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Tags: israel | judo | sports | international

The Noble and Fraught Plight of Refugee Athletes

The Noble and Fraught Plight of Refugee Athletes

Micah Halpern By Thursday, 16 January 2020 05:56 PM Current | Bio | Archive

Said Aun is a Judo champion. He defected from Syria, his homeland, and now lives in The Netherlands.

Because of his defection and the defection of others, especially from Iran, the International Judo Federation (IJF) has created a team that competes under the flag of the Federation. This new team is composed of refugees — from Iran, Syria, and other parts of the Arab world. Team members wear the emblem of the IJF on their uniform.

Stories depicting how Iran forced their Judo athletes to default or lose international matches so as not to compete against Israelis have made their way into mainstream Western media. Several of those athletes have defected and, while they still crave the competitions, have not had a country that would sponsor them.

That situation has now changed. And it is good news — good news for the athletes and great news for the sport and for Judo aficionados.

Under the protective umbrella provided them by the IJF, these athletes will even be permitted to compete in the International Judo Grand Prix which is to be hosted by Israel in Tel Aviv on January 23 through 25.

Said Aun is now 32 years old. He was scheduled to compete in Israel in the 66 kilo weight class. He was very much looking forward to competing in Israel and has, courtesy of previous international competitions, Israeli friends with whom he has been in touch during his difficult period of transition from Syrian national to defector to the Netherlands.

Even though he is now competing under the flag of International Judo Federation, Said Aun became concerned about his safety and protection while in Israel. And understandably so.

Aun has been receiving death threats, as has his family. He has contacted the Dutch police to file reports. More and more threats are pouring in, many of them vicious threats. So afraid of what might happen, Said Aun has withdrawn from the Judo Grand Prix competition. He will not compete in Tel Aviv.

What happened? Why the change of heart? Why the death threats?

Here's why: The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs posted about Aun coming to Israel to participate in the Judo competition. They posted in Arabic. They posted on Facebook. It was picked up and translated into Farsi then spread throughout Iran. And that is what set off a media frenzy and death threats.

Sports are supposed to be above politics. And because Iran politicized sports — everything from Judo to chess — Iran has been censured by international competitive organizations.

I understand just how proud Israel is to host this competition and to have these refugees/defectors come to compete in the Jewish State. These athletes hail from countries that have sworn the destruction of Israel and now they will be competing alongside Israelis in Israel. That is a huge success.

But the Ministry of Foreign Affairs overstepped the boundary. It was a mistake to out Said Aun. And it was a bigger mistake to out him in Arabic and to out him before the event began.

That is not to say that the information, if posted in English, would not have been found by enemies and evil people. But Israel served it to them on a silver platter. It would have taken longer to spread the word and it would not have been Israel jabbing at the Arab and Muslim world in Arabic.

Sometimes — and diplomats should know this better than most — it is important to be silent and not draw attention to yourself or the cause, no matter how noble or just it may be. This is one such time. People's lives are at stake as is the success of the Judo Grand Prix.

That is not to argue that one should be fearful of new media thugs who rely on bullying and intimidation. But one need not help them facilitate their dastardly plots. Said Aun could have been a poster boy for Arab-Israeli interaction. But that would have happened after the fact, when he was safe and sound and back in the Netherlands.

Israel is a sucker for positive international attention and sports is the perfect vehicle to get that attention. That's why Israel will most likely repeat the same mistake. It's taken 72 long and hard years for Israel to even approach a level of normal interaction with her neighbors. Israelis are giddy with delight that they are finally recognized and dealt with and engaged with and considered to be a bright spot in the region — not a blight to be condemned.

In this case, however, in the name of extending a hand in friendship, they have caused a friend pain and helped stain a worthwhile endeavor.

The impact of this poor decision to post in Arabic has the potential for a larger, destructive backlash. It can intimidate many others, individuals and leaders, contemplating making the move to befriend Israel. They may determine that, because of the probability of negative reactions and threats heaped on those making the effort to publicly befriend Israel, it is simply not worth the risk.

That would be a shame.

Micah Halpern is a political and foreign affairs commentator. He founded "The Micah Report" and hosts "Thinking Out Loud with Micah Halpern" a weekly TV program and "My Chopp" a daily radio spot. A dynamic speaker, he specializes in analyzing world events and evaluating their relevance and impact. Follow him on Twitter @MicahHalpern. To read more of this reportsClick Here Now.

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Sometimes — and diplomats should know this better than most — it is important to be silent and not draw attention to yourself or the cause, no matter how noble or just it may be.
israel, judo, sports, international
Thursday, 16 January 2020 05:56 PM
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