The snub seen round the world.

Photographer: Toshifumi Kitamura/AFP/Getty Images

The Thrill of Victory, the Agony of Another Snub

Daniel Gordis is senior vice president and Koret distinguished fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. Author of 11 books, his latest is "Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn."
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Israel has never been, to put matters mildly, an Olympic powerhouse. The country has long been a much more formidable competitor for Nobel Prizes than for Olympic gold. Thus, when two Israeli athletes, Yarden Gerbi and Or Sasson, each won bronze medals in judo, the country and its press went into a bit of a celebratory frenzy.

Sasson’s victory, however, was marred by an intentional snub: As the video of his first-round match shows, when Sasson defeated his Egyptian counterpart, Islam El Shehaby, Sasson approached his opponent and extended his hand. El Shehaby, in a gross violation of Olympic etiquette, refused to shake the Israeli’s hand. The judges called him back to the mat for the requisite bow, but even that, El Shehaby barely executed.

The slight made international headlines, and the Israeli press focused on it intently. The Times of Israel offered its readers a bit of consolation by noting that the crowd in Rio booed El Shehaby, while the Jerusalem Post featured this comment by El Shehaby in its headline: “Can't ask me to shake the hand of someone from this State.” To Israelis, that was the real point: The snub was symbolic of the Arab street’s continuing rejection of the very legitimacy of the Jewish state.

The incident also played widely in the Egyptian press. The English language Ahram Online went to lengths to suggest that Israel should have been pleased that El Shehaby was even willing to get on the mat with an Israeli. “This is already a big improvement that Arabic countries accept to [fight] Israel,” it said, quoting a representative of the International Judo Federation. Another article on the same site stressed that El Shehaby had not broken any rules, and that, though the gesture had admittedly caused an uproar, context matters. “Egypt was the first Arab power to make peace with Israel, in 1979,” the paper reported, “but the treaty remains unpopular among many Egyptians.”

Sasson could live without the handshake, Israelis understood, but how long would they and their children have to live as a pariah state, even to those countries with which it has a peace treaty? Particularly on the heels of a recent much-celebrated visit to Israel by the Egyptian foreign minister, the first such visit since 2007, the snub was deflating. It followed an earlier Olympic incident in which the Lebanese team refused to ride on the same bus as the Israelis and blocked them from getting on the bus, and another story that emerged last week regarding Jordan, with which Israel has also signed a peace treaty, when Jordanians once again refused to allow Israelis to enter the kingdom wearing traditional Jewish head coverings, or kippot.

Leaders can sign peace treaties, Israelis figuratively sighed, but it seemed once again that nothing could mollify the Arab street. Across social media, Israelis and American Jews posted stills of the Olympic snub with comments such as “the Israeli-Arab conflict in one picture,” or “And this is a country with which we’ve been at peace for almost 4 decades.”

Israel’s Hebrew press was, if anything, even more put out. An article on the popular YNet news site included a reproduction of a cartoon from the Palestinian paper, Al Kuds, showing the defeated El Shehaby lying on the mat, with an olive branch in his mouth, while the Israeli Sasson just walked away. Peace, the cartoon seemed to suggest inexplicably, had just been defeated. The same article also included a photograph of an Iranian coach at the Olympics rearranging flags on mailboxes, so that the Iranian flag would not remain adjacent to the Israeli flag. An article on the Nana news site said, belaboring the obvious, that Israel may have peace with Egypt, but it is, at best, a cold one.

Israelis are not the only ones who saw significant symbolism in the split-second act. The columnist Bret Stephens weighed in in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal (a day after a mortified Egyptian Olympic Committee ordered El Shehaby to return to Egypt) suggesting that “If you want the short answer for why the Arab world is sliding into the abyss, look no further than this little incident. It did itself in chiefly through its long-abiding and all-consuming hatred of Israel, and of Jews.”

Stephens offered Israelis a bit of consolation. “So long as an Arab athlete can’t pay his Israeli opposite the courtesy of a handshake, the disease of the Arab mind and the misfortunes of its world will continue. For Israel, this is a pity. For the Arabs, it’s a calamity. The hater always suffers more than the object of his hatred.” That is true, as far as it goes, and in the long run, may prove decisive.

Israelis, though, first need to live through the short term. In what has become characteristic of the Israeli experience, the celebration of two Olympic medals was riddled with a much more sobering awareness that for all its accomplishments in many fronts, the Jewish State has a long way to go before it experiences anything remotely approximating normalcy.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Daniel Gordis at danielgordis@outlook.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net