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Mahathir’s reckless folly over Paralympic event

Mahathir’s reckless folly over Paralympic event

WEDNESDAY, January 30, 2019
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Kuala Lumpur’s reputation sinks thanks to an ill-advised ban on Israeli swimmers

It is always disturbing when politics gets in the way of international sporting events, and not simply because it’s usually difficult to know where the line should be drawn on boycotts and bans. 
The United States-led boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games over the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan was the most egregious example in modern times, triggering in turn a boycott by the Eastern Bloc of the Los Angeles Olympics that followed. 
It is of course the athletes who 
suffer most on such occasions, especially those who train for years for a specific target period, only to see their chance for glory vanish, all their effort in vain. Now it’s Malaysia’s chance to suffer, albeit from a self-inflicted wound. The country was due to host the World Para-Swimming Championships, but on Sunday was stripped of the privilege after it refused to let Israelis compete, a 
decision touted as showing solidarity with the Palestinian cause.
The International Paralympic Committee said Kuala Lumpur had “failed to provide the necessary 
guarantees that Israeli Para 
swimmers could participate, free from discrimination, and safely in the 
championships”. Israeli sportsmen competed in the Asian Games until Arab and Cold War pressures on various sporting bodies in Asia resulted in their ban in the 1970s. Now it appears they’re no longer welcome in Malaysia for a paralympic event.
While Israel does not have diplomatic relations with Muslim-majority Malaysia, it does with several Arab countries and its relations in general with Muslim nations have warmed in recent years. Diplomatic ties apparently mean more than any sporting competition, even for athletes who have overcome physical disabilities to such an extent that they no longer seem disabled at all. It would have been a wonderful sight, all those dedicated swimmers from around the world, vying for medals in a Malaysian pool.
Israel is indeed guilty of brutal overreaction to Palestinian protests against its encroachments on territory that was demarcated in good faith, and of seeking to contain the Palestinians in a virtual open-air prison in the name of national security. And meanwhile many Southeast Asians admire Malaysian Prime Minister Mohamad Mahathir for his frank outspokenness on issues ranging from China’s onerous loans for infrastructure projects to Myanmar’s atrocities against the Rohingya. Imagine any other leader in our region standing up to China like that or condemning a neighbouring Southeast Asian government.
But Mahathir has in the past gone much too far, particularly in attacking Israel. He has used cruel, racist, stereotyped epithets to deride the Jews. And yet he is now insisting that Malaysia is neither anti-Jew nor anti-Semitic, meaninglessly pointing out, as all anti-Semites do in shoddy self-defence, that the Arabs are also a Semitic people. Israeli politicians promptly called him out on his remarks, deservedly so, but were at the same time too quick to link his ban on Israeli swimmers as a form of protest against the state of Israel to anti-Semitism.
Beyond the terminology and the exchange of barbs for political gain, what is being forgotten here is that no one’s actions or reactions are helping the Palestinian cause in the slightest. In blurring the line between race and state, Mahathir is only giving his opponents the ammunition they need to dismiss him as being anti-Semitic, and meanwhile the real issue – the plight of the Palestinian people – is sidelined from the discussion.