Sport faces growing censorship problem over the Israel-Gaza war

When Turkish football team Antalyaspor faced Trabzonspor in a Super Lig match earlier this month, few could have predicted the fall-out that would follow off the pitch. Israeli winger Sagiv Jehezkel scored the equaliser for Antalyaspor in the second half, and in celebration he revealed a message written on his wristband that said: “100 days, 7-10”. The words referenced the length of time that Israeli hostages had been held by Hamas since the group launched an attack on Israel on the 7 October, killing an estimated 1,200 people.

In Turkey, the backlash was fierce. Jehezkel was arrested and detained in Antalya on the charge of “incitement to hate”. After being released, he was sacked by Antalyaspor and returned home to Israel, landing in Tel Aviv the next day.

According to local media, Jehezkel has stated that he did not mean to provoke such a storm. He said: “I am not a pro-war person. I want the war to end. That’s why I showed the sign.” Antalyaspor did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

He is not the only footballer to lose his club for voicing an opinion on the conflict. When Israel began their retaliatory bombardment of Gaza, which has so far reportedly killed more than 26,000 people, Dutch international Anwar El Ghazi posted a message of support for Palestine on his Instagram story. After a back and forth with his club – German side FSV Mainz 05 – El Ghazi made a further statement on social media announcing that he had no regrets over the now-deleted post and reiterating his argument that he stands “for humanity and the oppressed” and against “the killing of all innocent civilians in Palestine and Israel”. Mainz were unhappy with El Ghazi’s stance, calling his position on the conflict “unacceptable”. A few days later, his contract was terminated.

Upon losing his club, El Ghazi posted once more. “Stand for what is right, even if it means standing alone. The loss of my livelihood is nothing when compared to the hell being unleashed on the innocent and vulnerable in Gaza,” he said.

The player is now suing Mainz for wrongful termination of his contract, while the club is making a counter claim as they seek financial compensation to help fund his replacement. The final hearing is set to be held in June.

Mainz told Index they were unable to comment on the incident as legal proceedings are ongoing.

These two cases sum up the uncomfortable relationship sport has with politics and free speech, and how this has been exacerbated by the Israel-Gaza war. Due to the divisive nature of the conflict, sporting bodies are struggling to navigate the line between freedom of expression and the potential to incite hatred and in doing so have fallen into a worrying trend of censorship. 

The reluctance or inability of those involved to comment on the incidents may also show the difficulties people have when talking about this topic, as they can’t, or won’t, speak up due to the potential backlash and further repercussions. This is fairly unsurprising given the experiences of those who have expressed an opinion on the conflict. In another case, footballer Karim Benzema was accused of having “notorious” links to Islamist group the Muslim Brotherhood by France’s Interior Minister, Gerald Darmanin. His crime? Posting a message of support for the inhabitants of Gaza on X (formerly Twitter). Benzema has filed for defamation against Darmanin; his lawyer Hugues Vigier told French news outlet RTL that the claims were “false” and accused the Interior Minister of “sowing division in France”. 

It is not just players who are facing the threat of censorship. Many of football’s national governing bodies, including England’s Premier League and EFL, have also banned supporters from displaying Palestine or Israel flags during games. As a result, there have been a number of accusations levelled at English clubs such as Liverpool and Manchester United of censoring fans who display any show of support for the Palestinian cause by removing them from stadiums. 

Other sports have also been caught up in the censorship storm. Former athlete Emilie Gomis, who clinched a silver medal in basketball for France at the London 2012 Olympics, recently stepped down from her role as an ambassador for the Paris 2024 Games after posting an anti-Israel video to her Instagram story. Elsewhere, in South Africa, cricketer David Teeger was stripped of his captaincy of the country’s under-19s side after dedicating an award he won at a Jewish community event to “the state of Israel and every single soldier fighting so that we can live and thrive in the diaspora”, in a decision described as a “sinister” and “discriminatory” by the South African Jewish Board of Deputies.

