The arrests of activists attempting to disrupt the appearance of Israeli Tennis player Shahar Peer has brought the issue of politics and sport back into the public eye.
At the time of the anti-apartheid struggle, the issue was of great importance in New Zealand because here, it was sporting contact with racist South Africa that became the focus of protest action. New Zealand and South Africa had longstanding sporting rivalries, particularly in rugby, so attempting to end sporting contact between the Springboks and the All Blacks became a major part of the New Zealand anti-apartheid movement’s work throughout its history.
During the 1981 Springbok tour, a major thrust of the pro-tour lobby was that sport and politics should not mix, that the purity of sport should not be sullied by its being immersed in the murky business of politics, and that sports people should be left to get on with the serious business of playing their sport and entertaining the spectators. Often, such arguments were simply a disingenuous attempt by apologists for the racist South African regime to weaken the campaign against the white South African state.
Thinly veiled behind the cries that sport and politics should not mix could be found varying levels of anti-communist paranoia and overt racism. But there were also many people who genuinely believed that sport and politics could be kept apart. They wanted to enjoy a good game of rugby and didn’t see why the actions of an odious government on the other side of the world should interfere with their “right” to watch the game. Others believed that sporting contact with the South Africans could be a positive influence on the country, that sports players would see that the world could function on a non-racialised basis and that these people would go back and exert a positive influence at home.
The problem with these arguments was that they assumed that the reason that institutionalised racism existed in South Africa was ignorance on the part of White South Africans, and that if only they could be convinced that the correct moral course was to dismantle apartheid, all would be well and racism would come to an end. The truth was very different. Apartheid, while clearly immoral, was not caused by a moral lapse on the part of the White South African population. It was a vicious form of government based on the systematic denial of the rights of the majority and the brutal suppression of any expression of their aspirations. White South Africans benefited from the oppression of the Black majority and almost every institution in the country, whether governmental, cultural or religious, served to bolster support for the apartheid system.
The South African liberation movements came to the conclusion that the best form of solidarity that the international community could offer would include the complete isolation of the regime, so that the cost of perpetuating the system would become too great and the will to defend it would be sapped. Statements from the leadership of the liberation movements since the fall of apartheid have confirmed that this is still considered to have been the correct strategy.
Which brings us to the recent controversy surrounding Shahar Peer’s appearance at the tennis in Auckland. For the Palestinians, whose oppression under Israeli occupation has been described by South African veterans of the anti-apartheid struggle as yet another, but more brutal, form of apartheid, the political choice has been similar. A campaign has been launched by a wide range of groups, numbering 170 Palestinian organisations including trade unions, political and social organisations, and women’s and youth groups , calling for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel. This call includes a call for an end to cultural and sporting contact with the Israeli state and its representatives. The imprisoned General Secretary of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) has endorsed this campaign, calling for action to isolate and undermine the legitimacy of the Israeli state to be stepped up.
The Zionist pro-Israel movement makes a point of campaigning actively in media such as the letters pages of the major New Zealand newspapers and the letters could be carbon copies of the letters sent by apologists for apartheid in the 1980s, with South Africa replaced by Israel, the countries of Black Africa substituted with the Arab nations and terrorism and Islam taking the place of Moscow and the communist peril.
New Zealand does not have a lot of sporting contact with Israel. Even in football, where New Zealand is in the same zone as all of Israel’s neigbours, including Palestine, Lebanon and Syria, the All Whites do not play Israel, which instead belongs to the European grouping, symbolic itself of Israel’s racist outlook toward the Arab peoples. Tactical decisions must be made over who or what should be the focus of our limited resources but the targeting of individual sports people from Israel is certainly a legitimate strategy. Every time news gets back to citizens of the Zionist state that their sporting representatives are being targeted for protest action, they are reminded that people all over the world are aware of and willing to take action against the illigitimacy of their state.
Shahar Peer is a professional tennis player rather than a representative of a national team. But most high profile New Zealand sports players today are professionals, and in many cases competitors in individual sports such as golf or tennis, but they are heavily promoted in the New Zealand media as New Zealand players. So it is with an Israeli player like Shahar Peer. She can travel easily to any country in the world to ply her trade. If she wishes to play international tennis without being hounded by protest, she should relinquish her Israeli citizenship and speak out against the oppression of the Palestinians and champion their right to return to their own country.