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When Athletic Competition Collides With Hate

This piece was originally published in The Huffington Post. You can see the original post here.

It’s the video that has taken Israeli social media by storm.

Released by Al Jazeera last week, a media outlet widely associated with coverage highly critical of Israel, it shows a young Iranian wrestler preparing for a fight at the World Youth Championships in Hungary. The video description states the tournament’s stakes in no uncertain terms: “success in championships like these, for a rare and lucky few, is a stepping stone to becoming an Olympic winner.”

As the Iranian team coach approaches and discretely grabs Peyman Yarahmadi’s arm, he looks confused. “What are you putting on my hand?” Peyman asks. “The problem is if you wrestle against Israel, your name will be crossed out from the team forever,” the couch reminds him. “I am putting ice on your hand so we can forfeit due to medical injury.” The wrestler begs, as tears stream down his face, “Let me go on the mat! I’ll beat him if you let me!”

The clip ends amidst slow music, clearly designed to illustrate the heartbreaking tragedy of the situation. A chyron explains, “Iran doesn’t recognize Israel as a state. By common practice, Iranian athletes don’t compete against Israeli athletes.”

This video has gone viral just weeks after the far more high-profile snub of Israel at the Rio Olympic Games. Islam El Shehaby, an Egyptian judoka and three-time Olympian, stormed off the mat and now infamously refused to shake the hands of his Israeli opponent after losing a match in the first round, a major breach of judo edicate.

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That Israeli opponent, Or Sasson, went on to win the Olympic bronze medal in the men’s over 100 kg judo competition and was welcomed home to Ben-Gurion International Airport by thousands as a national hero, whereas Shehaby was issued a “severe reprimand“ by the IOC and forcibly sent home from Rio in disgrace. There were reports several days later that El Shehaby had announced he was permanently retiring from judo following his loss, his reputation seemingly marred beyond repair by a loss to Israel. It’s not at all a stretch to think that El Shehaby’s visceral hatred of Israel displayed on the world’s biggest stage was drawn from a set of experiences mirroring what happened Peyman.

For Israelis, delegitimization is an accepted part of life. Sometimes it occurs in front of millions, like the high-profile snub in Rio; but more often it occurs away from the cameras, tucked away in private. While Islam El Shehaby’s unvarnished hostility elicited eye-rolls and mocking from Israelis on social media – he was, after all, defeated – the video of Peyman Yarahmadi struck a different, unfamiliar tone from Israelis.

Sympathy.

At least from the seemingly raw, unfiltered perspective of this clip, this was not an athlete seething with hostility towards Israel or its athletes. Peyman was simply an up-and-coming wrestler from Iran, aspiring to be a world-class wrestler, eager to apply his years of training and face off against his opponent in a fair fight. He appeared uncorrupted by the complex geopolitical politics and propaganda that led to El Shehaby’s embarrassment, but you can nonetheless see the anti-Israel indoctrination from his coach occurring in real time.

Peyman’s situation proves somewhat anticlimactic, as the full documentary reveals that Israel ended up losing in the semi-finals, preventing an Iran-Israel matchup and ‘allowing’ Peyman to compete, where he went on to anchor the team’s bronze medal. But the reality is all the same; there were reports coming out of Rio that a Saudi Arabian judo competitor had forfeited an Olympic match not because she was injured, but because she did not want to compete in a second-round match against Israel’s Gili Cohen.

As kids who grow up in countries like Egypt and Iran are indoctrinated to hate Israel, it explains why many Israelis are raised to regard delegitimization as a fact of life. It’s a vicious cycle of conflict so deeply entrenched that it’s often hard to see reality through an unfiltered lens.

For a moment this week, the Israeli public and the world is getting a glimpse into the process by which this systematic anti-Israel delegitimization is manufactured, dragging down with it resisting participants like Peyman.

It’s a stark, sobering and needed reminder that anti-Israel hatred, and all hatred for that matter is far from something one is born into; it is learned.

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