Another cricketer, Australia’s Usman Khawaja, was charged by the International Cricket Council (ICC) for wearing a black armband during a test match against Pakistan in support of those in Gaza. ICC regulations do not allow players to display “messages of political, religious or racial causes”, and the player had previously been warned by the governing body after wearing shoes with the messages “all lives are equal” and “freedom is a human right” written on them. Khawaja argues that it is not a political statement but a “humanitarian appeal”.

Further debate over the right to free expression in regard to the conflict is inevitable with the growing calls to ban Israel from competing in sporting events. One post on X by The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel called for “pressure” to be put on sporting bodies to ban Israel from international tournaments and games “until Israel ends its grave violations of international law”. The statement was reposted by the BBC’s Gary Lineker, who later deleted it.

Despite cries to keep politics out of sport, it is not possible to separate the two. Sport does not exist in an apolitical vacuum, and is impacted even on the front lines; the Palestinian Football Association says 88 top-tier athletes have been killed by Israeli forces during their military bombardment, 67 of whom are footballers. Just this month it was reported that the coach of Palestine’s Olympic football team Hani Al-Masdar was killed in an Israeli airstrike.

The attempts by governing bodies in sport to prevent athletes and fans from expressing a view on the conflict, while not necessarily malicious, pose a serious risk to free speech. While the cases of Sagiv Jehezkel and Anwar El Ghazi are extreme, they are the product of sport’s increasingly heavy-handed approach to political censorship, which makes having an opinion on the war in Gaza increasingly difficult. For people to feel unable to wade into the issue in fear of backlash is cause for concern in itself. Despite a long history of athletes being involved in political activism, sport still hasn’t found a way to ensure free expression for all is upheld.

The suffering of Wael al-Dahdouh in “deadliest conflict for journalists”

Wael al-Dahdouh, the al-Jazeera bureau chief in Gaza, has become the symbol of the suffering of Palestinian journalists. Footage of him continuing to work after an Israeli airstrike killed his wife, two of his children and a grandson gained global attention in October. His suffering was compounded this month when his son, Hamza, also a journalist, was killed in a targeted drone attack. This week 53-year-old Wael left Gaza for treatment on an injury sustained during a strike last month that left an al-Jazeera cameraman dead.

Youmna el-Sayed, the al-Jazeera English correspondent in Gaza, was very close to both Wael and his son Hamza. Speaking from Cairo, where she and her family were evacuated this month, she told Index: “I consider Wael as an older brother while Hamza is, or was, younger than me. He was a very nice and kind person. He was loved by everyone. If you go to the Gaza Strip and speak about Hamza, no one will tell you anything bad about him… And Hamza was always there. With us at all times. I saw him every day.”

The Israeli Defence Force (IDF) has produced documentation to show that Hamza al-Dahdouh took money from the terrorist group Islamic Jihad and that his colleague, Mustafa Thuraya, also killed in the airstrike, was a member of Hamas’s Gaza City Brigade.

El-Sayed said she did not accept the IDF’s version of events: “Israel has made so many claims before but has produced no strong and solid proof or evidence other than just claims that it has given out to the public.”

She said she didn’t know Thuraya but could vouch for Hamza. “I know him very well. I was at his wedding last winter so I know the whole family very well. I know who Hamza is, and I know he’s not associated with any of the Palestinian factions or fighters. Hamza was a journalist.”

As for Wael al-Dahdouh himself, el-Sayed said the veteran correspondent was driven by his faith to continue reporting despite his personal grief. “Despite the killing of his family, he went back on air to pursue his message because, for him, it’s a duty. He’s not just doing it because he’s al-Jazeera correspondent. He’s doing it because it has so many other meanings deeper than that. He tells me this is a duty I will be asked upon from God before anyone else.”

El-Sayed said she spoke to al-Dahdouh after the death of his son: “I gave him my condolences. And I know Wael is a very strong person. But that day, he cried when he spoke to me, and I was already crying. I told him, ‘I don’t even know what to tell you. Hamza wasn’t just your son. He was my brother’. He told me, ‘Hamza loved you very much, you know. He always spoke about you even after you evacuated’. That really pricked my heart because Hamza was like a younger brother to me. We always joked and we always spoke together and we discussed everything that was going on.”

