Photo: Tom Oxley, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The deputy leader of the Labour party, Tom Watson, has led the protests against the decision of Malaysia to bar Israeli athletes from participating in the World Para Swimming Championships, a qualifying event for the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games, which takes place in the country this summer.

The championships are being held on the island of Borneo from 29 July to 4 August. Malaysia initially said it would deny entry visas to Israeli swimmers to compete. It has since imposed a complete ban on all Israelis participating in international events in Malaysia.

Following a campaign by We Believe in Israel, the issue was taken up last week by LFI chair Joan Ryan, who wrote a letter of protest to Dato’ Ahmad Rasidi Bin Hazizi, Malaysia’s high commissioner in the UK, sports minister Mims Davies and the her Labour shadow Dr Rosena Allin-Khan.

Watson has now written to foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt and the culture secretary Jeremy Wright.

In his letter to Hunt, Labour’s deputy leader wrote: “I’m sure you will agree that the Malaysian government’s decision to discriminate against Israeli athletes in this way is completely unacceptable and will unfairly hinder the chances of these athletes being able to compete at the 2020 Paralympic Games.”

Watson asked the foreign secretary to “formally register the government’s protest” with the Malaysian high commissioner and urge the country to reverse the decision.

He also told Hunt that if Malaysia refuses, the foreign secretary should write to the International Paralympic Committee urging it to relocate the championships to another country where “the ideals of the Olympic movement will be upheld” by allowing the Israeli athletes to participate.

“To act in this manner against participants from the world’s only Jewish state is utterly discriminatory. It is also a clear breach of the International Paralympic Committee’s Mission ‘to promote Paralympic sport without discrimination for political, religious, economic, disability, gender, sexual orientation, or race reasons’,” Ryan told the high commissioner.

Last week, Malaysia’s foreign minister Saifuddin Abdullah told a coalition of Muslim groups: “The Cabinet has also decided that Malaysia will not host any more events involving Israel or its representatives. This is to me, a decision to reflect the government’s firm stance over the Israeli issue.”

Ryan called Malaysia’s move “utterly appalling”. She said that if the country’s government does not think again, “Malaysia should be barred from hosting sporting events until they recognise that there is no place for racism and prejudice in sport”.

Israel responded angrily to Malaysia’s decision. “This is shameful and totally opposes the Olympic spirit. Israel condemns the decision, inspired no doubt by Malaysia’s PM Mahathir [Mohamad]’s rabid anti-Semitism,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement. “We call upon the International Paralympic Committee to change this wrong decision or change the venue of the event.” Israel’s Paralympic Committee said it was “disappointed” and hoped to work with the International Paralympic Committee to “to find the right solution before July”.

Speaking at the Oxford Union on Friday, Mohamed defended the decision, saying: “a country has the right to keep its borders closed to certain people, that’s why borders are there”.

Malaysia, Mohamad said, has “no diplomatic relations with Israel at all, and we don’t think that they should come to our country because we have no relations with them.”

The Malaysian prime minister has frequently been accused of antisemitism. He has described Jews as “hook nosed”, questioned whether 6 million Jews died in the Holocaust, and said he is “glad to be labelled antisemitic”.

Questioned by students on Friday, Mohamad  said it was “unfair” that he had been labelled an antisemite.

“I am not antisemitic, the Arabs are all semitic people,” he argued. Asked about comments where he had called Jews “hooked nose” with “an instinctive sense of money”, the prime minister suggested it was a matter of “freedom of speech”, and asked “why we can’t say anything against Israel, against the Jews?”

“We are free to say what we like, we can say something that can be regarded as antisemitic by the Jews. That is their right to hold such an opinion of me. It is my right to tell them they have been doing a lot of wrong things,” he said.

The Oxford Jewish Society had signalled its displeasure at the Union’s invitation to Mohamad whom it said is “known for publicly expressing antisemitic views”.

“Prime Minister Mohamad is an open and unrepentant antisemite, accusing Jews of ‘Nazi cruelty’ and seeking to wipe out all Muslims, has said ‘antisemitic’ is ‘an invented term to prevent criticising Jews for doing wrong’, as well as indulging in Holocaust denial. Given an opportunity to reframe his comments on a recent edition of BBC’s ‘Hardtalk’, he instead chose to refer to Jews as ‘hook-nosed,’” said Oxford Jewish Society president Nicole Jacobus.

In 2015, two Israeli windsurfers were forced to withdraw from a competition when Malaysia refused them entry to the country. The following year, it decided not to host a 2017 conference of the world football governing body FIFA because an Israeli delegation was scheduled to participate.

But prior to Mohamad’s return to power last year, a high-level Israeli delegation attended a UN conference in Kuala Lumpur in 2018, provoking public anger. More generally, Malaysia bars Israeli passport holders from entering the country.

Israeli athletes frequently face discrimination when participating in Arab or Muslim-majority countries, such as Malaysia. In 2017, an Israeli judo fighter was forced to sing his own national anthem beneath an International Judo Federation flag during an awards ceremony because of a ban on Israeli symbols at the sport’s Grand Slam competition in the United Arab Emirates.

Occasionally, such prejudice backfires. At the Rio Olympics, former world judo champion Or Sasson was snubbed after winning a bronze medal when Egyptian judoka Islam El Shehaby refused to shake his hand. El Shehaby was disqualified and sent home. A Saudi competitor at the games also forfeited a match rather than compete against an Israel athlete. Similarly, in 2017 an Iranian wrestler said he was told by his managers to lose intentionally to a Russian competitor to avoid facing an Israeli athlete in the next round.

Some international sporting bodies are resisting boycotts of Israel in sport. Last year, the International Judo Federation threatened that it would cancel two grand slam judo events, in Tunis and Abu Dhabi, because Israeli flags were not allowed to be raised. In July 2018, the World Chess Federation said it would ban Tunisia from hosting the international chess competition in 2019 if it did not grant a visa to Israeli contestants, including a seven-year-old Israeli girl champion.

In an apparent sign that some countries are beginning to relent, last October the Israeli national anthem was played at a judo tournament in Abu Dhabi for the first time, after one of its athletes won gold.

You can support We Believe In Israel’s campaign here and read coverage of Watson’s letter here.