The playing of the Israeli national anthem at a sporting event in the United Arab Emirates last month is being hailed as a breakthrough against the harsh prejudices faced by the Jewish state's athletes and a sign of improving relations between Israel and the Arab world.
After Sagi Muki won the gold in the men's 81-kilogram judo category of the Abu Dhabi Grand Slam Tournament in October, he became the first Israeli athlete to hear his nation's national anthem played during the medal ceremony in an Arab country.
"Recognizing our identities this year was a huge victory, not just for me, but also for my country," Muki told the Washington Post. "There are still so many countries that refuse to recognize our existence. Every achievement like this boosts our morale."
The playing of "Hatikva" brought tears to the eyes of minister of culture and sports Miri Regev, who used the trip to Abu Dhabi to engage in diplomacy, making a point of visiting the Grand Mosque. Israel does not have official diplomatic ties with the UAE.
"Israeli athletes, all athletes, should be treated equally regardless of gender, nationality or anything else. That is the language of sport," she said.
"It was a moment I will never forget," Muki said after the medal ceremony, according to The Times of Israel. "I am very happy that I managed to finish with a gold medal and to have the anthem played in Abu Dhabi."
Muki and his teammates were able to compete with the national symbols of Israel displayed on their uniforms in the tournament. In two previous visits to Abu Dhabi, the UAE capital, they were forced to cover the flag on their uniforms with a white patch. The hostility toward Israeli athletes in many Muslim and Arab nations stems from support for Palestinians in their longstanding conflict with Israel over what they consider an unlawful occupation of the West Bank.
International Judo Federation President Marius Vizer threatened to cancel the Grand Slam if Israel wasn't treated equitably, the Post reports:
"I understand the political reasons, but this conflict, between Arabs and Israelis, is the legacy of past generations. We now need to show young people how to live together in unity, peace and friendship," Vizer said in an interview. "Sport has to be kept far away from all political confrontation and debate."
Former Israeli judoka Yoel Razvozov knows firsthand the hostilities Israeli athletes face when competing against Arab or Muslim opponents. At the 2001 World Judo Championships, an Iranian player forfeited a match rather than compete against him. Another time, he said, he was told, "Your country does not exist, therefore you do not exist, so why should I compete against you?"
"There is a phenomenon of Arab countries hosting important international sporting competitions using the platform to insult Israel politically. We need to put an end to this," said Razvozov, now a member of Israel’s parliament.
In December, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recounted the story of an Iranian wrestler who was forced by his coach to lose a match so he wouldn't face an Israeli in the next round of a tournament. Iranian athletes are forbidden from competing against Israelis in competitions. Last year, the country's hardline Islamic government banned two of its soccer players for life from playing for their country because they played for a Greek club against Israeli players.
Saudi Arabia denied visas to seven Israeli chess players in a World Chess Federation tournament, and Tunisia was initially disqualified from bidding to host the 2022 Summer Youth Olympic Games because it did not want Israeli athletes to compete.
Razvozov, who is now in the Israeli parliament, has mobilized legal experts such as attorney Alan Dershowitz to help put an end to bigotry against the country's athletes in international sporting events. He has the support of the Trump administration, which has taken a strongly pro-Israel stance in its foreign policy. That was personified this year in making good on a longtime American promise to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and recognize the latter as Israel's capital.