Since the war began more than 83 journalists have been killed, the majority killed in Gaza, according to the CPJ. Of these, 76 are Palestinian, four Israeli, and three Lebanese. The CPJ have called it the deadliest conflict for journalists on record. The IDF insists that it is targeting terrorists and that many of those victims identified as journalists are in fact militant fighters. But Youmna el-Sayed does not believe this. “Many of the journalists in the Gaza Strip were targeted in their homes. Hamza was targeted along with Mustafa in their car directly — after three months of this war. How can people associated with Hamas and Islamic Jihad… be left freely to move around and work as journalists in every targeted area for over three months?”

With experienced journalists such as Youmna el-Sayed and Wael al-Dahdauh forced to leave Gaza, it is difficult to imagine how the world will ever find out what is really happening on the ground.

“I’m a mother with four children. I’m married. Like any other war, of course, any escalation that breaks out in the Gaza Strip, it’s our first mission to cover what’s happening,” said el-Sayed. But this war was different. “Everything was happening so quickly. The war wasn’t just in limited areas or on a certain sector or against a certain group. Our families, like any other person in the Gaza Strip, were in constant danger all the time. It was the constant worry about my family and my kids and are they safe or not. It’s very challenging. It was a struggle I had never lived before.”

As a reporter in Gaza, el-Sayed had to negotiate not just the Israeli bombardment but working in territory ruled by Hamas. “If you have watched my reporting, I will tell you that every single thing that happens in the Gaza Strip from Hamas I report it as neural, as I had seen it. I tried to be as objective as I can because it’s a moral duty.”

She added: “My first reporting on 7 October was about the barrages of rockets that were fired from the Gaza Strip and from different areas and the unprecedented attack that we have witnessed from Gaza and from the Palestinian fighting groups in the Gaza Strip against the Israeli towns. So, I’m not going to shut my eyes about what is happening in the Gaza Strip from the Palestinian fighters or Palestinian factions simply because I’m a Palestinian journalist reporting from Gaza. Then I’m not a journalist.”

At the same time, she said the actions of Hamas should not prevent her from reporting what the Israeli army is doing in Gaza. “I’m not supposed to be only reporting what is happening from or within Gaza, from Hamas against Israel, and totally turning a blind eye towards what’s happening in the Gaza Strip from the Israeli army. That’s not being impartial. That’s just giving one side of the story against the other.”

El-Sayed finally decided to make the difficult decision to leave Gaza because she no longer felt her family was safe. She had already been displaced five times before she finally evacuated to Egypt. “But I’m only here with my body,” she said. “My heart and my mind are totally in the Gaza Strip. I’m just in front of the news every single hour. I’m always looking at my phone, checking the news websites on a minute-by-minute basis to see what is happening there. And at the same time, I’m very much heartbroken and worried about the people, my friends that are there, my colleagues, everyone that I have left there. But at the end, I had to choose between being a journalist and continuing to pursue my job and being a mother with four children, who I need to look out for their lives. And this is the only reason why I had to leave.”

From the Danube to the Baltic Sea, Germany takes an authoritarian turn

Since the Hamas’ 7 October terrorist attacks and the subsequent Israeli assault on Gaza, German authorities are using increasingly illiberal measures to curtail pro-Palestine activism. Under the guise of combatting Israel-related antisemitism, civic space for freedom of expression and assembly is shrinking.

The seemingly isolated incidents highlighted in this article are piling up and the curtailing of civic space is starting to be noticed internationally: Civicus, which ranks countries by freedom of expression rights, recently downgraded Germany in a review from “open” to “restricted” due to repression of pro-Palestinian voices, as well as of climate activists.

