Written by Dr. Rabbi Benji Levy and Aviva Klompas
The much-anticipated opening to the Tokyo Summer Olympics kicks off this Friday. Despite a year-long delay and resurgent coronavirus outbreaks that have forced Japan to ban live audiences, hundreds of millions are expected to watch the first major global celebration since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Olympic Games have long placed a magnifying glass on the major international political and diplomatic affairs of the day. From the infamous Berlin Games of 1936 opened by Adolf Hitler, through the Cold War-era boycotts, to the human rights concerns raised during Beijing 2008.
At the same time, the convergence of peoples from all over the world on the world’s biggest sporting stage has also served to shape diplomatic relations between states for the better. Recall the so-called ping-pong diplomacy of the 1970s, which served to warm relations between the United States and China, catalyzing a fundamental change in the foreign policies of both nations.
A similar opportunity exists today in the Middle East. Just a few years ago, the United Arab Emirates refused to allow the Israeli flag to be flown at competitions it hosted. Today, less than a year since the normalization of relations between Israel and the UAE through the Abraham Accords, it’s barely newsworthy when Israeli and Emirati cyclists share a fist bump at the Tour De France.
The Muslim-majority states of Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan have since followed the UAE in joining the Abraham Accords, marking the expansion of this new warmth between Israel to swaths of the Arab world. Encouragingly, Israel’s growing regional acceptance is even apparent with nations who have yet to normalize relations with the Jewish State. Just last month, Israel’s national anthem, “Hatikvah,” was played in Qatar after an Israeli gymnast won gold at the Artistic Gymnastics World Cup.
There is also the moving story of a friendship forged between Israeli and Iranian judo world champions Sagi Muki and Saeid Mollaei, offering more than a glimmer of hope that even the bitterest of conflicts in this difficult region can be overcome through the power of relationships.
This year, 89 athletes will proudly march under the blue and white flag. It will be the largest Israeli delegation to the Olympic Games in history and an opportunity for more unexpected breakthroughs.
The Abraham Accords – and their ripple effects – signal a growing openness to peace and coexistence separate from the conflict and rejectionism that have often defined the Middle East. It also offers a welcome counterbalance to the terrifying surge of anti-Israel and antisemitic violence seen in North America and Europe over the last few months. Just as Arab states who have long been committed to denying Israel’s right to exist accept the reality that Israel is an integral feature in the make-up of the Middle East, many others further away – on the streets of Western capitals, university campuses and across social media – are openly calling for the destruction of the Jewish State.
This disturbing trend is symptomatic of the collapse we are seeing in civility, decency and respect in public discourse, particularly online with the breakdown of digital diplomacy. The example of nations building bridges with one another, which is often seen in sport, affords one of the many needed antidotes. The Olympics offer a powerful opportunity to see the beauty in diverse peoples coming together and athletes giving their all to their sport. The most important win, however, comes after the points are tallied and the medals awarded when those once fierce competitors model dignity by offering a handshake or fist bump.