The Preamble of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) makes a lofty mention of the unveiling of the Olympic flag at the IOC’s June 1914 Congress held in Paris to mark the 20th anniversary of Frenchman Pierre de Coubertin’s revival of the Ancient Greek ceremonial games. It naturally fell to de Coubertin to present the flag with its iconic “five interlaced rings, which represent the union of the five continents and the meeting of athletes from throughout the world.” In the history of the Olympic Games, this moment could be seen as tragically ironic in its timing. The spirit of June’s waving symbol of international brotherhood was quickly silenced by July’s outbreak of global war sparked by nationalist desires and rivalries.
But the Olympics, of course, are all about national rivalries. For many spectators around the world, the rivalries are less about beating the other side and more about winning one for your side. Few Americans care if Michael Phelps swims past a Swede or a Brazilian provided that he takes home the gold for the USA. In decades past, however, the national flag of the other side did matter; such as the case with the former Soviet Union. The famous 1980 U.S. hockey team’s triumph over the supposedly superior Soviet side held significant meaning for Americans precisely because the U.S. bested its arch-enemy.
Nationalist feuds played out at the Rio Olympics, too. An Egyptian wrestler refused to shake the hand of his Israeli competitor, to take one example. But the larger story involved Jordanian Olympian Ahmed Abu Ghosh, who won the gold medal in taekwando. This was Jordan’s first ever Olympic medal and a cause for national celebration, including a Tweet from Queen Rania.
Abu Ghosh (like the Queen) is of Palestinian heritage. Born in Jordan, his grandparents hail from the namesake town of Abu Ghosh, an Arab-Palestinian village west of Jerusalem and within Israel’s borders since 1948. This curious intersection – Jordanian, Palestinian, Arab village inside Israel – sparked a social media storm after one Avi Mayer, a right-wing Israeli PR pro (current spokesman for the Jewish Agency and previously for the Israel Defense Forces), sent out a Tweet congratulating Abu Ghosh, who Mayer claimed to be “from Abu Ghosh, Israel!”
The Times of Israel, Ynet and Arutz Sheva (aligned with the Israeli settler movement) ran similar headlines about “Israeli roots,” “Israeli town” and “reportedly born [sic] in the Israeli-Arab town.”
Many Palestinians scoffed at the Israeli press turning a story about an Arab Olympian into a story about Israel; a push at relevance some attributed to Israel’s lack of a gold medal at the Games. Many also found objectionable the assertion that Palestinian citizens of Israel have “Israeli roots” as Palestinians villages in Israel predate the establishment of the Jewish State. Palestinian-American journalist Jamal Dajani, for instance, took to Facebook to express his frustration with the notion that Abu Ghosh is of Israeli rather than Palestinian origin:
Mondoweiss, a pro-Palestinian news/commentary website, observed how some Israeli media outlets obliquely noted the grandparents’ migration to Jordan:
“The Olympic medalist’s grandparents moved from the village to Jordan decades ago,” reported Israel’s Ynet News.
Haaretz wrote, “The gold-medalist’s grandparents relocated from Abu Gosh decades ago to Jordan.”
Abu Ghosh was born in Jordan, but his grandparents hailed from a Palestinian village . . . But “relocated”? It is likely they were refugees among the 750,000 Palestinians who were expelled or fled during Israel’s 1948 war.
It is not known why Abu Ghosh’s grandparents moved to Jordan, but Mondoweiss‘ claim that they were amongst the refugees displaced by Israel is certainly plausible. The village was attacked by Zionist forces and its residents were forced to flee. Most were allowed back after fighting ceased (an extremely rare occurrence as over 500 Palestinian villages were razed or handed over to Jewish settlers). The Abu Ghosh family could have been one of the minority of families who never made their way back or were barred from return. Some Palestinian news sources reported that the athlete grew up in a refugee camp in Jordan, which would suggest that his grandparents were forcibly evicted from their village home in 1948. Many individuals on social media jumped on this report to mock the Israel’s media reticence about Abu Ghosh’s (possibly refugee) lineage in Israel, which they were otherwise so eager to celebrate:
Most of the opprobrium, however, was directed toward Avi Mayer’s “fun fact.” Self-described “Palestine Activist” Abbas Hamideh accused Mayer of Olympic theft:
Mayer, who also provided the unsubstantiated claim that Abu Ghosh’s immediate family voluntarily left Israel 20 years ago, got into a public spat with AJ+‘s Dima Khatib:
Mayer claimed to be enjoying the “enraged responses to [my] tweet congratulating a Jordanian athlete whose family is from Israel,” but his four additional Tweets addressing Katib, some in bitter tones, would suggest he’s thin skinned. One Tweet was particularly oblivious:
Khatib did not respond, but we’d anticipate her answer would note that the town predates Israel and its present Arab character is not incidental to the town’s history. The town was conquered by Israel, but claiming it as “Israeli” willfully erases its Palestinian heritage.
And if Mayer was enjoying the Tweets, he must have been having a field day:
In the end, one Facebook post perfectly captured the opportunistic and hypocritical nature of Israeli reporting on Ahmed Abu Ghosh. In a story about an athlete’s heritage, the Israeli narrative rested on an Olympic omission.
If Ahmed Abu Ghosh is indeed the descendent of Palestinian refugees, the answer from Israel would be a resounding NO.
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