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SA Rugby had no choice but to expel Israeli club

By Daniel Gallan
A man walks past a graffiti mural that was painted in honour of the Springboks winning the 2019 Rugby World Cup, that was hosted in Japan, in Durban, on November 05, 2019. - A group of local artists spray painted a mural on the wall of a house bearing the face of the Springbok captain Siya Kolisi, the Webb Ellis trophy and the emblem of the national rugby team, the Springbok. (Photo by RAJESH JANTILAL / AFP) (Photo by RAJESH JANTILAL/AFP via Getty Images)

SA Rugby really had no other choice. Sure, they got themselves in this mess by shortsightedness in the first place, but ultimately they arrived at the only plausible outcome and withdrew an invite to Tel Aviv Heat to participate in the regional Mzanzi Challenge tournament.

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The Israeli club is incensed and released a strongly worded statement which, among other crimes, accused SA Rugby of opening up its players and supporters to abuse. In their defence, SA Rugby defended their decision citing “security threats”.

Superficially this debacle is contrary with rugby’s core values. The sport might be more competitive than it’s ever been at the peak of the pyramid but it’s still a largely fringe game around the world. Spreading the gospel to outposts can only be a good thing and tournaments like the Mzanzi Challenge – which will include teams from Spain, Kenya, Zimbabwe and Namibia – is a perfect way to do this.

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What’s more, most of the Heat’s players are South African. Their coach is South African. This would be a homecoming that would stir content, open new markets and create Instagrammable snapshots of all that we hold sacrosanct in rugby.

If only they weren’t representing an Israeli club. Because like it or not, SA Rugby’s brand has no room for an Israeli club. Not while that nation starkly divides its citizens in a political and spatial apartheid.

Two caveats before we progress. As I’ve stated many times on this site, I am a South African of the ‘born-free’ generation – a schmaltzy term given to anyone with no memory of apartheid in the country. One of my earliest memories was the 1995 World Cup and I grew up believing in Nelson Mandela’s mantra that “sport had the power to change the world.”

The second thing you should know about me is that I’m Jewish. I have roots in a shtetl in Eastern Europe. My bobba speaks Yiddish. I’ve had more gefilte fish than I’d wish upon my worst enemy. I’ve married a Jewish person, I’m raising my son to be Jewish and I’ve copped my fair share of antisemitic abuse.

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I don’t need anyone lecturing me on the importance of the state of Israel. Or how necessary it was to create a homeland for Jewish people after the horrors of the gas chambers. But what I’ve always found unpalatable is the defence of crimes against humanity because other crimes were committed in the past. If anyone can adequately explain how this current state in Israel was the only conceivable path I’m all ears.

However we got here there is no question that what is taking place in the West Bank and Gaza is abhorrent. I have no qualms calling Israel an apartheid state. I don’t believe that it diminishes what took place in South Africa nor does it exaggerate what Palestinians must endure.

SA Rugby was for so long a bastion of a similarly violent and oppressive regime. Rugby was the sport of the muscular Afrikaner, whose white skin gleamed in the sunshine that beamed down on a nation of their own making. They had emerged from the wreckage of war, had memories of concentration camps and felt that it was their duty to protect their hard fought freedom not only from external forces, but from an enemy within. Sound familiar?

Anyone not white was not allowed to share a rugby field with them. Not because they feared they might be as fleet footed as Cheslin Kolbe, or as dynamic as Siya Kolisi, but because their skin and the blood that ran beneath it was deemed inferior, as if God had made a mistake and spewed forth some untermensch.

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Those who resisted were called ‘terrorists’. They of course called themselves ‘freedom fighters’. Eventually rugby became entangled in the mess. South Africa was isolated from the rugby world. Rebel tours rowed against the tide. Protests at home and abroad brought sport and politics together to the point that they became inseparable.

And then Mandela stood in front of a crowd of black people wearing a Springboks hat. He was booed but asked his fellow South Africans to trust in his reconciliatory approach. It would be too simplistic to suggest that civil war was avoided by this tactic, but it certainly helped. And when Francois Pienaar lifted the Webb Ellis Cup just a year after the first democratic elections in the country, the narrative was sealed.

Kolisi, Kolbe, Habana, Williams, Mapimpi, Am, Mtawarira, Nche, Jantjies. The list is long and getting longer. Whether or not they possess a political bone in their body, and whether or not their personal stories speak of pain and hardship, their very presence in a green and gold jersey is a testament to this narrative.

It is mythology, as much as training and tactics, that spurs the Springboks forward. This team is the greatest cultural export the country has ever produced. It’s racial evolution is a central theme. This is not just a multiethnic group of supremely gifted athletes. It is the embodiment of what is possible when an entire country can band together despite its differences.

