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Op-Ed: A tennis lesson for the world

NEW YORK (JTA) — The news out of Dubai has been rife with speculation about who assassinated Hamas terrorist commander Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in a local hotel. Israeli agents and al-Mabhouh’s Palestinian rivals are high on the guess list.

But amid the who-did-it debate, a happier Dubai event was taking place. A few weeks ago, Shahar Peer became the first Israeli woman to compete in a professional sporting event in the United Arab Emirates.

Peer, a superb tennis player, defeated several highly ranked competitors on her way to the semifinal round of the annual Dubai championships. The 22-year-old then lost to American star Venus Williams, who went on reclaim the title she had won the previous year. But no less significant was Peer’s stunning performance and how she got there in the first place.

Her appearance was a year overdue. Peer was part of the draw for the 2009 Dubai championships, and her name like that of the other players had been supplied to the Emirates authorities long in advance. Yet the day before the opening matches, Peer received word that the UAE had denied her a visa.

Tournament director Salah Tahlak said Peer’s presence “would have antagonized our fans” because of their opposition to Israeli policies.

In fact, 2009 was dotted with international insults to Israeli athletes. Weeks after the Dubai event, the Swedish Taekwondo Federation blocked Israeli participation in the annual championships at Trelleborg. On the eve of the tournament, 45 Israeli athletes had to cancel their flight plans.

In October, at the fencing world championships in Antalya, Turkey, the Iranian team dropped out without notice. The Iranian government forbade its fencers to compete after learning that they were in seeding brackets with Israeli athletes. Iran’s disruptive behavior drew barely a nod from the Turkish hosts.

Effrontery to Israeli delegations was not limited to athletic competitions. Two Israeli women, both research doctors, were abruptly disinvited to a conference in Egypt on breast cancer. The sponsoring organization, Susan G. Komen for the Cure, told the women that the Egyptian Health Ministry was barring them. The doctors were doubly shocked by subsequent Komen and Egyptian claims that the Israelis themselves had decided not to attend.

Neither the Swedish, Iranian, Turkish nor Egyptian authorities were seriously criticized for their misbegotten behavior. But sponsors of the Dubai tennis tournament reacted differently, and therein lies a huge lesson.

Peer responded indignantly when she was notified of her ban in 2009. Larry Scott, the chief executive of the Women’s Tennis Association Tour, echoed Peer’s assertion that politics should be kept separate from sports. After consultations among the players, and with Peer’s concurrence, the tournament was not canceled, but the Dubai authorities were hit with an avalanche of penalties.

Scott warned that if Peer were prevented from playing in Dubai in the future, “they would run the risk of losing their tournament.” Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal’s European edition dropped advertising for the 2009 event and cable television’s Tennis Channel canceled its planned coverage.

Soon after, the WTA levied a fine of $300,000 on the Dubai tournament organizers. The WTA board also demanded that the organizers post a $2 million guarantee that henceforth all players who qualified would be allowed to compete. The UAE would have to show proof of entry permission for any Israeli player at least eight weeks prior to the tournament. Further, Venus Williams said she would not play again in Dubai unless Peer were admitted to the 2010 contest.

The threat of losing the tournament and its accompanying money, attention and prestige evidently impressed the Dubai organizers. Peer’s participation in 2010 made that point even though none of her matches were on the center court. All were relegated to an outside court with limited seating, presumably as a safety measure.

Still, Peer’s iron determination to play, and play well, drew plaudits from commentators around the world. Above all, her presence signified the ability to rectify a wrong when good people are insistent.

The Iranian fencers in 2009 were permitted to let politics trump their commitment to compete. Their Turkish hosts and fellow competitors remained stone silent rather than call for penalties for the Iranians’ blatant discrimination. Nor were the Swedish and Egyptian authorities who disinvited Israeli participants even censured, let alone penalized.

If ignored, such injustices will be repeated. Dubai 2010 demonstrated how concerted efforts can help change errant behavior.

Overseers of all these events would do well to heed Scott’s words after the UAE agreed to the WTA’s stipulations: “Thanks to the courage of Shahar, and all those individuals and organizations, including her fellow players that supported her, the UAE has changed their policy and another barrier of discrimination has fallen.”

(Leonard A. Cole is the co-chair of the Task Force on Anti-Semitism for the Jewish Agency and former chair of the Jewish Council of Public Affairs.)

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