a climate of brutal violence against this population. In the anti-Israel version, the degradation is the same, and the results take the form of anti-Semitic attacks, not only against Israelis and Israeli institutions, but also targeting non-Israeli Jews.

In academic, cultural and sporting events, Arabs and Iranians often go to great lengths to demonstrate adherence to apartheid. A video from 2013 shows a young Iranian wrestler, Peyman Yarahmadi, being reduced to tears when his coach put an ice pack on his arm to make it seem that he was injured rather than enter the ring with an Israeli. During the 2012 London Olympics, the Lebanese judo team went as far as refusing to practice in view of the Israelis, forcing organizers to erect a separation barrier (an Arab “apartheid wall”).

For the most part, these are not isolated individual acts, but rather a reflection of the prevailing social and political norms in the Arab world, and the fear of reprisals from apartheid enforcers. The Egyptian athlete in the Rio Olympics reportedly walked past the Israeli in order to avoid “complications” upon returning home. In Lebanon, the Hezbollah terror group congratulated the team captain from blocking Israelis from boarding the Olympic bus – one can only imagine what Hezbollah would have done to him had he welcomed them, or even sat passively.

Avoiding being seen in the company of Israelis or being contaminated by this proximity is getting harder and more ridiculous in the age of phone cameras and selfies. Recently, Arab social media users “exploded with rage” when Tunisian television star Saber Rebai posted a picture of himself with an Israeli military officer – an Israeli Arab, as it turned out. Rebai quickly deleted the photo in response to brutal threats on social media.

Amid these and many more examples of anti-Israel apartheid, the silence of the self-appointed guardians of human rights, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, is striking. Indeed, they are very active in promoting the apartheid inherent in the BDS movement (boycotts, divestment and sanctions), the 21st-century version of the old economic boycott of Israel.

Perhaps more disturbing is the silence of the liberal and progressive Jewish groups claiming to be pro-Israel, such as J Street and the New Israel Fund. The campus activists who are quick to protest the appearance of discrimination against others and to fiercely attack Israeli policies regarding Palestinians are strangely blind to the many and widespread instances of anti-Israel apartheid. If these groups are serious about equality and tolerance, their voices must be heard protesting acts of hate targeting Israelis, including on college campuses.