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The Giro In Israel

Italian protesters against the Giro’s start in Israel
NurPhoto via Getty Images

Jerusalem to Rome. Just when you think the Giro d’Italia has taken the idea of crafting a (somewhat artificial) story to its greatest possible length, they find another distance to span. What’s left after retracing the path between the two most storied places in the Mediterranean region? We already begged them to trace the immigrants’ trail to America, with an Ellis Island prologue and a few other New York to Philly niceties, and they’ve said no for now. Perhaps they’ll make it to China on some anniversary of the exploits of Marco Polo. Given the growing Chinese influence on cycling (and on capital generally) this sounds like a given.

For now, though, the route is that of ancient Empire. It’s awash in blood, from the conquest of the Jews by Titus, depicted to this day in the celebratory arch, to the Crusades by which armies of all manner felt commanded by the Holy Church to reclaim the ancient city of Christ’s demise, resurrection, and presumed return. When you think about the Giro’s m.o. and the essentials of this story, it’s a wonder they held off on it so long.

When I heard about the plans, I was really excited. Our family traveled to Israel last year (wife and kids are Jewish; I’m not, which you might have gathered from my given name) as a follow-on to a long-planned Italy trip and to my older son’s bar mitzvah last winter. We traced the path of history forged by both sets of ancestors, to the modern state of Israel where, when you get sick of taking in unbelievable historical sites, you can sit on a beautiful beach and eat a falafel. Noting the Giro’s tendency to celebrate history and culture along its route, this plan resembled our own family’s path of self-discovery.

But to many other cycling fans, the race’s storytelling might seem a bit shallow. Even while they gin up a particularly interesting story — which is what, exactly? That of Jesus? Or Rome occupying Palestine? — the story will run up against more than just the fact that it’s PR for a sporting event. The current state of affairs in Israel has left a number of cycling fans vowing to tune out the opening weekend, in a show of displeasure with the mistreatment of Palestinians by Israel. Here at the Cafe, I don’t want our Giro experience to be shadowed by this debate, but it’s the elephant in the room, so at this time I’d like to acknowledge what’s going on.

People around the world are expressing shock at incidents where innocent Palestinians have been killed in the border areas of the West Bank and Gaza, or more generally over treatment of Palestinians as a regular matter of policy. There are clearly legitimate concerns, but they also don’t occur in a vacuum either, as decades of attempts at peace between Israelis and Palestinians have fallen into a miserable, decrepit stalemate.

On the one hand, the protests from Europe and the rest of the cycling world will be received grimly among Jews and Israelis, from what I can tell, thanks to the echos of history. Israel just came back into existence after a 2000-year hiatus, marked by one existential threat after another, with the Holocaust only the most vivid and recent example. Its 70 years as a modern state have seen that struggle to survive continue, often with little support against a region united by their opposition to Israel’s existence. So when the European cycling community turns its back on Israel’s hosting of the Giro, it will seem darkly familiar to people there.

On the other hand, I am not sure how else the international community can get the attention of the current regime in Jerusalem to let them know that the present state of affairs is unacceptable. History aside, the more immediate matter is that the present government seems incapable of getting to a more peaceful posture, assuming it even wants to. So if people want to ignore the Giro d’Italia as a way of demonstrating their distress, I can see why they would make this choice.

At least, that’s how I think the two sides of this issue would describe it. I am not an expert on the matter after a week in Israel and a few conversations over the years with Israeli friends. What I am is biased, on behalf of my Jewish family. I want Israel to be there for them as both a sanctuary against the worst times and a cornerstone of their identity, the way I was taught to feel about Italy. I find the Palestinian political strategy of refusing any solutions just as frustrating as I find the current Israeli government’s playing to its own worst instincts, with deadly results. I’m sure if I actually knew what I was talking about, those feelings of frustration would only get worse. If you want a bit more of a primer on the subject, this effort by our friends at Vox seems like a good place to start.

Anyway, this is a part of the backdrop that cannot be overlooked. If we could step back and take in the historical significance of the place (absent the last decade), as the Giro wants us to do, then I’m sure many of us would enjoy what I think is one of the most fascinating places on Earth. Do we want to indulge them on this?

Sporting events are being hijacked for political purposes on a regular basis now, and usually by those whose reputation needs a whitewashing. It remains to be seen if Russia, for example, will stop poisoning journalists in time for the start of the World Cup this summer. But even there, it’s the present regime doing this, not all of the Russian people. Is it OK to watch the World Cup? Should there be more outcry? Why boycott the Giro and not the World Cup or the 2022 Olympics? China’s Tibet policy is on par with the worst Israeli ideas about the Palestinians, minus the attempts to broker a solution. In some ways I think Israel gets criticized over the Giro because it wants to be a part of the modern, democratic, free world, and is held to the standards that we Americans hold ourselves. [Well, some of us...] Nobody pretends that Putin’s Russia or anyone’s China or [insert other repressive regimes] are holding themselves to any standards at all, even if there are plenty of Russian or Chinese people who wish they would.

In the end, the Podium Cafe will indulge the Giro and focus on the race and the backdrop of the first three stages. We do this not because we agree to ignore the present conflicts, but because we believe our readers have another outlet for exploring that subject besides a sports website. If you are disgusted by the race’s presence in Israel, we look forward to you dropping by for Stage 4 and beyond. If you are not interested in the subject and only want to talk cycling, we will cover those stages in a way that doesn’t force you to engage in the politics. If you are somewhere in between, as I am, we will give you the space to enjoy the race and assume you have all the tools you need to confront the political issues on your own. I will try to preview the stages in an even-handed way, that doesn’t lead us down the path toward politics. And I ask you guys to help manage the political discourse responsibly, which is to say that it cannot be ignored, but that we can acknowledge it and send it to another forum if people want to debate the issues. Feel free to contact me by email (podcaf at the gee mail) or Twitter if you have any questions or concerns you want to take off-line. Thanks.