Israel a Political Tennis Ball

Gates to the tennis court are closed in Sweden by opposition to Israel's Gaza policy.

Walter Bingham , | updated: 8:02 AM

Israeli tennis
Israeli tennis
Israel News Photo: (illustrative)

Following a vocal campaign against the Davis Cup tennis Match between Israel and Sweden, in protest at the situation in Gaza, Malmo City Council's sports and recreation committee decided on Wednesday that the match will be held behind closed doors. The motion was put by a Social Democrat and Left Party group and passed by five votes to four.

The match is scheduled for Sweden's third largest city from March 6-8 at Baltiske Hall, which holds 4,000 spectators. But a "Stop the Match" campaign has been underway in Sweden since Israel's offensive in Gaza last December, and thousands of demonstrators are expected to rally outside the arena during the match, according to campaign organizers and police.

Committee Chairman Bengt Forsberg (SocDem) insisted that there was no political motive behind his party's support for the spectator ban: "This is absolutely not a boycott. We do not take political positions on sporting events," he told the media. "We have made a judgment that this is a high-risk match for our staff, for players and for officials."

The police would have allowed the public to be admitted. Forsberg conceded that police had given the event the green light, but added, "Ultimately, Malmö Council is responsible for safety and security."

According to the Swedish paper The Local, local Moderate Party representatives were furious at the outcome of the vote, arguing that the match could have gone ahead with spectators and heightened security. "I don't think we should allow anti-Democratic forces to decide how we run sporting events," John Roslund, a Moderate Party member of the committee said.

Some members of Malmö's Jewish community said they find it hard to believe that the decision was taken purely on safety grounds. "I can't prove it but it is hard not to view it as political," said community member Barbro Posner. "The decision is a capitulation to violence and the mob, but it is in line with the malignant atmosphere for Israel and Jews in Malmö."

According to Posner, Malmö's Jewish community has been the recipient of "concrete threats" in recent months. A recent peaceful demonstration in support of Israel and civilian victims on both sides of the violence in the Middle East, which Posner helped organize, was pelted with rotten eggs, bottles, stones and tomatoes.

The match hit the headlines in January when a prominent Social Democrat in southern Sweden likened Israel to apartheid South Africa and Nazi Germany in calling for a boycott. "Israel is an apartheid state. I think Gaza is comparable to the Warsaw ghetto," said Ingalill Bjartén, the vice-Chair for the Social Democratic Women's in southern Sweden. I'm surprised that Israel – where large numbers of the population suffered under the Nazis – can do the exact same things the Nazis did."

The International Tennis Federation said in a statement that the decision by Malmo’s recreational committee was “very unfortunate” and “not in the long-term interests of the Davis Cup.” But it deferred to the local authority.

Israel has been at the center of the tennis world for the past two days, following the last-minute refusal by organizers of a women's tournament in the United Arab Emirates to allow high-ranked singles player Shachar Pe'er to enter the country to compete, citing the potential for "fan anger" over the Gaza operation to develop into a riot. The Womens Tennis Association is reconsidering its sanction of the event because of the tournament's action.

As a result of a complaint by U.S. Congressman Anthony Weiner (D.-NY) about the Pe'er ban, highly-ranked Israeli males doubles player Andy Ram will be allowed to compete in Dubai this coming week.