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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