Does Israel belong in Europe or Asia? With the Beijing Olympics dominating the world’s media, the question posed in a sports column in The Age on August 14 about the Israel’s geographic categorization in competitions such as the World Cup (to read, click here), proved to be timely and provocative.
“Making Israel a part of Europe is absurd – even a kid with a map can see that” read the article’s sub-headline. Columnist Rod Curtis didn’t use the word “absurd”, though he emphasized that Israel is unquestionably in Asia “and as long as it doesn’t play there, it’s a political exception to sport’s generally accepted geographical rules.”
European Union expert, Professor Alfred Tovias, might beg to differ. As the internationally respected director of the Leonard Davis Institute for International Relations at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, observed in a briefing for the SZC and Australian Friends of Hebrew University at Beth Weizmann on August 7, Israel is overwhelmingly European in terms of its culture, economy and political structures.
Still, Curtis made a valid, if not original point when he reminded that there was no geographic confusion in 1954 when Israeli became a founding member of the Asian Football Confederation. It went on to win the 1964 Asian Cup and came third in ’68, though the crunch came at the 1974 Asian Games in Iran where Kuwait refused to play against Israel.
“Every other Arab state followed,” wrote Curtis, “so Israel, unable to get a game, was cast into the wilderness”. As a result, Israel ended up playing in Oceania and since 1994, has been part of the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA).
This slice of sporting history – and almost identical wording – was also provided by British journalist James Montague in a piece in The Guardian on February 27 (to read, click here). “Time is right for Israel to return to its Asian roots,” read the headline. “Europe or Asia? It’s time for Israel to take its rightful place,” echoed The Age last Thursday.
Stretching coincidence well beyond breaking point, Curtis made exactly the same key points Montague did about why the time was right. One was that Israel’s inclusion in the ATP and WTA tennis tournaments held earlier this year in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, suggested a thaw in Arab-Israeli relations. The other was that Qatar, which plans to bid for the Olympics, can kiss its aspirations goodbye if it bans Israeli competitors.
“Now that Australia has found its rightful home in Asia, there’s a synergy to Israel doing the same,” wrote Curtis, providing a parochial touch. Montague offered more persuasive arguments.
One of them – Prof Tovias would smile – was that normalisation with Israel would bring economic benefits such as US and EU free trade agreements to Arab countries. Another was that given the huge popularity of soccer in the Middle East, even Iran wouldn’t dare to take an anti-Israel stance for fear of copping FIFA sanctions or – worst case scenario – World Cup disqualification.
Montague sees the 2010 tournament as a potential catalyst for “an outbreak of world peace” and believes the 2014 World Cup “could well see Israeli football coming home.”
Pessimists might say Montague is indulging in wishful thinking given ugly incidents such as the refusal by an Iranian competitor to swim in the same pool as an Israeli at the Beijing Olympics, though there has been a breakthrough in Arab-Israeli relations thanks to the most Australian of sports.
In Melbourne later this month, real synergy will be on display when the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Team competes in the International AFL Cup. For the past seven months, the team’s Israeli and Palestinian players – many of them clueless about Aussie Rules when they began training – have bonded through footy and remarkable friendships have been forged.
One of the players in the team sponsored by the Peres Center for Peace, Tel Aviv, is 25-year-old Israeli-Australian Kevin Nafte, who reports that despite numerous frustrations and obstacles, “120 per cent” has been given by all the Peace players.
Recently, Nafte used his Australian passport to visit Jericho in the West Bank when he was invited home to lunch by one of the Palestinian players. “I hope the rest of my Israeli and Palestinian team mates will one day be able to do this too,” he wrote in a blog. “I’m pretty certain they will be.”
And once the Olympics are over, and your nights are TV-free again, remember that we are presenting the outstanding Israel Advocacy trainer, David Olesker in a workshop at Beth Weizmann on 1 September, 8pm. He is an outstanding analyst and presenter, who will provide a session sure to challenge and engage you. Bookings and inquiries to the SZC at 9272 5544.
State Zionist Council of Victoria