Israelis were stunned and hurt on Tuesday to hear that the Argentinian national soccer team had canceled its game with the Israeli national soccer team scheduled to take place in Israel on Saturday night. Argentina boasts Lionel Messi, the biggest soccer star in the world, and not only were Israelis excited to see him in person, they were also looking forward to continuing the regular tradition of Argentina playing a game in Israel right before the start of the World Cup. At first glance, Argentina’s cancellation looks like a huge and unprecedented win for the BDS movement, stoking fears that this is the warning sign of a tsunami on the horizon. But a deeper look at what happened points to the conclusion that Israel is not about to become engulfed in a widespread cultural boycott so long as it can maintain the high ground and keep sports about nothing more than sports.
The Argentinian cancellation comes at an odd time in light of recent events. Last month, Netta Barzilai won the Eurovision song competition, demonstrating that an Israeli can win one of the most popular cultural contests in the world despite the sound and fury of BDS supporters. Also last month, the Giro d’Italia cycling race started in Israel – and in Jerusalem, no less – marking the first time it had ever been held outside of Europe. When Egyptian judoka Islam El Shehaby refused to shake hands with Israeli judoka Or Sasson at the recent Olympic games in Rio, he was roundly booed by the crowd, reprimanded by the International Olympic Committee, and sent home early from Brazil. Attempts to boycott and shun Israeli athletes or to treat Israeli cultural figures as pariahs have met with increasing resistance.
So Israelis can be forgiven for being blindsided and worried about the Argentinian team pulling out of a game that had long been on the schedule. In this case, the blame lies with two people – one Palestinian and one Israeli – who constantly try to use sports and culture to make larger political points, and in politicizing issues that are meant to be apolitical, the Israeli in this case played right into the Palestinian’s hands.
The first is Jibril Rajoub, erstwhile West Bank security chief and the current head of the Palestinian Football Association. Being in charge of Palestinian soccer is the type of gig that sounds ceremonial but actually comes with a lot of power, both because of soccer’s enormous popularity and because of the money and patronage that the position controls. Rajoub has used his perch to rain constant invective on Israel, pressuring other countries to use soccer as a way to punish Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank and to maintain a Palestinian anti-normalization culture toward Israel. Imbuing soccer with a political message has been fruitful for Rajoub in terms of his own popularity, and it comes in the context of lots of subtle jockeying between different contenders – Rajoub included – looking to replace Mahmoud Abbas as Palestinian president when the time comes. In this instance, Rajoub took things to the next level, calling for Palestinians to target Messi and burn his jersey to protest the game being played in what he termed “occupied Jerusalem.” It is no surprise that BDS supporters took their cues from Rajoub’s call to intimidate Messi, threatening Argentinian players’ families and showing up to an Argentinian team practice in Barcelona on Tuesday with jerseys covered in red paint made to look like blood stains. The team’s players reportedly felt scared for their own personal safety were they to travel to Israel, and the blame for that lies squarely at Rajoub’s feet.
The second player in this drama is Israeli Sports and Culture Minister Miri Regev. The Argentinian team had requested to play the Israeli team in Haifa, and that is where the game was scheduled to be held. Regev, however, who never passes up a chance to push a larger political agenda where sports and culture are concerned – sometimes in literal glaring fashion, such as when she wore a dress emblazoned with a picture of the Temple Mount to the Cannes film festival – decided to move the game to Jerusalem as a way of making a political statement about Israeli sovereignty in the capital. Rajoub only registered his opposition to the game when it was relocated to Jerusalem and maintained that he had no complaint about it being played in Haifa, and thus Regev provided a wide opening for Rajoub’s subsequent demagoguery. But it is clear that the Argentinian team was itself not comfortable with the move and viewed it as a stunt to capitalize on their and Messi’s popularity at a time when the American embassy’s move to Jerusalem has made the city an object of political controversy. Regev wanted to put the spotlight on Jerusalem, which has been a signature issue of her political career, and to portray the game as the latest notch in her Jerusalem belt. But doing so ultimately backfired, resulting in a larger loss for Israel.
The big takeaway here is that politicizing sports creates a playing field that is tilted away from Israel and toward its foes. Israel does well when it uses sports to highlight the fundamental injustice of treating Israelis differently, and suffers when it uses sports to further a political agenda. Much like President Trump’s efforts to politicize the NFL as a way of firing up his base, it may be good for specific elected officials like Regev but it backfires for the sports and players that are used as pawns, and it ends up creating unnecessary divisions that damage the country as a whole. One of the reasons that sports and culture has been so fruitful as a way of making sure that Israel and Israelis are treated normally is because it is such an obvious way of highlighting the blatant and unfair double standard to which the country is subjected. BDS will nearly always be fighting an uphill battle when trying to pressure people to treat Israelis as outside of the bounds of civilized company since it strikes nearly everyone as biased and discriminatory.
But asking people to be part of what looks like a politically-motivated agenda is doing BDS’s job on its behalf, because then the goalposts shift from treating Israelis the same way everyone else is treated to actively supporting specific Israeli government initiatives, which is a much more difficult win for Israel to pull off. Rajoub’s references to “occupied Jerusalem” when talking about Teddy Stadium are obnoxiously infuriating, but in the context of so much controversy surrounding Jerusalem in the wake of Trump’s embassy move, one can easily see how the Argentinian players did not want to approach something that could be a third rail. Israel will repeatedly and overwhelmingly defeat BDS initiatives that look like rank discrimination, but will bring isolation on its own head when turning innocuous and apolitical events into referenda on Israeli government policies.
It should not be the case that playing a soccer game in West Jerusalem is a political statement. It should not be the case that acknowledging Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is seen as a partisan move that is taking sides in the conflict. But for Argentinians who see this from afar at only a surface level, it turns an innocuous soccer match into a political statement. The overall consequence here is that BDS gets to claim a high profile win that comes at absolutely zero cost while Israel takes a dispiriting blow that could have been easily avoided. Going forward, Israel can and should avoid making outsiders feel as if they are actively engaging in contentious politics and forestall such easily preventable black eyes.