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Mzansi Challenge deaf to global condemnation of Israeli exclusion



Professional Israeli rugby player, Ori “Afrika” Abutbul, who plays for the Tel Aviv Heat (TAH) rugby team watched the start of the controversial Mzansi Challenge at the weekend with a “heavy heart”.

Like his teammates, the rugby wing was “looking forward” to participating in the rugby tournament, but his hopes were dashed after the South African Rugby Union (SARU) controversially rescinded an earlier invitation to participate, allegedly citing security threats by groups aligned with the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) South Africa.

In spite of a backlash and widespread condemnation locally and abroad for SARU’s abrupt, “discriminatory” decision, all efforts to have it reversed appear to have fallen on deaf ears. The competition, which has been beset with a range of problems from the get-go, went ahead at the weekend with the Mexico/United States San Clemente Rhinos taking TAH’s place.

The Mzansi Challenge includes teams from Kenya, Namibia, Zimbabwe, and six South African provinces. It’s the first division of SARU’s Currie Cup.

“Obviously I felt disappointed when the competition began. I had a pinch in my heart because I was really looking forward to participating,” said Abutbul, who has previously enjoyed playing for a number of local clubs in South Africa.

“For some of us it may have been the pinnacle of our careers because we’re from a small rugby nation, and this was a great opportunity. We came close, could even smell it, but then we were pulled out. It’s a shame, but it’s life. Instead, I tried to watch the matches on the internet in my apartment in Tel Aviv and hope to one day play in South Africa again,” he said.

TAH’s head coach, Kevin Musikanth, told the SA Jewish Report that he experienced a bittersweet moment when the tournament kicked off without his team’s participation.

While flipping through international sports channels, Musikanth said he took some comfort in seeing several players from his squad playing for numerous other global rugby sides after being snapped up by reputable teams elsewhere when SARU turfed them out.

“I’m proud of what our club has achieved in such a short period of time, which has allowed individual players, mainly our South African players, to be marketable globally,” he said.

Two of his top players, including his club’s captain, played for Namibia against Border in the opening match of the Mzansi Challenge on Saturday, 25 March, while several others are playing for other international teams.

Meanwhile a group of American Jewish organisations have added their voice to the controversy over the exclusion of TAH and its replacement with a club from the US.

The 12 groups – including the Anti-Defamation League, American Jewish Committee, Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organisations, and the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law , as well as others – sent a letter the San Clemente Rhinos and USA Rugby on 24 March protesting the decision of the Rhinos to join the “discriminatory competition” in place of the excluded Israeli side.

The letter urged the Rhinos to condemn discrimination against the Tel Aviv side and withdraw from the Mzansi Challenge.

On 3 February, SARU abruptly announced without giving prior notice to TAH, that it was withdrawing its invitation to the Israeli team to compete in the Mzansi Challenge after listening “to the opinions of important stakeholder groups” and opting for the team’s exclusion “to avoid the likelihood of the competition becoming a source of division”, according to SARU President Mark Alexander.

The announcement was made shortly after supporters of the BDS movement against Israel pressured SARU to ban TAH from the Mzansi Challenge, saying the union would “have blood on its hands” if it allowed the “apartheid Israeli team” to compete. The department of sport, arts and culture said on 8 February that it supported SARU’s decision.

TAH said SARU didn’t consult it prior to its decision, and it hadn’t heard from SARU since.

The letter from the US Jewish organisations stated, “The United States is a global leader in sport and the host of the 2031 Rugby World Cup. The participation of the Rhinos in the Mzansi Challenge under these circumstances would undermine the ability of USA Rugby to take its proper role in international sport.”

Alyza Lewin, the president of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, told The Algemeiner that last week’s letter signed by the 12 Jewish groups is “a remarkable demonstration of unity” by leading organisations that have “swiftly come together to condemn SARU’s outrageous discrimination”.

“Discrimination has no place anywhere, but particularly not in sport,” she said. “At a time of dangerously rising antisemitism, when anti-Jewish bigotry is becoming more and more commonplace and acceptable, it’s essential that everyone stand strong in rejecting it.”

The Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law , representing TAH, sent a separate letter to the World Rugby Union on 16 March asking the governing body to reverse SARU’s actions against TAH and ensure that the team compete in the Mzansi Challenge. Sadly, it wasn’t successful.

Others who have asked SARU to reverse its actions against TAH include the South African Zionist Federation, the South African Friends of Israel (SAFI), UK Lawyers for Israel, and the Israel-based International Legal Forum. The Israel Rugby Union sent a formal complaint to World Rugby and a New Zealand-based attorney filed a legal complaint with the World Rugby Council about SARU’s move. The Israel Rugby Union and TAH have threatened to take legal against SARU. The SA Jewish Report and SAFI have formally requested information about SARU’s decision in terms of Section 53 of the Promotion of Access to Information Act.

Alexander told the SA Jewish Report that he was unavailable for comment, and that “World Rugby was dealing with the matter”.

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