The Handshake That Wasn’t


For all of Israel’s political and diplomatic efforts to bolster its image around the world, a 10-second encounter at the Olympic Games in Rio between an Israeli judo champion and his defeated Egyptian rival brought home the message of ongoing Arab bias against the Jewish state to millions of viewers in a most powerful way.

When the Israeli, Or Sasson, reached out to shake the hand of Islam el Shehaby after their match, he was snubbed by his opponent, who turned and walked away.

No doubt many people were shocked by the reaction, and the Egyptians did send el Shehaby home as a result. But Arab bias against Israel is a reality so widespread that officials of the International Judo Federation said the fact the match even took place was a sign of “progress.” (And keep in mind that Israel and Egypt signed a peace pact in 1979 that is still in place.)

A less-publicized incident took place on the evening of the Opening Games at Rio when the Lebanese team, en route to the event, would not share their bus with the Israeli team, blocking their entrance at the door. It has also been reported by Israeli media outlets that judo competitor Joud Fahmy withdrew from the games because she might have had to face Israel’s Gili Cohen in the second round. (However, the Saudi Olympic Delegation attributed the pullout to injuries.)

When Israel is a pariah, not only at the United Nations but at the Olympics, the apolitical model of international sportsmanship, we are reminded of just how deep-seated the bias is in much of the Arab world.

On the positive side, Or Sasson has become a new hero — winner of the bronze medal and a symbol of dignity.

On his flight home to Israel, Sasson happened to be seated in economy next to an American-born resident of Jerusalem, Hindel Schwartz Swerdlow, who described him on her Facebook page as “refined” and gentle in speech. He and his coach, Oren Smadga, a 1992 medalist for Israel in judo, chatted easily with her; the trio even shared family photos.

The men spoke of online messages Sasson received saying Arabs would kill him if he touched his Egyptian opponent.

At flight’s end, the athlete and his coach received a hero’s welcome at Ben-Gurion Airport, surrounded by cheering fans. “Ori’s joy is our joy,” Schwartz Swerdlow wrote. “Jews are one big family.”

It’s a sentiment we hope will last, as should the memory of the Olympic contestant who could not bring himself to acknowledge the man who bested him.