No normal sport in an abnormal society

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Recently, Aubrey Bloomfield, a graduate student at The New School, and I wrote a piece for The Nation about a sports boycott as a strategy against the occupation of Palestinian land by Israel. Here’s an excerpt:

There appears to be support among Palestinians generally for sporting sanctions against Israel. However, to date BDS has largely been focused on other targets. In recent years, the cultural boycott has become a growing aspect of the movement. While the success or failure of cultural boycotts is debatable (they have had success up to a point), what the South African case points to perhaps is the greater impact of sports boycotts on political attitudes and reform.

One thing that seems to work well—when international diplomacy and common sense have failed—is the threat of withdrawing a rogue nation from the community of sport. In South Africa the slogan “no normal sport in an abnormal society” encapsulated the conviction that as long as the regime excluded the majority of its people from participating in society as equals, it should be excluded from participating in international sports competitions as equals. For white South Africans (and their apologists), sporting isolation was a bitter pill to swallow.

The Israeli government and sports associations’ responses to recent threats of Israeli expulsion from UEFA and FIFA are particularly instructive: Citizens have strong feelings about sport. It is closely tied to national identity, and the symbolic effects of sporting sanctions are more palpable than economic sanctions may be for many citizens (in the way, say, that being denied access to certain commodities may not be).

Up to now, BDS has been largely ambivalent about a sports boycott. Nevertheless, experience has shown that sports boycotts are very powerful tools for international solidarity groups. Ultimately, they could prove crucial in the Palestinian case, forcing a much broader conversation about the Israeli occupation and potentially representing one of the most significant threats yet to the status quo.

Sean Jacobs

Sean Jacobs is the Founder and Editor of Africa is a Country. He is on the international affairs faculty of The New School in New York.

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