Category Archives: Sports

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.