Stigmatisation of pro-Palestine activism

In her speech celebrating the 60th anniversary of the foundation of Israel in 2008, former chancellor Angela Merkel referred to the historical responsibility of Germany for the Shoah, including the security of Israel, as part of Germany’s “Staatsräson” (reason for existence). As Hamas has never credibly renounced its goal of destroying Israel, many German policymakers instinctively lean towards near unconditional support for Israel in the face of such adversaries. For them, the 7 October attacks only served to highlight that Germany cannot give an inch to critics of Israel.

There are long-standing disagreements around where to draw the line between legitimate criticism of Israel and attacks on Israel that single it out because it is a Jewish state, are expressed in antisemitic ways or are motivated by antisemitic views. For example, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism acknowledges that “criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic” but identifies seven examples of when attacks on Israel may be antisemitic (taking into account the overall context). For example, it could be antisemitic to reference classic antisemitic tropes such as the blood libel conspiracy myth to describe Israel, deny the Jewish people’s right to self-determination or blame Jews collectively for the actions of Israel, according to IHRA.

While Germany has adopted IHRA, much looser standards seem to be applied by authorities and commentators committed to tackling Israel-related antisemitism. Calls for a binational state, advocacy for the Palestinian refugees’ right of return, support for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) or accusations that Israel is committing Apartheid are regularly identified as antisemitic. There is a strong sense that given its historical responsibility, it is not Germany’s place to judge, or let anyone else judge, Israel even as its offensive in Gaza has resulted in one of the highest rates of death in armed conflict since the beginning of the 21st century, and disproportionately affects civilians.

Against this background, advocacy for Palestinian political self-determination and human rights is cast as suspicious. In the liberal Die Zeit newspaper, journalist Petra Pinzler criticised the Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg as she “sympathises more and more openly with the Palestinians and thus divides the climate movement.” Apparently sympathy with the Palestinians has become a cause for concern.

The debates since 7 October have created an atmosphere in which pro-Palestinian voices are more and more stigmatised. Pro-Palestinian protests have repeatedly been banned by local authorities. Their dystopian rationale for these bans revolves around the idea that, based on assessments of previous marches, crimes are likely to be committed by protesters. The practice is not new: in the past, German police have even banned protests commemorating the Nakba (Arabic for “catastrophe”), the collective mass expulsion and displacement of around 700,000 Palestinians from their homes during the 1947-49 wars following the adoption of the Partition Plan for Palestine by the United Nations. In reaction to pro-Palestine protests since 7 October, the antisemitism commissioner of North Rhine Westphalia and former federal justice minister even suggested the police should pay closer attention to the nationality of pro-Palestine protest organisers as protests organised by non-Germans could be banned more easily.

Furthermore, pro-Palestinian political symbols are being falsely associated with Hamas or other pro-terrorist organisations. In early November, the Federal Interior Ministry banned the chant “From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be free” as a symbol of both Hamas and Samidoun, a support network for the Marxist-Leninist Popular Front for Liberation of Palestine which has been designated as a terrorist organisation by the European Union.

While one plausible interpretation of the “From the River to the Sea” slogan is that it is a call for the destruction of Israel, it is equally plausible to understand it as a call for a binational state with full equality of all citizens. Without context, the slogan cannot automatically be identified as antisemitic, though it is of course entirely legitimate to criticise this ambivalence. As has been extensively documented, the slogan does not originate with nor is exclusively used by Hamas.

Apart from being based on misinformation, banning “From the River to the Sea” has also created the ludicrous situation that the German police force is asked to make assessments on whether holding a “From the River we do see nothing like equality” placard is an expression of support for terrorism. A former advisor to Angela Merkel even called for the German citizenship of a previously stateless Palestinian woman to be revoked who posted a similar slogan (“From the River to the Sea #FreePalestine”) on her Instagram.

In some cases, these dynamics venture into the absurd. On 14 October, the activist Iris Hefets was temporarily detained in Berlin for holding a placard that read: “As a Jew & an Israeli Stop the Genocide in Gaza.”

These illiberal and ill-conceived measures are not limited to protests. In response to the 7 October attacks, authorities in Berlin allowed schools to ban students from wearing keffiyeh scarves to not “endanger school peace”.

