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What Palestinian athletes can learn from Colin Kaepernick

Palestinian athletes can learn a thing or two from the football star’s refusal to stand during his country’s national anthem.

By Abed Abu Shehadeh

San Francisco 49ers Quarterback Colin Kaepernick. (Mike Morbeck/CC BY-SA 2.0)

San Francisco 49ers Quarterback Colin Kaepernick. (Mike Morbeck/CC BY-SA 2.0)

One can say many things about American politics, but boring they are not. We are seeing this with the presidential race and the rise of the American Right, which views the world as a reality show where anything can be said — regardless of logic or factual basis — as long as it is stated in the most provocative and blatant manner. On the other hand we cannot ignore the Black Lives Matter movement, which challenges structural racism in the United States — especially among the police.

The American football player Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers is refusing to stand during “The Star- Spangled Banner,” setting an admirable example of social responsibility. The quarterback explained his brave choice: “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color… to me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.” His stance is thoroughly explained and undoubtedly brave, providing us food for thought in our local context vis-à-vis the responsibilities of Arab athletes. Those who are well aware of the crimes committed against them and their people, yet who choose to continue to compete with Israeli groups and organizations — where a large number of athletes served in an army that occupies their fellow Palestinians.

I do not have many expectations of athletes nor do I discount the extremely difficult path they took to get to where they are today. But I believe that their silence on public political discussions is shameful, whether they are athletes who choose to represent Israel abroad under the occupier’s flag or whether they are soccer players on a team with racist supporters, such as Maccabi Tel Aviv (which Rami Younis called “the most racist team in the state.”)

Arab athletes are aware of these injustices, yet choose to remain silent. And when they do take a stand, their position is framed in such a way that it does not offend the Israeli public. But this is not what is needed. We need these athletes to show self-respect and take an uncompromising position, since it is not their fault that racism afflicts nearly every aspect of Israeli society, which deems it okay to place a civilian population under a violent military regime. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of these athletes’ relatives live beyond the Green Line, where they suffer under that same flag.

The problem of identity among Palestinian citizens is not a new one. It is true that they need to make a living, and it is true that Israeli society will not hesitate to punish them and others who are willing to speak out against racism, which is growing evermore extreme among Israeli society. But to experience racism and simply remain silent? This is shameful on an individual level, and is a testament to something far more serious. Arab athletes need to understand that beyond being athletes, they are a model for Arab children in this country, and we have a problem on our hands if athletes give the impression that in order to succeed we must give up on our identity and give in to racism.

If they choose to remain silent, it is our job as a society to put them in their place and remind them that the world is bigger and more important than their economic interests. We must demand that they think about the fatal blow they are delivering to a community in which everyone considers only of his or her narrow interests. Of course there will be those who say that we must separate between politics and sports; to them I would say that for Palestinians in Israel, our entire existence is political. When Macabbi Tel Aviv fans yell “death to Arabs,” that goes for both Arab players and fans.

These suggestions, however, are not solely relevant for Arab society. Every group that faces racist policies from state institutions must make similar demands to these athletes. As long as the majority does not pay the price for racism, it will not change its ways. I am aware that my demands are not easy ones, but in the 20th century we have already seen athletes such as Muhammad Ali, who refused to enlist in the U.S. military during the Vietnam War, a decision which barred him from competing for three years. Or take Tommie Smith and John Carlos in 1968 Olympics, who stood on the podium and raised their fists, Black Panther gloves and all, as a form of protest against the oppression of the African-American community in the U.S. — a protest that cost them their athletic career and brought about threats against them and their families.

Political responsibility does not skip anybody, and for good reason. As the black political activist Eldridge Cleaver once said: “If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.”

Abed Abu Shehadeh is a Balad Party member and a student at the School of Government and Society of Tel Aviv-Yaffo Academic College. This article was first published in Hebrew on Haokets. Read it here.

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    COMMENTS

    1. JeffB

      Shehadeh is completely ignoring the context. Blacks long ago asserted that they are Americans and the American public unanimously or almost unanimously believes American Blacks to be Americans. Acts of criticism and distancing oneself in this context are felt as protest. Conversely a French athlete who refused to stand during the American national anthem would just be seen as foreign and not part of the American nation. Obviously they disagree with the policy but they do so from outside the circle. If American Blacks has engaged in this sort of protest in the 1870s they would have faced a similar dismissal as being foreigners not as being protesters inside the circle.

      For Israeli Arabs the connection to the nation is more tenuous. The goal, assuming they want to be able to protest is to get Israeli Jews to see them as Israelis of Palestinian ethnicity and not a foreign 5th column. The last thing they should do is in any way strengthen the case that they are not part of the nation or disloyal to the state. The circumstances are quite different and Balad’s advice is terrible given those different circumstances.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Bella

      I agree with what you’re saying but the title of your article that’s singling out Palestinian athletes are bit dubious when you actually mean all Arab athletes! Anyway shoutout and respect to Colin and Colins out there who are not scared of standing for what’s right, even if standing alone !????✌?️✌?

