The group Jewish Voice for Peace called it “a watershed moment“ and “the biggest victory for BDS [the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement].” Israeli defense minister Avignor Lieberman seethed that this week has seen a win for “Israeli-hating inciters.”
What spurred such an impassioned reaction on both sides? It wasn’t Lorde canceling a concert and it wasn’t Natalie Portman refusing an award. This time it is the Argentina National Soccer Team saying no to the Israeli state. With three days notice, the renowned squad has canceled a friendly World Cup warm-up match in Jerusalem, a game that sold out last month within 20 minutes of tickets’ going on sale. Now no one will be watching anything.
Argentina canceled the match amid increasing international pressure for the team to boycott the game after last month’s massacre of more than 60 Palestinians in Gaza by the Israeli Defense Forces. These Gazans were protesting the fateful decision by Donald Trump to relocate the United States embassy in Jerusalem. That decision was why the call for Argentina to boycott the match intensified: because Israel’s right-wing government of Benjamin Netanyahu chose to move the game from Haifa to Jerusalem’s Teddy Kollek Stadium. In immediate response, the head of the Palestinian football association, Jibril Rajoub, led the call for Argentina to boycott, saying that Israel had “politicized” the match by the highly symbolic Jeruslame move. Rajoub also called upon Palestinian fans to burn the posters of Argentine star Lionel Messi in protest if they participated. “Messi is a symbol of peace and love,” Rajoub said. “We ask him not to participate in laundering the crimes of the occupation.”
Argentina then decided not to participate, with the country’s foreign minister, Jorge Faurie, saying that several players “were not willing to play in the game,” although he did not specify why.
Both Israel and Argentina cited “threats” against players, but, other than the intensifying calls to protest, it is not apparent what threats they are referring to.
Gonzalo Higuain, a forward for Argentina, after the decision to abide by the boycott said to ESPN, “In the end, they’ve done right thing, and this is behind us. Health and common sense come first. We felt that it wasn’t right to go.”
The significance of this BDS victory cannot be overstated. Human Rights attorney and assistant professor at George Mason University Noura Erakat said to me, “This is major. Though it may not be the first sports boycott, since Sri Lankan and Indian teams have refused to play Israel before, one of the most visible teams and renowned players in global futbol has refused to normalize Israel’s national institutions at a critical political juncture. This indicates the mainstreaming of the Palestinian freedom struggle and a rejection of US/Israeli promises of even more violent and exclusionary futures.”
To give a sense of how “major” this is, it has been reported that Netanyahu reached out to Argentine President Mauricio Macri to have him pressure the team to change their minds, but he was unable to salvage the game.
Not surprisingly, Israel’s hard-line leaders are apoplectic. Lieberman, who last month justified the massacres by saying “there are no innocent people” in Gaza, raged on Twitter, “It’s unfortunate the soccer knights of Argentina did not withstand the pressure of the Israeli-hating inciters, whose only goal is to harm our basic right to self-defense and bring about the destruction of Israel. We will not yield before a pack of anti-Semitic terrorist supporters.”
After last month’s killings, the shameful argument that any protest against Israeli human-rights violations is inherently anti-Semitic, especially the peaceful calls for BDS in response to these crimes, simply carries no moral weight. The Argentina national team is one of the most high-profile squads on earth. This truly is a watershed moment: a moment when the highest pinnacle of the sports world said no to war, occupation, and being used as a prop to support a nation in the aftermath of a massacre.