Curtailing civic spaces

While these trends have been accelerated since 7 October, they predate it. In 2019, the German Bundestag passed a resolution that condemned the BDS movement as antisemitic. It referenced the aforementioned IHRA definition of antisemitism (which does not comment on boycotts), compared the BDS campaign to the Nazi boycotts of Jewish business and called on authorities to no longer fund groups or individuals that support BDS.

BDS calls for the boycott of Israeli goods, divestment from companies involved in the occupation of Arab territories and sanctions to force the Israeli government to comply with international law and respect the rights of Palestinians, including the right of return for Palestinian refugees. Inspired by the boycott campaign against Apartheid South Africa, BDS has attracted many supporters, but critics have claimed that BDS singles out Israel and delegitimises its existence. Accusations of antisemitism within the movement should of course be taken seriously: BDS supporters have previously been accused of employing antisemitic rhetoric about malign Jewish influence and intimidating Jewish students on campus. However, many of BDS’ core demands are clearly not antisemitic. Since the BDS lacks a central leadership that would issue official stances, it is difficult to make blanket statements about the movement in its entirety.

The 2019 resolution is now being cited to shut down cultural events. A planned exhibition in Essen on Afrofuturism was cancelled over social media posts that, according to the museum, “do not acknowledge the terroristic attack of the Hamas and consider the Israeli military operation in Gaza a genocide” and expressed support for BDS. The Frankfurt book fair “indefinitely postponed” a literary prize for the Palestinian author Adania Shibli, after one member of the jury resigned due to supposed anti-Israel and antisemitic themes in her book. Shibli has since been accused by the left-wing Taz newspaper of being an “engaged BDS supporter” for having signed one BDS letter in 2007 and a 2019 letter that criticised the city of Dortmund for revoking another literary price for an author that supports BDS. A presentation by the award-winning Forensic Architecture research group at Goldsmiths (University of London), which has analysed human rights abuses in SyriaVenezuela and Palestine as well as Neo-Nazi murders in Germany, was likewise cancelled by the University of Aachen which cited the group’s founder Eyal Weizman’s support for BDS.

The curtailing of civic space increasingly affects voices that have stood up for human rights at great personal risk. The Syrian opposition activist Wafa Ali Mustafa was detained by Berlin police near a pro-Palestine protest, reportedly for wearing a keffiyeh scarf. Similarly, the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, which is associated with the centre-left Green Party, pulled out of the Hannah Arendt prize ceremony, which was due to be awarded to the renowned Russian dissident, philosopher and human rights advocate Masha Gessen. Despite acknowledging differences between the two, Gessen had compared Gaza to the Jewish ghettoes in Nazi-occupied Europe in an article about the politics of memory in Germany, the Soviet Union, Russia, Poland, Ukraine, Hungary and Israel.

Conversation stoppers

Alarm bells should ring as one of Europe’s major liberal democracies has taken an authoritarian turn in the aftermath of 7 October. Germany’s noble commitment to its historical responsibility in the face of rising antisemitism is morphing into a suppression of voices advocating for Palestinian political self-determination and human rights.

In this distorted reality, civic spaces are eroded, cultural symbols banned, political symbols falsely conflated with support for terrorism and events are shut down. So far, there has been little pushback or critical debate about these worrying developments. To the contrary: politicians, foundations, cultural institutions and media outlets seem to be closing ranks under the shadow of the 2019 BDS resolution and a skewed interpretation of the IHRA definition.

Following the appalling violence committed by Hamas on 7 October, and the scale of civilian suffering in Gaza due to the subsequent Israeli military offensive, polarisation and tension between communities have been on the rise. In this context, it is crucial to be able to have passionate, empathetic, controversial and nuanced discussions about the conflict, its history, the present impasse, potential ways forward and its impact on Jewish, Muslim and Arab communities abroad. With the voices of activists, authors and even internationally renowned human rights advocates being increasingly isolated, these vital exchanges are prevented from taking place.

