Malik Jaziri, the top-ranked tennis player in Tunisia who has an impressive record of representing his country in international tournaments, was about to play a quarterfinal match at the ATP Challenger Tournament in Uzbekistan last October. Moments before stepping onto the court, he received a career-shattering email from his bosses at the tennis federation back in Tunis.
Jaziri had been drawn against an Israeli professional, Amir Weintraub; the Tunisian tennis federation, which continues to follow the Arab League boycott of the State of Israel to the letter, declared this to be a red line that Jaziri was not permitted to cross. "Following a meeting this afternoon with the Ministry of Youth and Sports, I have the immense regret to inform you that you are ordered not to play against the Israeli player," read the email. Jaziri had no choice but to withdraw and Weintraub went through to the semi-final on a forfeit.
It goes without saying that Jaziri himself was blameless in the matter. Interviewed after being forced to withdraw, he expressed the fear that the decision would badly damage his career. His brother and manager, Amir Jaziri, slammed the decision as "shocking, because it brings politics into sport." Meanwhile, Amir Weintraub himself described Jaziri as "a good friend," adding wistfully that the Tunisian had "really wanted to play."
That in of itself is not a surprise; after all, athletes live for competition, not political strife. But what is noteworthy is that the International Tennis Federation (ITF), mindful that this was not the first time that Israeli players had been subjected to a boycott, and anxious to bring the practice to an end, took unprecedented action. Hence this statement released yesterday by the ITF's Board of Directors at their meeting in Cagliari, Italy, confirming that Tunisia has been suspended from next year's Davis Cup:
The Board was not satisfied with the case put forward by the Tunisian Tennis Federation and voted to suspend Tunisia from the 2014 Davis Cup by BNP Paribas competition. The decision of the ITF Board was unanimous although ITF Board Member from Tunisia, Tarak Cherif, recused himself from the discussion and the vote.
The 2013 ITF Constitution states the ITF and its members must preserve the integrity and independence of Tennis as a sport and must carry out their objects and purposes without unfair discrimination on grounds of colour, race, nationality, ethnic or national origin, age, sex or religion.
"There is no room for prejudice of any kind in sport or in society," said ITF President Francesco Ricci Bitti. "The ITF Board decided to send a strong message to the Tunisian Tennis Federation that this kind of action will not be tolerated by any of our members.
"The Board felt that suspension from Davis Cup, a competition that was founded 113 years ago to encourage better understanding through sport, would provide a good lesson for the Federation and a fitting penalty for their unfortunate action."
The decision of the ITF Board of Directors is final.
The ITF's announcement is a welcome and courageous one for three reasons. Firstly, by correctly depicting the Tunisian decision as based upon "prejudice," it rejects wholesale all the justifications and rationalizations for the boycott of Israel and Israelis advanced by the Arab League Central Boycott Office and its contemporary echo, the anti-Semitic "Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions" (BDS) movement, which portrays the boycott of Israel as the twenty-first century incarnation of the movement to boycott apartheid South Africa.
Secondly, the announcement shifts the costs of a boycott away from the Israelis onto the boycotting countries themselves. Those countries that continue insisting on a boycott of Israeli athletes now have a choice: either drop this primitive bigotry, or accept that through your actions, it is your own professional sports representatives that will be punished.
Lastly, the ITF decision should properly be read as establishing a precedent that can equally apply in other sports. At an international swimming competition in Dubai last month, the Israeli team was grudgingly allowed to participate, but scoreboards at the event, as well as television broadcasts, were banned from mentioning the word "Israel." Gratifyingly, the success of the Israeli swimmers at the tournament meant that the policy of pretending that the team was not present became untenable.
Nonetheless, there should be consequences to these actions. As well as ejecting boycotting countries from competitions, international sporting authorities should also ban countries that still advocate the boycott of Israel – like Qatar, which will host the 2022 soccer World Cup – from hosting such prestigious events. Thanks to the ITF, that outcome is now one step closer.