The Olympic Moment of Silence and the Politics of Victimhood

I’ve been following with some interest a cyber-dustup between Emory University Jewish Studies professor Deborah Lipstadt and Elisheva Goldberg, Assistant Editor of the Open Zion blog. In its way, I think it shines an interesting light on the ways the Jewish community deals with its sense of victimhood in public discourse.

The debate began with a piece Lipstadt wrote for Tablet on July 17, entitled “Jewish Blood is Cheap.” In her article, she inveighed against the International Olympic Committee for refusing requests to hold a one minute moment of silence during Opening Ceremonies to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the murder of 11 Israeli athletes in Munich. Lipstadt explored the various reasons given by the IOC for its refusal: that the IOC has honored the athletes repeatedly in other venues, that the Games should be “apolitical,” and that a commemoration of this sort was inappropriate at a “celebratory event.”

Lipstadt would have none of it:

The IOC’s explanation is nothing more than a pathetic excuse. The athletes who were murdered were from Israel and were Jews—that is why they aren’t being remembered. The only conclusion one can draw is that Jewish blood is cheap, too cheap to risk upsetting a bloc of Arab nations and other countries that oppose Israel and its policies.

…This was the greatest tragedy to ever occur during the Olympic Games. Yet the IOC has made it quite clear that these victims are not worth 60 seconds. Imagine for a moment that these athletes had been from the United States, Canada, Australia, or even Germany. No one would think twice about commemorating them. But these athletes came from a country and a people who somehow deserve to be victims. Their lost lives are apparently not worth a minute.

When I first read Lipstadt’s words, I strongly recoiled at her statement “Jewish blood is cheap” – and her claim that the IOC was motivated by anti-Semitism. Whether or not one agrees with the IOC’s decision, I found Lipstadt’s rhetoric to be incendiary and distinctly smacking of “victim politics.”

So, it seems did Elisheva Goldberg, who gently chided Lipstadt in a post for Open Zion. Goldberg pointed out that in fact, IOC President Jacques Rogge did make a statement and lead a minute of silence during a ceremony last Monday at the athlete’s village promoting the Olympic Truce (a UN backed initiative calling on warring parties around the world to end hostilities during the period of the games).  In her post, Goldberg asked what I thought was a valid question: when it comes to public commemoration of these kinds of tragedies, how much is really enough?  Or as she put it, “when will we be satisfied?”

To my dismay, Lipstadt did not think this question worthy of serious consideration – she responded to Goldberg instead with a petulant smackdown. In a Tablet piece entitled “No, Open Zion, Deborah Lipstadt Won’t Shut Up,” she concluded thus:

In making a statement on Monday, the IOC’s president tried to throw the victims’ families a bone. Goldberg has caught it, and is happily gnawing away. I, and many others, have no intention of being so easily satisfied.

While I agree with Lipstadt that Rogge is disingenuous in claiming the Games aren’t “political,” it bears noting that the Jewish establishment’s full court press on this issue has been highly politicized.  The minute of silence has been now pressed on the IOC by Israel’s Foreign Ministry (who produced a one minute video as part of the campaign), it has been introduced as a US House Resolution, and now of course, the obligatory campaign year statements of support have been elicited from President Obama and Mitt Romey. At this point, even if the IOC did assent to minute of silence at the ceremonies, it would resonate more as a moment of political victory than a genuine act of remembrance.

And that’s the problem I have with Lipstadt and the “many others” who have chosen to press the issue in this manner. They – and we – would do well to ask: when does the desire for public commemoration cross the line into cynical politicking?  On a deeper level, we might well ask: at what point does our need for the world to acknowledge Jewish suffering give way to a collective victim mentality?

To me, these are the critical questions, regardless of what does or doesn’t take place at Opening Ceremonies this Friday.

15 thoughts on “The Olympic Moment of Silence and the Politics of Victimhood

  1. rebquilt

    I too have been following this ‘dust-up’ and see it in a slightly different light. A moment of silence to commemorate an anniversary of the only athletes murdered at the Olympic games is a no-brainer. If those athletes were from any other country. But the political ramifications of recognizing this past terrorist act is too risky so the IOC so it’s clearly about politics and not victimhood. IMHO.

    1. Rabbi Brant Rosen Post author


      My intention with this post was not argue pro or con the moment of silence but to explore the manner in which the Jewish establishment has seen fit to press this issue with the IOC.

  2. i_like_ike52

    Lipstadt is wrong, the opposition to the moment of silence is not because “Jewish blood is cheap”. Its because many of the countries and athletes participating in the Olympics may think that the massacre of the Israeli athletes was a good thing and don’t want to mourn it. The IOC doesn’t want to antagonize this group that has a lot of petrodollars behind it.

