Sport and politics mix

John Edmundson

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.


  1. Philip Ferguson says:

    I only want to take up the last few sentences of John’s article. I think it is wrong to put forward the idea that Shahar Peer needs to renounce her Israeli citizenship (which would also mean migrating to live somewhere else).

    I think this is mistaken on a number of grounds.

    I’ll start with the least important one and move on to the more important reason I think this is mistaken and then look at the difference between looking at the issue through a single-issue campaign/er lens and looking at it through a Marxist lens.

    Calling on her to renounce Israeli citizenship means calling on her to go and live somewhere else. Where? Would it be more acceptable if she ceased being an Israeli citizen and became a citizen of the USA, the number one imperialist power in the world? Or if she came to NZ, a country created out of the dispossession of Maori? (I also suspect that if she migrated to NZ and applied to become a NZ citizen many of the people who were against her playing tennis here would be just as against her becoming a NZ citizen, if not more so.)

    The more significant reason why I think this is mistaken, however, is that if we are suggesting that she must give up her Israeli citizenship (and that means going to live somewhere else), the logical corollary of that is that every other person holding Israeli citizenship should also give up their citizenship and go live somewhere else. It’s simply not possible to single out one individual Israeli and object to her Israeli citizenship without arguing that everyone else should give it up and go live somewhere else.

    This, logically, raises the issue of the democratic, secular state. We are for the democratic secular state, in which Jew and Arab (and whoever else) live together on the basis of equality within a single state. Inherent in the idea of a democratic, secular state is that no-one has to leave and that no-one would be required to give up their existing citizenship until that state is established and they can become citizens of it.

    In other words, a tactical position being advanced in relation to this individual contradicts our fundamental political principled position.

    But for Marxists, tactics don’t trump principled positions. The tactics, including slogans and demands, flow from the principled positions.

    We frequently attack much of the left in NZ for the fact that, even when they have a good analysis and a sound core position, they end up doing and saying things that run counter to that analysis and position. So we need to be very careful we don’t err in the same way.

    This brings me to the last point, the danger at looking at this issue through a single-issue-campaign-type lens rather than a Marxist lens. These lens can and do often overlap, but they are qualitatively different.

    For instance, a single issue campaign lens would simply accept the call for a boycott from Palestinian organisations of all things cultural, sporting etc. But we aren’t a single issue campaign. So, for instance, there are Israeli things that we would not boycott.

    A very good example is Israeli newspapers. Should we not read Haaretz, the largest circulation daily paper in Isralei because it’s Zionist (albeit liberal Zionist and quite critical of many government policies)? My guess is that heaps of members of the Palestinian organisations calling for the boycott read it themselves and I’d also suggest that it is vital reading for NZers who are in solidarity with the Palestinian liberation struggle?

    If a liberal Zionist came out here to speak against, say, the invasion of Gaza, would we demand that she or he not be granted entry to NZ because she/he is a Zionist? I’d say it is more likely we’d go to their meetings, listen in a very interested way to what they had to say, welcome the fact that they were against the invasion of Gaza and point out that they need to go a lot further than that and they should support Palestinian liberation.

    This comes back to us being Marxists. We don’t tell the Palestinians how to wage their struggle, because it’s them that have to wage the struggle there. By the same token, it’s us who have to wage the struggle here.

    Our starting point is quite different to a single issue campaign/er’s starting point. Our starting point, in every single thing we do, is how do we assist the process through which the working class here attains the political consciousness and organisation sufficient to make a revolution here? We know that workers here won’t reach that level without becoming internationalists and supporting struggles by the oppressed here and abroad. That, as Marxists, is our primary reason for prioritising the issue of Palestine, not because we think Israel is uniquely bad, like, badder than the imperialist powers.

    The best way to do that is keeping the focus on the enemy, which is the Zionist state. The best way we can do that in NZ is launching a vigorous campaign against the re-establishment of an embassy of the Zionist state here, campaigning against trade etc.

    I realise that the article John was asked to write wasn’t about how to build a solidarity campaign, but was about sport and politics so I’m certanly not in any way criticising him for not writing about something that he wasn’t asked to write about anyway.

    But I think it is important that the paper addresses these wider issues, most particularly how we advance a *Marxist* perspective rather than just repeat back to single-issue campaigners what they already think, the very think that we criticise the comrades of Socialist Worker for.

    Philip Ferguson

  2. Mike22275 says:

    I agree with Phil that calling on Shahar Peer to renounce her Israeli citizenship is a mistaken demand. Perhaps a more appropriate demand would be that she makes a statement in support of the “Shministim” – Israeli high school students who have been imprisoned for refusing to serve in the Israeli Army:

  3. An Anarchist says:

    “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.”

    It’s a minor quibble, but Israel is in the European football confederation because the rest of the Middle Eastern countries refused to accept Israel becoming a member of their confederation. It’s important to get the facts straight in articles like this :)

    Also, Phil’s point regarding citizenship is completely correct.

  4. John Edmundson says:

    I agree entirely with Phil’s post. It was a poor formulation of the issue to suggest that she should relinquish her citizenship in the absence of a genuine Palestinian alternative.

    Interesting to hear about the Israelis being unable to compete in the same confederation because of the position of the Middle Eastern countries. Good on them!

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