The world needs to learn from Masha Gessen moments

The rules on what we can and cannot say have exponentially increased since Hamas’ attack in Israel in October and Israel’s response. Just ask Masha Gessen. Over the last few days the Russian-American writer has found themselves at the centre of a controversy over an award they were due to receive.

It was a play of two acts. Act one, disinformation. The well-respected site LitHub ran an article with the heading “Masha Gessen’s Hannah Arendt Prize has been canceled because of their essay on Gaza.” The problem was it hadn’t been cancelled. Gessen pointed that out, saying they had only been approached by one journalist and that as a result “inaccuracies pile up”. LitHub had to issue what every editor dreads – a correction.

The reality – act two – was more prosaic. The main sponsor withdrew their support of the ceremony. It still went ahead, just at a different venue, on a different day. This past weekend Gessen received the Hannah Arendt prize for political thought for their work documenting Russian war crimes. It was a slimmed-down event; Gessen had a police escort.

Even in the absence of more in-your-face censorship, this still feels very problematic, part of a broader ecosystem in which people are punished in some way for what they say. And all of this because of a few lines in a New Yorker article in which Gessen compared Gaza to Nazi-era ghettos.

I should state here, for whatever relevance it holds, that I am Jewish. My family tree lost most of its branches because of the Holocaust. I’m sensitive to both inaccurate comparisons with the Holocaust and to Jewish suffering and prejudice writ large. Like myself, Gessen was born into a Jewish family and is a descendent of those murdered in the Holocaust. Their piece was not, as the furore would have made me assume, a 3000-word smear piece on Israel. Instead it was a thoughtful response to Germany’s Holocaust memory, which criticised Israeli policy at points – as we all do. Gessen’s words were precise, measured, balanced. The root of the controversy was when Gessen says “the ghetto [Gaza] is being liquidated”, a part that is far from throwaway and instead accompanied by caveats and qualifications. That it could cause such outrage exemplifies everything wrong with how we are approaching conversations right now. We simply can’t handle views that we find confronting or upsetting. Our instinct is to silence and to over-correct.

We’re ending 2023 in a bad place. In every region of the world democracies are under attack, as a Freedom House report concluded. Argentina has elected a foul-mouthed president who denies the number of disappeared from the previous dictatorship. Donald Trump could be president in the USA again in 2024, even if from a jail cell, and he’s already threatened his critics. In once liberal Hong Kong Jimmy Lai, a pro-democracy activist and publisher, is on the stand in what could be best labelled a show trial. Russian troops are far from losing in Ukraine. And all the while countries like Germany, which are meant to promote free speech, are getting in tangles over anything they think could remotely be perceived as antisemitic. It’s a very bad place indeed.

Of course we didn’t arrive at the Gessen moment overnight. Our inability to move an inch from whatever camp we’ve pitched our flag has been going on for some time, with Israel-Palestine and other conflicts and ways we identify.

But staying with Israel-Palestine, who exactly does it benefit? Our fear that some language might be labelled antisemitic means we’re looking in the wrong direction. Attacks on Jews are rising around the world. In Germany itself, the far-right AfD party won its first mayoral victory at the weekend. Anti-Muslim crimes are surging too. There are plenty of real, ugly attacks that we need to tackle. It’s just they’re not coming from Gessen or the New Yorker. To suggest as such distracts.

If the goal is to lessen hatred, to create more tolerant societies, the approach of trying to block out speech we don’t like doesn’t work, not least because the instinct itself is authoritarian. Pro-Palestinian voices are being silenced, as are Jewish ones. It’s minorities who always lose out.

In Gessen’s acceptance speech for the award, which was not their original one, they spoke of the power of comparisons: “Comparison is the way we know the world. And yet we make rules about things that cannot be compared to each other,” they said, adding that the Holocaust has been put in a place where it is seen as an exception, unlike anything else, beyond likening. Gessen was clearly not going to be silenced. Instead they chose the moment to pause and reflect, to open up a conversation about how language is used and to challenge the rules around speech that we’ve currently been told to obey. There are lessons to be learnt here as we head into 2024.