      Reply to Comment
    3. Ben

      A more insightful analogy would be to imagine the same American population as exists today, with American Blacks occupying the position they do except that Mexico is at the same time populated overwhelmingly by close relatives of the same American Blacks and American Whites have carried on a 49-year belligerent military occupation and illegal settlement of Mexico, and before that colonized the territory of today’s United States and dispossessed not Native Americans 250 years ago but Black Native Americans 70 years ago. Quibble about the details and the wars involved but that is a more accurate and insightful comparison than the one you draw. So then imagine American Blacks in that situation and their feelings about being called American and saluting an American flag that had a symbol of “The Nation State of the White People” in the center of it? Not so simple is it?

      “The last thing they should do is in any way strengthen the case that they are not part of the nation or disloyal to the state.”

      Let’s turn that around and say that the first thing Israel should do is strengthen the case that both Arabs and Jews are part of the nation in every way and to the same degree and with the same dignity. Israel is a long, long way from doing that, despite the patronizing things Netanyahu and Bennet say to them on the first day of school. It is in fact doing the last thing it should do: everything one could think of to make Palestinians feel alienated and diffident when it comes to “loyalty.” Do you think loyalty is an unearned attribute, that Israeli Jews are more or less entitled to demand it as overlords demand fealty?

      Reply to Comment
    4. R5

      To BLM – Palestinians are abusing you. Your struggle in non-violent, but theirs is a tribal war against Israeli Jews that doesn’t distinguish between soldiers and sleeping children. Don’t let their US surrogates fool you with lies about non-violence. The Palestinian cause is a poison pill. It has hurt you already and could help sink you. Toss it overboard.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Carmen

      BWWAAHAAHAAAHHHAAAHAAAHAHAAAHHAHAAAA!!!

      Zionist overboard!

      Reply to Comment
    6. JeffB

      @Ben

      I think your analogy is fair. Its also historically accurate. A good chunk of the United States was carved out from Mexico in very questionable ways. From the people who live their fidelity is demanded. In fact Mexico itself displays greater deference to America than the Palestinians often do towards Israel. For example when the Nazis proposed proposed helping to arm Mexico in exchange for them distracting America to prevent their entry they hard declined. Mexico understood that long after WWII was over they would still share a border with the USA and outright siding with an enemy would not be tolerated. Mexicans were free to feel aggrieved but had they acted on that quite justified frustration they would be an enemy and crushed.

      So while agreeing with your analogy I don’t see how the analogy backs your conclusion.

      As far as a state demanding fealty of the inhabitants. Yes the state is entitled to that. Palestinians can’t have it both way. They either are part of Israel or they are a disloyal fifth column. Of course Israel should act to encourage their loyalty. There is no question that Israel can do should do more. But that’s irrelevant to the argument from Balad. The best thing Palestinians can do to get that behavior is act as if they were loyal. Being rejectionist doesn’t encourage Israel to treat them as citizens it encourages Israel to treat them as enemy invaders.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Gearoid

      Take you racism somewhere else.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Ben

      @JeffB

      I don’t mean to be unkind but this is such a thicket of confusions, non sequiturs, irrelevancies and the damndest things, that one hardly knows where to begin. My analogy is fair with regard to Israel/Palestine as you acknowledge but it is anything but historically accurate regarding Mexico and the US. That is the whole point. It is bizarre to assert it is historically accurate. It was a thought exercise that deliberately distorted history

      Reply to Comment
      • JeffB

        @Ben

        Its very simple. I’m happy with your analogy. It is not merely a thought experiment but rather fairly close to what happened historically (if you replace Blacks with America’s ethnic Mexican population). However then your analogy breaks down because Mexico acted historically quite different than the Palestinians did, proving that the behavior you claimed was inevitable was not.

        Reply to Comment
    9. Ben

      @JeffB:

      Sorry, you’ve lost me. We’re far afield from something meaningful or even decipherable. Whatever analogy your attempting is stretched beyond the breaking point. To demonstrate this I simply acceded to your wishes–“replace Blacks with America’s ethnic Mexican population.” The results are not promising:

      “…imagine the same American population as exists today, with American ethnic Mexicans occupying the position they do except that Mexico is at the same time populated overwhelmingly by close relatives of the same American ethnic Mexicans and American Whites have carried on a 49-year belligerent military occupation and illegal settlement of Mexico, and before that colonized the territory of today’s United States and dispossessed not Native Americans 250 years ago but Mexican Native Americans 70 years ago…. So then imagine American ethnic Mexicans in that situation and their feelings about being called American and saluting an American flag that had a symbol of “The Nation State of the White People” in the center of it? Not so simple is it?”

      Reply to Comment