  3. Fensterblau

    IMHOP the point of Rabbi’s article has been missed by the responders: why is no “grey” being allowed into the debate by the American Jewish establishment, and are we witnessing the development of a “victim mentality” among our people? Having lived in Israel for 23 years, I believe that such a development is well underway, ranging from the way we interpret constructive criticism from our friends (the Obama administration) to the way we view our history. The stream of Israeli youth which is shuttled through the death camps every year adds even more singers to the choir of “the whole world is against us”. This is a cynical perversion of Zionism and we adopt it at our peril.

    1. shaun

      You think Israel is developing a victim mentality? You should look at the American Left! Their whole political stance, socially and economically, is that everyone is a victim.

  4. Wendy Carson

    I see no reason not to honor the Atheletes that were savegely murdered.I do not know if there is anti jewish feeling in this or some oint we must recognize all people invoved in the olympics to embrace a minute of silence for peace.

  5. Maia Brumberg-Kraus

    I agree with your argument that this is really all about Israeli politics. When I initially read Lipstadt’s comment I cringed, a gut reaction to the rhetoric of “Everybody’s out to get us Jews.” Are we at a point at which Jews can distinguish disagreement with the body politic of Israel from Jews and Judaism? Not that they’re unrelated, and I wouldn’t dismiss all criticism or hatred of Israel as having roots, in some cases, with antisemitism. The massacre was a horrendous tragedy, and yes it took place at the Olympics and should be memorialized there. Too bad it had to get tarnished with so much political name calling and arrogant self-righteousness. I do think there’s a place for acknowledging the murder of the athletes as part of the main Olympic celebration. Not like this, however. Perhaps the Israelis participating this year can find a way to do so on a more personal, less political level.

    1. Dave

      Since the murders were done on a completely political, less personal level I don’t see why their memorial can’t be that way too.

  6. Robert Stone

    While I am not Jewish, I am a member of the human race. I support the moment of silence; I would love if the Israeli delegation delayed entering the Olympic Stadium by 60 seconds, thereby creating their own moment of silence. I would hope that sympathetic nations would do the same, showing their support in honoring the only murder victims in Olympic history.

  7. Benjy Ben-Baruch

    The Israeli and Jewish community political demand for a moment of silence for the slain Israeli Olympic athletes has the following components:
    1. It is an assertion that Israel and the self-appointed “official” leaders of world Jewry “own” this issue and get to decide on the appropriate way to remember and commemorate this event. It is thus also a denial that any other group gets to make such decisions.
    2. It is an extension of the fundamentally antiZionist Jewish identity that wallows in our victimhood, defines Jews as perpectual victims, and denies the possibility of Jews being anything but the world’s perpetual victims. This self-identity justifies “support of Israel” as necessary Jews are disempowered while simultaneously denying that Jews can ever become empowered. Not even the establishment of Israel can lead to Jews becoming empowered because we are, by definition, victims.
    3. It is an extension of the political agenda of defining terrorism as being primarily something perpetrated against Jews by Arabs/Muslims/Palestinians.

    Do we want to wallow in our victimhood and deny the reality of the success of the Zionist movement in helping to transform us into a relatively empowered people?

    Or do we want to celebrate the fact that we have become a relatively empowered people and deal with creating a future based upon this positive transformation?

    Are we ready to move on to the next stage in our history and deal with the problems bequeathed to us by the successes and failures of the Zionist movement?

  8. yisraelmedad

    How I “love” Jews who hate each other so much.

    Take note, from July 28

    “AJC was surprised to learn last night that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) indeed chose to hold a moment of remembrance for terror victims — just not one dedicated to the memory of the 11 Israeli Olympians murdered by Palestinian terrorists at the Munich Olympics 40 years ago.

    After rejecting repeated requests from the victims’ families and world leaders, including President Obama and the Australian, Canadian, German and Italian parliaments, for a minute of silence at the opening ceremony in London, there was a commemoration of the victims of the 2005 terror attacks in London.

    …IOC President Jacque Rogge repeatedly turned down the requests for honoring the fallen Israelis, saying that such a moment of silence would not be appropriate and, misleadingly, had no precedent.

    Indeed, there have been observances in past Olympics, including in 2002 to honor the victims of 9/11 and now of 7/7.”

    And so I mourn your victimhood – victim of your own unwillingness to accept and confront Jew-hatred or just plain everyday hostility and willingness to accept the “worm of Jacob” status (see Isaiah 41:14) or membership in the League of Trembling Israelites. You blame the Jews who are proud to stand up to power that is immoral while the Olympic Committee thumbs its nose or other body part to you as you undermine a position which is right and just by terming it “political”.

  9. Laura Wood

    It is within international spirit to recognize a minute of silence for fallen comrades regardless of their religion, race or ethnicity. A minute should have been issued not because the Jews are victimized but because it is good human value to do so.
    Lipstadt gives the wrong idea about why a minute should have been given as the Jewish people would not have appreciated the gesture if it down to being because they were a victim group.
    What Rabbi Rosen says about it being a political victory now, is sure to be true.


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