Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Antisemitism in Chess

www.chessbase.com is reporting that an Iranian player, GM Ehsan Gahem Maghamirefused to play the Israeli FM Ehud Shachar, in the 2011 Corsican Circuit tournament. The organizers forfeited him, adding that this is against the spirit of FIDE's motto, gens una sumus, and they would not allow this sort of segregation. I fully support the organizer's decision, and the claim by many who reponded that this is a case of antisemitism. But I am hesitant to say, as many did, that the player in this case is antisemitic. It is easy to imagine what would happen to him, or, worse, his family, if he agreed to play an Israeli player. So his refusal might well have been forced, not due to any hatred towards the Israeli player.

Still, the organizers did the correct thing. They have not accused the Iranian player of antisemitism -- only of unsportmanlike behavior (which, however forced, it was). What's more, the organizers are done the correct thing in not being complicit with the Iranians' desire to not play Israelis. Yes, as Steve Giddins says on his blog, the organizers could have avoided the pairing in advance. But where does this end? Suppose some country refuses to have its players meet Black chess players? Or women? Must they be accommodated, too?

It is true that if possible warring countries are not paired during olympiads. As Moshe Czerniak notes in Israel Be'Olympiadot Ha'Sachmat [Israel in the Chess Olympiads] (Rotem Press: Tel Aviv, 1979, pp. 14-15), after Sept. 1st, 1939, the teams from the now-warring countries were forbidden by their governments to play each other (their matches were formally declared drawn). But in war there is symmetry: neither warring country's team has any willingness to play the other. Here, we have only one side -- the Iranians -- refusing to play.

Ironically, adds Czerniak, the team representing Nazi Germany demanded to play with the Jewish Palestinian team, instead of agreeing to a formal draw, claiming Germany isn't at war with Palestine! The real reason was that Germany and Argentina were competing for first place, and if Argentina were to score a high victory, it might pass Germany. (In the event it was agreed that Palestine's matches with both Germany and Argentina would be declared a formal draw.) Also, he notes, just because a player represents an antisemitic government doesn't mean they themselves support it: all five German players, the winning team in the 1939 Olympiad, asked for asylum in Argentina!

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