Monday 8 April 2013

Sports and Remembrance

Every year, a week after Passover, Israel commemorates Yom HaShoah ("Day of Holocaust") - the Holocaust Remembrance Day. It is a day of both grieving for the six million who were murdered in the Holocaust, and of telling the story of those who survived. As such, it is a day on which ceremonies are held all over the country, and it's marked by the 10am remembrance siren, during which the whole country halts for two minutes of silence.
This day is also characterized by all forms of entertainment being closed - theatres, pubs and restaurants are shut down for the day, most of the television channels stop their transmissions, and the ones that do work are dedicated to documentary and Holocaust-related films and shows.

Sports, of course, are a form of entertainment. That means that no sports events are staged in Israel on the memorial day, and Israeli national teams usually try to avoid participating in sporting events abroad on that day (and similarly, a week later, during the remembrance day for fallen soldiers). However, while the popular sports, football or basketball, have fairly flexible schedules, which often allow the Israeli teams not to play on Yom HaShoah, the tennis schedule is much more rigid. There's a tournament every week, it almost always starts on Monday, and if a player wishes to avoid playing on a specific day, he or she might as well skip the whole tournament.

Israeli players - Shahar Peer, Dudi Sela, Jonathan Erlich and Andy Ram among them - have encountered this situation frequently, ever since turning pro. They usually submit requests to the tournament directors, asking not to play during certain national days (both memorial days and the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur). However, the schedule restrictions often do not allow for such accommodations, forcing the players to decide whether they are willing to play, while also subjecting themselves to criticism.

Criticism? Yes, indeed. The issue of whether athletes should compete on either of the memorial days is a controversial one in Israel. Teams, players and even coaches (Avram Grant, when he managed English teams, for example) are expected to do everything they can to avoid participation in any sporting events. One point of view says that athletes are just doing their job (the Holocaust Remembrance day is a regular work day for most people in Israel), and therefore there's no reason why they can't compete. The opposing view is that the day is a special one, and should be respected by all, especially by players who represent the country. And so, practically every year, raging debates occur over tennis players' decision to keep on playing.

Why now, you ask? Today was the 2013 Holocaust Remembrance Day. Today, Shahar Peer played a final round of qualifying match in Katowice, Poland. She did it after posting the following status on her Facebook page:
I am in Poland, which makes the upcoming Yom Hashoah all the more real. My heart goes out to all the innocent people who lost their lives during the Holocaust. Never again.
Peer also played with a black ribbon with the words "Never again" on it. She ended up losing 6-4 6-1 to Slovak Anna Schmiedlova, though she will still enter the main draw as a lucky loser, to play Tsvetana Pironkova in the first round.

Was she right to play? Some people commended her for donning the ribbon, thus commemorating the day in her own way. Others said she deserved to lose, since she shouldn't have played, as a representative of the Country of Israel, which mandates avoiding any kind of entertainment. A tennis match (or any sports event), they say, is entertaining other people, and thus disrespecting the spirit of the day.

Personally, I feel like this is a very individual decision. I don't think that during a regular WTA tournament (as opposed to Fed Cup or the Olympics) Peer is playing as a representative of Israel. Tennis is a solitary sport, and every player represents herself, no one else. Moreover, there's little doubt in my mind about the importance of Holocaust Memorial to Shahar herself. Three years ago, she took part in the "March of the Living" that's held every year at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp on Yom HaShoah. She was accompanied by her mother and also her grandmother, who had survived Auschwitz. The experience was documented in a special feature produced by the Tennis Channel, which is available online. With Katowice a mere 40-minute drive away from Auschwitz, is there a better way to honor this day than by living it to its fullest, playing and fighting for a win?

Shahar Peer and her grandmother, Yolina Eckstein, during the March of the Living, Auschwitz 2010
Photo by Troy Borruso  
Edited to add: A day after this post was published, the WTA posted an interesting piece on their website, with Peer's quotes about what playing on the Holocaust Remembrance day means to her,. Among other things, she says she makes sure to observe the two minutes of silence at the same time of the memorial siren in Israel.


  1. Interesting piece.

    In general I'd say that how anyone wants to commemorate any occasion is a matter for that person to decide, not the state. In fact I'd strongly object to it.

    I don't think any criticism of Peer is warranted here.

  2. A well-written post on an important and not-easy-to-tackle subject. Well done.

  3. Can someone provide a link to any serious criticism of Shahar playing earlier this week? I haven't seen one controversial comment on this subject. She is a credit to her family, Jews all over the world, and the State of Israel as well.

    1. Well, I guess that depends on your definition of "serious". There's always a lengthy discussion on Israeli tennis forums about it, every single year (sometimes twice in one week - on both memorial days). And of course, if you dare look at talk-backs on Israeli news sites, you'll see them split between the main two opposing views I presented. That might not count as serious, I agree, but the truth is that tennis isn't high-profile enough in Israel to cause a greater stir about this. Football and basketball had lengthier debates about it in the past, I believe.

  4. Anna, this is a really interesting and deeply thought-out post. I was pointed toward it by Jon Wertheim's Tennis Mailbag and I plan on visiting it on my own now that I see the quality and depth of thought you bring to the table.

    I don't feel like I have proper standing to comment on this situation because I am not Jewish and therefore I cannot begin to comprehend the meaning of this day in any meaningful way. However, it is a fascinating conundrum.

    Peer doesn't play for enjoyment- just as many of us enjoy our jobs, they are still jobs and not entertainment. I enjoy my job as a school counselor but I consider counseling my vocation, not my avocation. You point out that people work on HRD, so by that light why should she stop working? On the flip side, she's providing entertainment just as a comedian or a singer would be so doesn't that come dangerously close to crossing a line? However, she's not providing entertainment to a Jewish audience like someone operating a pub in Tel Aviv would be and there's no argument being put forward that non-Jewish people should stop their entertainment for the day, so it's a really interesting debate.

    Thank you so much for bringing this subject to my attention! It's a fascinating question and I don't think there's any easy answers.