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Jewish Journal

Jewish Olympians must shine light on genocide

by Daniel Hemel

August 16, 2007 | 8:00 pm

In the summer of 1936, a year after the enactment of the Nuremberg Laws, the world turned a blind eye to Nazi Germany's genocidal intentions as Hitler hosted the Olympics in Berlin. With next summer's games set to take place in Beijing, Jewish and Israeli athletes have a responsibility to help ensure that the world does not make the same mistake.

This time, the Jews are not the victims. Rather, China's victims are the 1.2 million Tibetans who have died as a result of Beijing's invasion of the previously independent Buddhist nation. They are the untold thousands of dissidents and prisoners of conscience who will be kept out of view in modern-day gulags, while the world's attention is focused on the action inside Beijing's ultramodern sporting arenas. They are the 200,000 Darfurians who, according to United Nations estimates, have been killed as a result of the genocidal campaign waged by the Beijing-backed Sudanese regime.

China's state oil company owns the largest stake in the consortium that is developing Sudan's petroleum industry, and China buys about four-fifths of all Sudanese oil exports. An estimated 70 percent of the oil profits in Sudan are spent on a military that lays waste to villages in Darfur.

To stand by idly while the blood of others is shed would be un-Jewish.

One Jewish luminary who isn't staying silent is Steven Spielberg, who has threatened to resign as artistic adviser to the games unless China changes course in Darfur. His demand, he explained in a letter to Chinese leader Hu Jintao, stems from his "personal commitment to do all I can to oppose genocide."

Unfortunately, other Jewish leaders don't seem to share that commitment. The president of the Israeli Olympic Committee, Zvi Varshaviak, said last month that in light of its experience, Israel "will continue to act toward keeping politics outside of sport in general and the Olympic Games specifically."

Would Varshaviak also have remained silent in light of the Jewish experience at Berlin?

We are not proposing a boycott. Olympic boycotts have been tried before -- Israel, the United States and five dozen other countries stayed away from the 1980 Moscow Games to protest the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan. But this time, a boycott might shift attention away from Beijing, when the goal instead should be to cast a spotlight squarely on China -- on its human rights abuses and its support for genocide.

Indeed, human rights activists across the globe have teamed up to brand Beijing 2008 "the Genocide Olympics." The Genocide Olympics campaign is a "nightmare" for the Chinese hosts and their corporate sponsors, according to BusinessWeek magazine. But that nightmare pales in comparison to the daily nightmare of Darfurians, Tibetans and the democracy activists in Chinese prisons.

If the numbers from 2004 are any guide, more than 60 Jewish athletes -- about half from Israel -- will participate a year from now in the Beijing Games. They can play an important role in the Genocide Olympics effort.

Regardless of whether they are dressed in the blue-and-white uniform of Israel, the blue and red of the United States or the blue and yellow of Australia, they can wear the green wristbands that have become the symbol of the Save Darfur movement worldwide. When television cameras zoom in on Jewish athletes, the green bands will be a reminder of the ruthlessness of the Beijing regime. And the bands will be a powerful sign that on the most important human rights issues facing the world today, Jews will not remain on the sidelines.

When Jewish sports stars take their place among athletes from the 200-plus nations at the Games, they should also join ranks with the activists who have signed on to the Olympic Dream for Darfur Campaign -- a list that includes Ira Newble of the Cleveland Cavaliers basketball team, Ruth Messigner of the American Jewish World Service and actress Mia Farrow.

Organizers of the campaign recently lit an alternative Olympic torch near the Chad-Darfur border and are carrying it to locations of past mass murders across the world -- including a Holocaust site in Germany -- en route to its final destination in China.

Seventy-two years after Berlin, Jewish athletes from Israel and around the world will have the opportunity to speak out for justice in the same circumstances under which other nations were all too willing to stay silent. If Jewish athletes take the lead, next year's Olympic flame will shed light on the bloodshed that Beijing has carried on in darkness.

Peter Ganong is an intern at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem and a third-year economics student at Harvard University, where he has advocated for Darfur on campus. Daniel Hemel is a first-year international relations student at Oxford University.
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Jesse Owens, Berlin Olympics, 1936

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