How could it then be tethered, however tangentially, to a team that represents Israel? How could anyone affiliated with SA Rugby, from the players to the suits who run the show to the marketing executives, continue to espouse the narrative that they’ve fought so hard to cultivate?

They couldn’t. Cracks would appear in the foundations. Everything we’ve come to believe as a consequence of manicured documentaries and perfectly timed social media clips would start to ring hollow.

Now this opens up a string of interesting questions that are difficult to answer. Would SA Rugby welcome a Russian club to its shores? The South African government has bizarrely lent its support to Vladmir Putin. How this plays out remains to be seen but clearly some crimes against humanity are tolerable and others are not.

And what of England, France or the USA? These colonial powers do not exactly have a clean record. After all, while England toured South Africa for a two-Test series in 2007, British troops were fighting in Iraq in what was widely condemned as an “illegal war”. Should SA Rugby have taken a moral stand then?

There are no simple solutions. And most people reading this column – or any other piece written on the subject – will not have their opinions swayed. That’s the way of the world. Maybe it’s always been like this. Thoughts harden into beliefs which calcify into values.

South African rugby has fought too hard and for too long to break from theirs.

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Comments

14 Comments
J
Jonathan 494 days ago

Daniel, The Pro-Palestinian, Muslim, Left wing lobby are very fortunate to have you on board. Israel is vilified simply because it is a Jewish state. If this were truly about ethics, morality and rights/wrongs our government and its aforementioned supporters would be refusing admission to many despotic, properly apartheid countries. But of course they don't. I wonder what your position would be if Hamas had a rugby team and were refused entry to SA? Because this terrorist organisation, lauded by the SA govt is a welcome visitor to our shores and regularly carries out the murders of your innocent brothers and sisters in the country you may have to run to if SA turns its back on you.

K
Karl 496 days ago

Thank you for posting this. As a (lapsed) Jew myself, it is a constant source of shame to be associated with apartheid Israel and it's crimes.
You'll get flak for publishing this but the truth must be told.

B
Boytjie 497 days ago

Hey Daniel, I need to be honest - I got bored halfway through and stopped reading. Sorry!!! But what I did read got my hackles up. It might just be me but I find it seriously annoying when people like yourself trot out their Jewish credentials to somehow give credence to what can only be characterised as a lazy piece of woke-ism! As a parting thought - I was fortunate enough to see Tel Aviv Heat play Sarries. It was sensational - made me proud to be South African and proud to be Jewish. SA rugby are wrong to kowtow on this!

M
Mark 498 days ago

Superb article, Daniel. When, oh when, will pro-Israeli writers stop equating anti-apartheid sentiment a propos Israel with anti-semitism? And when, oh when, will the world citizenry stop appeasing the racist state? Remember the slogan: 'no normal sport in an abnormal society'? How anyone, particularly SARU, have forgotten it? Israel has to find a way to normalise its society before it can expect to be treated as a 'normal' sporting nation like any other. As the article points out, South Africa, despite all its enormous problems, is now a beacon for non-racial sport. How long, Israel, until you see the dead-end that is apartheid?

D
David 498 days ago

Daniel, while you frame the BDS Apartheid smear on Israel very clearly, you obviously have no intimate or accurate knowledge of either Israel or the Palestinians or their conflict. This is a pity, because BDS, as its core tenant, is solely anti-Israel, and implicitly antisemitic. It perversely does nothing to help the Palestinian people, nor anything constructive to bringing the conflict to an end. Labelling Israel as an Apartheid State only diminishes and denigrates the memory of the true victims of Apartheid who died in South Africa. Rather than ''superficially'', as you write, this debacle is significantly contrary to rugby's core values. TAH were in a dialogue with SARU from August 2022 till the close of the year, during which these very issues and concerns were raised and discussed. That the invitation was withdrawn only days after it was first publicly extended, simply illustrates the level of threats and intimidation wielded by the BDS community in ZA against the SARU executives. It simply illustrates how these despicable ideologists forced a horrendous and spineless decision by the Sorry African Rugby Union. Nothing good came from this outcome to anyone. I hope SARU does the right thing and extend another invitation to TAH in 2024.

B
Bobbyboi 498 days ago

The Tel Aviv Heat should be allowed to play. Also what's going on in Israel is not the same as Apartheid, and any characterisation of it as such inaccurate.

Sports should not be mixed with politics in any case. Leave that for the editors of the Guardian

g
gavin 498 days ago

Incredible article. Wholeheartedly agree

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