What The Olympics Means To Me As A Jewish American

by Emily Shire

When I watch the array of colorful uniforms and esteemed athletes from all over the globe during the opening ceremony of the Olympics, I feel good about the world — or at least better than I usually feel from witnessing the seemingly never-ending stream of terrorist attacks, mass shootings, and plane crashes. Countries that are sworn enemies, have long histories of bloodshed, or are in the middle of complex geopolitical negotiations manage to place all that aside to focus on athletic competition. There's a certain level of respect, consideration, and admiration that permeates the Olympics, and I can't help but feel inspired.

However, it didn't take long for my Olympics feel-good vibes to be extinguished. As an American Jew, the Olympics are often a painful reminder of how much hate there is in the world towards Jews and Israel. In fact, this year, the hateful display towards Israel actually began before the start of the opening ceremony. The Lebanese delegation reportedly blocked Israeli athletes from boarding the bus to the Maracanã Stadium. According to the Associated Press, Israel's sailing coach, Udi Gal, told Israel's Channel 2 television that Lebanon chef de mission (aka the delegation head) Salim Haj Nicola "physically blocked the entrance and wouldn't let us on." Gal added:

We wanted to stand up for ourselves but you can't cause trouble.

Nicola admitted to a Lebanese newspaper An-Nahar that he" stood at the door of the bus to prevent the Israel team from entering." According to Nicola, after trying to block the Israeli athletes, "some of them tried to go in and pick up a fight." Or, you know, maybe tried to get on the bus they were supposed to take to get to the Olympics.

Nicola dismissed it as a "small problem." The International Olympic Committee (IOC) ultimately reprimanded Lebanon for its behavior and said what Nicola did was "unacceptable for security and representative reasons." According to a Jerusalem Post article, a source with the Lebanese delegation told the country's television station Al Mayadeen that the athletes were, "committed to the national position in refusing to be in the same place as the Israelis."

A few days later, Israel's Channel 2 News reported that Saudi Arabian Olympian Joud Fahmy forfeited her first-round judo match against Mauritius' Christianne Legentil because the winner was slated to face Israeli Gili Cohen. Saudi Arabia disputed this account and tweeted Fahmy had been advised by medical authorities not to compete due to injuries. Saudi Arabia does not recognize Israel's existence.

As far as I can tell, athletes from no other country in the Olympics have faced such antagonism from fellow competitors — not ones from Iran, which the U.S. State Department calls the "foremost state sponsor of terrorism," nor ones from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, or the 11 other countries where being gay is an offense punishable by death. Many will argue that treatment of Israel is not an accurate reflection of treatment of Jews. But as a Jewish American watching from home, when I see the one Jewish country competing getting singled out for this harassment by members of the global community, I cannot help but be simultaneously enraged and alarmed.

Having the global community come together in what's supposed to be an inspiring and unifying two weeks and still manage to spew out hate exclusively for Israel is disheartening and disturbing. Ultimately, it highlights to me what a bubble I live in as a Jew in America, in New York City, who has largely been spared of such blatant and direct displays of anti-Semitism — though many reports suggest that anti-Semitism is on the rise throughout Europe and the United States.

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Tel Aviv University's Kantor Center for the Study of European Jewry published a study last year that found 2014 saw a 38 percent in violent anti-Semitic attacks in Western Europe and North America from the previous year alone; in total, 766 violent anti-Semitic attacks occurred. That didn't include the attack on the kosher supermarket in Paris in January 2015, which resulted in four deaths, days after the Charlie Hebdo shooting. A Federal Bureau of Investigation report tracking hate crimes in the United States in 2014 found that, by far, the most hate crimes motivated by religion were directed against Jews — specifically, according to the report, "56.8 percent were victims of crimes motivated by their offenders' anti-Jewish bias."


And yet, the Olympics still manages to be a time of inspiration and hope for me in brief but powerful moments. I will never forgot watching Aly Raisman win a gold medal in 2012 for her floor routine to "Hava Nagila," a traditional Jewish song that's a regular feature at weddings and bar and bat mitzvahs.

Granted, Raisman's stunning routine was extra memorable because I'm distantly related to her (emphasis on "distantly" because I've never come remotely close to meeting her).

However, I would have felt the same surge of pride seeing any fellow America Jew kicking major Olympic butt with a routine that unabashedly was an ode to her — our — Jewish heritage. That she dedicated that performance to the 11 Israeli athletes murdered by a Palestinian terrorist group at the 1972 Olympics in Munich made it so much more powerful. It was vindication, as well as a reminder that Jews carry a responsibility to honor and combat the oppression we have faced. To see Raisman, an athlete born 22 years after the massacre in Germany and thousands of miles from Israel, feel that connection is the ultimate testament to that determination to overcome — and displaying that through athleticism on the global stage is the Olympics at its best.

Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images

2016 in Rio once again feels bittersweet. When I read about the treatment of Israeli athletes, I am worried, angered, and disheartened. And yet, when I see Raisman and the U.S. women's gymnastics team win gold, I brighten. In that same vein, when I watch fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, the first American athlete to wear a hijab during the Olympics, I brighten. These Olympic moments make me appreciate how fortunate I am to live in a country that won't discriminate against athletes based on their religion, their race or ethnicity.

I just wish that in 2016 that wasn't something I needed to be thankful for in this world.