On Sunday, May 16, 2021, in a game against league-leading Melbourne City, Tomer Hemed, an Israeli striker playing for the New Zealand–based Wellington Phoenix, scored two goals, including a crucial 87th-minute equalizer that allowed Wellington to secure a 2-2 tie. Hemed is, in fact, the first Israeli to play in the top-level Australian A-League in which Wellington competes. While scoring twice in one match would usually be worthy of some commendation, Hemed was instead faced with widespread criticism from the New Zealand media.
The reason? His celebrations.
After his first goal, Hemed ran to the stands and joined a group of supporters who were waving Israeli flags, eventually grabbing a flag himself and wrapping it over his shoulders. Following the second goal, Hemed pulled out a kippah and placed it on his head, covered his eyes and, in a gesture instantly recognizable to Jews around the world, recited the Shema. He was given a yellow card following the latter celebration, apparently contravening a rule banning any player from covering their face or head with a mask—or anything else.
Hemed wrote on Instagram after the match: “My heart is with you. Praying for PEACE!”
Stuff, the most popular website in New Zealand, was apparently unfamiliar with the Shema (which, it should be noted, pre-dates the modern state of Israel by more than 3,000 years). Its report referred to the post-goal prayer as a “show of support for his home country during a time of violent conflict between Israel and Palestine.”
Wearing a flag and saying a prayer are among the most common celebrations for athletes in any sport and in any country. After winning the 2019 World Series, Washington Nationals star Juan Soto held aloft a Dominican flag, unsurprisingly proud to link his professional achievement with his homeland. Egyptian striker Mo Salah has routinely dropped to his knees to perform the sujood, the prostration towards Mecca that is an integral part of Muslim devotion, and which is a welcome sign of representation for Muslims around the world. Even the Shema is not out of place on the soccer pitch: Israeli midfielder Eran Zahavi has been reciting the prayer before matches for many years.
For Tomer Hemed, however, the problem is not just what his celebrations were, but the fact that he is an Israeli Jew performing them right now.
At the New Zealand Herald, Michael Burgess called Hemed’s actions “at best naïve” and “hard to defend.” Burgess acknowledges that Hemed has celebrated with the Israeli flag previously this season, an action which drew no censure, and acknowledged that Mexican player Ulises Davila had done the same thing recently with Mexican fans.
But now that Israel is actively engaged in conflict with Hamas, Hemed should keep his celebrations to himself. According to Burgess, Hemed “needs to be respectful towards Australia and New Zealand, where the majority of people probably have a vastly different view to his own about the current conflict.”
Burgess goes on to give a brief history of similar “controversial” celebrations including the use of the quenelle, the inverted Nazi salute popularized by French comedian and convicted anti-Semite Dieudonné M’Bala M’bala, which was used by forward Nicolas Anelka in a 2013 game and which led to his suspension.
The question of whether an athlete should limit their political expression is, of course, not a new one. Most recently, it has taken centre stage in the actions of Colin Kaepernick, who was blacklisted by the NFL after repeatedly taking a knee during the playing of the U.S. national anthem, ultimately leading to a multimillion-dollar settlement of his grievance. LeBron James has been admonished for being politically outspoken and refusing to “shut up and dribble”.
For critics like Burgess, these celebrations by Hemed—physical statements that he is an Israeli and a Jew—are unconscionable at this moment, as they fail to fit within the approved political thought of secular New Zealand.
This is a much more dangerous idea than the oft-recited command that athletes “stick to sports”. It is the idea that a Jew must keep their identity hidden unless they assimilate their views and values into the prevailing cultural norms. It is the idea that an Israeli cannot be proud of their country without the threat of Nazi comparisons. It is the anti-Semitic tenet of holding Jews to a higher and unreasonable standard, and it should no longer have any place in sports.
James Hirsh is a Toronto-based lawyer and one of the hosts of Menschwarmers, the world’s only Jewish sports podcast, produced by The CJN Podcast Network. Subscribe at Apple, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.