I have never been a big tennis fan. In fact, the odds are that I wouldn’t even have heard of the Davis Cup match between Sweden and Israel, taking place this weekend in Malmö, if it wasn’t for the “Stop the Match-Boycott Israel” campaign which has been underway since December. The campaign organizers are doing their best to mobilize thousands of demonstrators to Malmö this weekend and according to Malmö police chief, Håkan Jarborg Eriksson, some extremists have stated that they want to “stop the match at any cost”.
Like it or not, sporting events are part of our culture and official matches between national teams often become political events. This is particularly true in Sweden. Many Swedes were in favor of boycotting the Olympic Games in China, for example. Others wanted to boycott the 2006 Football World Cup because it promoted prostitution and human trafficking in Germany. The Davis Cup itself has also been a source of controversy in the past. When Sweden played Rhodesia and Chile in the late sixties and early seventies there were many calls for cancellation and mass demonstrations were organized.
Many sports fans may object to it, but in reality sports and politics are both part of the public arena, and cannot always be separated. In a democracy people have the right to mix them together, to demonstrate and even call for boycotts. Still, municipal officials are expected to live up to their minimal responsibilities even in the face of an angry crowd. This is the reason that the decision made by Malmö’s sports and recreation committee, to hold the Israel-Sweden match behind closed doors is so outrageous.
According to Bengt Forsberg, chairman of the committee, there was no political motive behind the decision. Though police had said the match could go ahead and that the public could be admitted, Forsberg’s committee decided not to take the chance. “This is absolutely not a boycott”, he explained, “We do not take political positions on sporting events. We have made a judgment that this is a high-risk match for our staff, for players and for officials”. In other words, someone made a threat and the city of Malmö decided to cave in.
To many this may seem reasonable at first sight. Why take unnecessary risks? If there are concrete threats, it could be claimed, everything must be done to avoid casualties. But in this age of terror and violence where does this end?
Anyone who has been anywhere near a Stockholm derby football match, for example, couldn’t miss the extensive police presence. Policemen on foot, on horse and in helicopters above try to maintain the peace, at an enormous cost to the tax payer, while large groups of drunken young men throw objects at the field, terrorize other spectators and get involved in large scale fights. The authorities, quite rightly, have decided time and again to fight hooliganism and protect peaceful football fans. It is, after all, a basic civil right to engage in sporting activities without being subjected to threats and violence. There has been talk of anti-hooliganism legislation, and the National Council for Crime Prevention even proposed treating hooliganism as organized crime. But in the case of the tennis match in Malmö, the combative rhetoric disappears and the ones who are punished are the fans instead of the hooligans. Why is this?
One explanation is that Mr. Forsberg and his committee aren’t being entirely honest or they may be extremely naïve. Despite their claims, any decision at this level is political. Obviously, no one will stop the money making and extremely popular football league because of threats. In this case, freedom and democracy will prevail against the dark forces of violence. But when it comes to a tennis match against Israel the attitude changes. Mr. Forsberg obviously doesn’t care much about a match against a team from a country that a large part of his constituency hates anyway. I wonder if the good citizens of Malmö would approve of banning fans from a Malmö FF game because someone said he’s so pissed off that he might hurt someone.
At the risk of being accused (yet again) of promoting paranoid theories of Anti-Semitism I’ll add the following point: after giving in to threats such as the ones made by angry Anti-Israel demonstrators, why shouldn’t the City Council of Malmö close down the Jewish cemetery and synagogue since they were already attacked and are definitely at a high risk of being attacked again? Why shouldn’t pro-Israel demonstrations be banned since demonstrators are often met by angry stone-throwing mobs? In fact, why shouldn’t local authorities close down the Israeli Embassy in Stockholm or the Jewish centre in Helsingborg, both of which have recently been attacked?
This scenario may have sounded unrealistic a few months ago, but the decision to ban the public from the Davis Cup match shows that it is more than possible. A few Jewish or Israeli targets may not affect most Swedes but it’s a slippery road. If a few threats on a relatively minor sporting event can empty a 4,000 seat arena, just imagine what a real terrorist attack would do to Swedish society. Would a terrorist attack on a local bus close down the public transport system? Will night clubs and restaurants lose their licenses if they are targeted by terrorists? Will municipalities say they prefer not to risk going on with daily life even when the police clearly say they can handle the work load? Regardless of political convictions, there must be a consensus that a modern freedom loving democracy has to protect itself against violent extremists. In the post 9/11 world, perhaps it’s time for local authorities to realize that the times, they are a’changing.
Another explanation for Malmö’s City Council decision may derive from the very nature of the objections to the match. It’s a discriminating decision that is a result of a discriminating campaign. Make no mistake, “Stop the match – Boycott Israel” is a legitimate campaign. I don’t agree with what they say or with their political allies but no one can take away their right to express their objections to Israeli policies or to publicly sympathize with the Palestinians in Gaza. It’s true, some of them have said terrible things and spread vicious lies (such as comparing Israel to the Nazis); some have actively supported terrorist organizations, but their right to express themselves remains. Still, anyone who wants to see the bigger picture should be careful with boycotts. They are seldom effective and tend to end up hurting the wrong people, and although it is tempting to make comparisons to boycotts like the one against South African apartheid, the analogy is wrong.
The conflict in the Middle-East is nothing like that in South Africa and a boycott policy against one side in it is simplistic at best and biased, unbalanced and hypocritical at worst. This is not to say that Israel cannot be criticized, but Swedes should be careful when using a tool as powerful as boycotts. Sweden had no problem participating (and winning twenty medals) in the 1936 Berlin Olympics under Hitler or participating in the Beijing games despite China’s massive violations of Human Rights. Hundreds of demonstrating students were killed by government forces just days before the 1968 Mexico-City Olympic Games, but that didn’t “Stop the Match” for Swedish athletes just like the British soldiers who shot unarmed civil right activists in Derry, Northern Ireland didn’t bring about any boycotts against English products or English cultural and sporting events. Does this make the calls for boycotting the Davis Cup match against Israel invalid? Of course not. But it would imply that Israel is worse than Nazi Germany and that Israeli policies brought about events more severe than the Irish Bloody Sunday, the Mexican Tlateloco Massacre and the events of Tiananmen Square all combined! It is clear what kind of people make claims like this.
And here’s one last thought for the demonstrators in Malmö who must be very proud of the exposure their campaign has received these last couple of months. They gained support, their case is all over the media and they even forced local officials to close the controversial match to the public. But here is a word of advice: don’t be too pleased with Malmö’s decision to give in to threats. The same authorities that cannot stand up to today’s threats will not stand up to those of tomorrow. What started as threats against tennis players and fans could easily lead to threats by ultra nationalists against immigrants or Neo-Nazi threats against Mosques and Madrasahs. “The ultimate weakness of violence”, Martin Luther King once said, “is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it”.