“Which side are you on boys, which side are you on? Which side are you on boys, which side are you on?”
I didn’t invite Billy Bragg to shuffle into my ears as they floated down in the vanilla sky of a September evening in the Holy Land. But he did, and his words – although written about striking miners a world away – felt appropriately prophetic.
I thought about my rucksack; a few hours earlier its entire contents had been removed, examined and scanned before boarding my outbound flight. I had been asked questions about my name (more East Midlands then Middle East, to my knowledge) and why a journalist with a passport bearing stamps from Qatar, Morocco, Jordan, Oman and Azerbaijan, among others, was coming to Israel.
I think they checked my hold bag too; I didn’t see it happen but when I opened it up in the hotel everything was there, neatly in place and immaculately folded, which of course was a total giveaway.
I thought about what I had learned about Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, knowledge not from direct experience but from libraries, bookshops and browser history (for the background, the UN and Amnesty International websites are good places to start).
I thought about my own ethics in accepting this invitation from the Giro organisers, with my flights and board paid for by the Israelis. Was coming here right or wrong? How would reality compare with perception? Should the Giro be here at all?
Which side was I on?
The organisers of the Giro in Israel claim that bringing the 2018 ‘Grande Partenza’ to the country is about presenting a ‘Normal Israel,’ a tourism-friendly country of culture and cuisine rather than rockets, roadblocks and repression. It comes at a time of a general warming of Israel’s attitude towards global PR and embodies its national extroversion: Israel is confident and proud.
“’Normal Israel’ is the phrase that I’ve coined. It’s the regular daily life which somehow is not an interesting enough story to be told to the rest of the world,” Sylvan Adams, honorary president of the organising committee, told Rouleur.
A 58 year-old property billionaire who emigrated from Canada to Israel in 2016, Adams is also investor in the Israel Cycling Academy team, funder of Israel’s first velodrome (to be completed in 2018) and a decorated Masters racer himself.
“All they [media] want to do is talk about conflict and issues and terrorism and all kinds of stuff, but that’s a very, very small part of life in Israel. When you put too much emphasis on one thing you tend to distort and crowd out the real story.”
This message is an easy sell for the Israelis because their ‘Normal Israel’ is real. Tel Aviv is a bustling Mediterranean city with a liberal culture for its citizens. It hosts one of the world’s largest Pride festivals and ordinary people stroll along the beach at night when the special milky, dusky Levantine light has disappeared down into the warm sea.
You do see kids with guns – national service is obligatory, starting at 18, with three years for boys and two years for girls – but their chunky automatic rifles are more likely to be resting on their laps as they drink a market milkshake than being waved around to try to make people feel safe.
When the Giro switches on its lenses next May, the coverage will capture the intoxicating old town of Jerusalem and the kindness of its people. The race will roll through the countryside and normal people from normal towns living normal lives will come out to greet it. Next year, Israel Cycling Academy is almost guaranteed to get a wildcard invitation and we will see an Israeli become his country’s first grand tour rider with a start in his home country. It will be inspirational.
Yet the helicopters won’t show the settlements in the West Bank and commentators will fear to tread the political minefield of the Israeli occupation. We won’t see the everyday lived existence for millions of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, or displaced around the world. We won’t see ‘Normal Gaza.’
And naturally for the Israeli organisers, that’s just fine. Cycling doesn’t ask questions. Cycling doesn’t spoil the mood. Cycling doesn’t piss on parades.
A conservative risk
“Starting the Giro in Israel effectively rewards Israel for its decades-long human rights abuses against the Palestinian people, including athletes,” said Sharaf Qutaifan of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), calling for Giro organisers to relocate the start.
“[It] goes against the ideals and principles of sports… and will serve Israel’s propaganda efforts to use this race to cover up its oppressive policies against Palestinians.”
One answer is to boycott the Giro in Israel. It wouldn’t be without precedent: filmmaker and Palestinian Solidarity Campaign patron Ken Loach called for it when Radiohead planned to bring their three-month international tour to an end in Tel Aviv this July.
“Radiohead need to decide if they stand with the oppressor or the oppressed. The choice is simple,” he tweeted. Frontman Thom Yorke responded by saying that the band supports Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu no more and no less than it does Donald Trump or Theresa May, but it still played Coachella and Glastonbury. It played the gig.
Where do you draw the line in a globalised world? Can you defend buying a cheap Taiwanese carbon frame shipped halfway around the globe? Should you avert your gaze whenever the blue Astana jerseys hit the front of the peloton because of Kazakhstan’s human rights record? What about Team Sky, an isolated and windswept Tristan da Cunha to the global Murdoch Empire of the (Radio)Waves?
Loach’s own hard stance came under scrutiny after it emerged his films were shown in Israel.
For RCS, Israel is controversial enough to generate publicity but still ‘safe’ enough to keep the wheels of business turning. It’s a conservative risk. It will raise eyebrows, but not so high that people go off their Segafredo coffee or Rovagnati sausage.
A boycott is a simple response to a complicated issue. By all means take a stand, but don’t use it as an excuse to ignore the circumstances that have led to it. Don’t switch off the TV because it only shows half the picture. Ignorance and reductionism have caused enough problems in that part of the world already.
Of course groups will still do it in order to draw attention to their cause, but if the Giro had chosen to start in Poland, who also bid for the 2018 grande partenza, would you be thinking about Israel and Palestine right now?
We fans of cycling should be asking ourselves whether it should take place, or wondering how we should feel about it. If there is a right answer, I’ve not yet found it. But standing at the Western Wall at dawn before returning to the UK, it did feel apt that these questions of right and wrong should be being asked in Jerusalem, a city founded on an ancient search for a higher moral meaning.
When the Giro starts there next year, watch it. Experience it. Visit it, if you like. Donate to a charity working to uphold the welfare and dignity of Palestinians.
Take a side. Or sit on the fence. Most importantly, let it make you think. Never stop asking questions. Expect complicated answers.