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Sean O’Grady: Stop bullying Gary Lineker – he may be misguided, but he’s no racist

The BBC presenter’s support for a call for Israel to be banned from football isn’t antisemitic… but as an ex-footballer, maybe he should work on his defence before going on the attack

Monday 15 January 2024 13:07 GMT
Gary Lineker retweeted a social media post about how Israel is ‘committing the world’s most live-streamed genocide’
Gary Lineker retweeted a social media post about how Israel is ‘committing the world’s most live-streamed genocide’ (PA Wire)

Is Gary Lineker antisemitic? A possibly ill-considered retweet of a call by the Palestinian Campaign For the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel for a boycott of the Israeli national football team has certainly provoked a reaction among those who accuse him such tendencies.

The original tweet, or “X posting” as they’re now supposed to be known, reads: “The Palestinian Football Association calls on @iocmedia, @FIFAcom and all regional and int’l sports bodies to take an urgent stance on Israel’s grave violations of human rights and subject it to legal accountability measures.”

It also makes mention of “apartheid” in Israel, and that “Israeli military torces, committing the world’s most live-streamed genocide, armed, funded and protected from accountability by the colonial West, led by the US…”

If we go by the only remotely consensual definition of the term, issued by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) the idea of boycotting Israeli sports teams cannot necessarily be construed as antisemitism.

As the IHRA puts it: “Manifestations might include the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity. However, criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.”

The IHRA definition goes on: “Applying double standards by requiring of it [Israel] a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation” and “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.”

It seems to me if all Lineker wants is a sporting boycott of Israel to show displeasure at the activities of the Netanyahu government, then, in essence, it is no different to calling for such a boycott of other countries – such as, say, Russia or Qatar, controversial football World Cup hosts in recent years.

On Russia’s championship, he commented that: “I think we were all going how great it was, and this and that and the other – and that’s how sportwashing works. We’ve seen what Putin’s done subsequently, but he’d done it before. I think looking back now, in hindsight, I think we should probably have spoken out more.”

In the case of Qatar, Lineker did speak out – from the BBC studios in Doha – launching an excoriating attack on the country’s record on human rights and treatment of migrant workers. (The Qataris called him “racist” for that). For what it’s worth, he’s also famously criticised the British government for its attitude to refugees.

Unlike some, then, Lineker is not monomaniacally anti-Israel, let alone anti-Jew, and in fact he is more anti-Netanyahu than anything – and many people of all kinds of backgrounds would agree with him about the conduct of the war against Hamas. Where I think he lets himself down is that he doesn’t seem to display that kind of even-handedness that the IHRA calls for. This is something his most trenchant critics, the Lineker-haters, bitterly resent.

He’s not obliged to tweet about the atrocities on October 7th and Israel’s right to defend its civilians, but I believe if he had done so, or retweeted some other appropriate X posts, he’d be more listened to.

Would it have hurt him to retweet something about the hostages? I dislike the bullying of Lineker, and through him the BBC, by hypocrites who weaponise antisemitism for their own sometimes Islamophobic agenda – but, to me at least, he is letting himself down if he doesn’t show that his undoubted compassion is a universal quality.

I think he’d also have been well-advised to examine more carefully the aims and objectives of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) with regards to the very existence of Israel.

The BDS movement, in the broadest sense, mostly does, thinks and supports the notion that Israel is a “racist endeavour”, and draws lazy and useless analogies between the apartheid regime in South Africa to Israel. Sadly, some who support BDS do indeed draw comparisons with Nazi Germany. Some, on the hard left (like the far right), implicitly or explicitly, consciously or not, subscribe to the usual tropes about a globalist Jewish conspiracy. In my view, these are not the people that Lineker is allying himself with, but as a public figure he ought to take care not to appear as doing so.

So, no, I don’t reckon Lineker is antisemitic – but, as a footballer he should know that his attacking game waged against the likes of Vladimir Putin, Suella Braverman, the Qatari regime and the Netanyahu government should be matched with a much tighter defence.

He’s making mistake and letting his opponents score far too often. A national treasure should know what to do.

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