No yellow ribbons at the Maccabiah opening ceremony

November 24, 2016 22:51

Next Monday, July 20, I’m helping to organise an evening devoted to Gilad Shalit for the British Maccabiah youth team. The idea came about after I met Alex Pinnick, head of the Junior Team GB, in Jerusalem at the protest tent for Gilad last March. Working with Shimshon Liebman and Ella Hefez of the Gilad Shalit Action Committee (GSAC), and other volunteers, we’re helping to put together a programme for the young competitors whereby they will learn about Gilad and what happened to him, and they will get some ideas about how they can be effective activists for the campaign, and indeed any other cause they might feel strongly about, when they get back to Britain.

I’m an activist on behalf of Gilad Shalit. I’ve written a number of opinion pieces, including in the JC, about why he should be regarded as a prisoner of war, and how Diaspora communities can join a worldwide campaign to urge the Red Cross to continue pressing Hamas for visiting rights. On June 25, the third anniversary of Gilad’s capture, I spoke to Adam Mallerman about this campaign on his morning show on Rusty Mike radio, which is broadcast via the internet. In addition to being an experienced radio broadcaster, Adam is a veteran youth worker. During the course of the morning we discussed ways in which the campaign for Gilad could be more active abroad and generally become more visible.

Suddenly it came to us that both these aims could be achieved in one go if all the thousands of competitors in the Maccabiah Games were to wear yellow ribbon armbands at the opening ceremony. We thought it would be an amazing gesture of solidarity for all Israel’s missing soldiers at the unique Israel/Diaspora Zionist occasion that is the Maccabiah Games.

I called Alex in London and asked what she thought of the idea. She liked it and explained that I needed to take care to go through the proper channels to obtain permission. Just to be on the safe side, I sounded out other Maccabiah competitors that I know from around the world and in Israel. Without exception, they were very enthusiastic. One pointed out that at the 2005 opening ceremony competitors had worn a turquoise band for victims of terror.

I wrote an initial email to Eyal Tiberger, Chief Executive of Maccabi World Union and called his office. I was told that we needed to be in touch with Itamar Herman, chairman of the organising committee of the Maccabiah Games . Noam Shalit was in Geneva (testifying to the Goldstone Committee which is investigating human rights violations during the Gaza military operation), so he was unable to make the official approach personally to Itamar Herman.

The GSAC duly made the official request, but was informed .that it was too late to introduce this idea to the opening ceremony, which the Maccabiah organising committee had been working on for so long, and was now less than a week away. I do see their point, but Gilad – who is a huge sports fan - has been in captivity for three of the four years since the last opening ceremony. In the summer of 2005, when 17th Maccabiah Games took place, he was just about to begin his army service and he should have been discharged a year ago. His situation is desperate, as is that of all Israel’s other missing soldiers. Surely it couldn’t be that difficult for the organising committee to think outside the box, even at this late hour?

I called Alex, who was by now in Israel, and told her that unfortunately the yellow ribbons were a non-starter. I thought that was the end of the matter but, unbeknown to me, the heads of the British and American delegations subsequently decided to make their own approach to the Maccabiah powers that be. They were given permission to wear the armbands, and were told that each individual country’s delegation head had to make a similar personal request in order to receive permission.

I was so pleased when David Pinnick, head of the GB Maccabiah Organising Committee, called with the good news last Thursday afternoon. I quickly relayed this information to the GSAC so that we could make contact with all the teams. Ella Hefez called the Maccabiah office again to get the names of other delegation heads, and to be absolutely sure that the GSAC could, indeed, proceed as I had been told.

No, she was informed, very loud and very clear, in no uncertain terms. You may not. Case closed.

The plot was thickening by the minute now. David Pinnick called again. It had just been explained to the British and U.S. delegations that they could not, after all wear the ribbons.

I don't know the exact reason, but I can only imagine that because Israel’s political top brass will be present at the opening ceremony, the yellow ribbons could be perceived as a political gesture aimed at the prime minister, designed to put pressure on him with respect to the prisoner exchange.

If so, this is missing the point completely.

As was made very clear, the thin yellow ribbons are meant simply to make the competitors and spectators think for a moment about our soldiers captured while on active duty in defence of Israel, who are now being held in enemy territory, whereabouts unknown. At the Maccabiah Games, fallen athletes and victims of terror are rightly memorialised. Why not also keep in our minds those who we pray are still living, but are held in captivity? Are they not worthy of our thoughts?

Here’s the ironic twist to the whole dispiriting saga : while Shimshon, Ella and I are busy putting together the July 20 programme to encourage international activism on behalf of Gilad Shalit, we ourselves have been refused permission – here in Israel - to give all the Maccabiah competitors a yellow ribbon to wear at the opening ceremony.

Still, perhaps this is in itself a good lesson in activism. You have to be able absorb the disappointment when your idea doesn’t work out and carry on with the next activity. I’m looking forward to meeting some of the British team on July 20, and having the opportunity to tell them about Gilad Shalit. These 18th Maccabiah Games’ competitors, at least, will be able to express their solidarity with an ordinary young man who could be anyone’s son, brother or friend.

November 24, 2016 22:51

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