Before Mohamed Salah's previous club, FC Basel, could record a Champions League double over his new club, Chelsea, they first had to qualify for the competition's group stages. The first of their two tests before reaching the lucrative phase of the tournament was a seemingly-innocuous Third Qualifying Round tie with Israeli champions Maccabi Tel-Aviv.
FC Basel, obviously, advanced over the Israeli side to reach the Play-off Round. They followed up a nervy 1-0 home win with an exciting 3-3 draw away in Tel Aviv to set up a meeting with Ludogorets Razgrad of Bulgaria in the next round. Unfortunately, what should have been a routine qualification for a lower tier European regular gained rather more attention for something slightly-unsavoury.
You see, on the 30th of July, future Chelsea player Mohamed Salah refused to shake hands with the visiting side under the pretence of changing his boots. This incident threw serious doubt on whether Salah would play any part in the return leg in Israel. As one of Egypt's brightest young talents, it's not surprising that he'd been under pressure over the tie from back home. As you're probably aware, relations between the two Middle Eastern neighbours are, to put it lightly, frosty.
A week later, after making the decision to play in Israel for the return leg, though some reports claim he was told to in no uncertain terms by his club, Salah again failed to participate in the traditional handshakes. The Egyptian, rather than risk his boot ruse a second time, merely gave each Maccabi player a "fist bump". Now, he should be commended, at least, for actually walking the handshake line and acknowledging his opponents, but it was still a silly answer to an unnecessary question.
Before the match, the issue had been whipped into an even higher frenzy by Salah's quote on the situation following his antics in the first match:
In my thoughts I am going to play in Palestine and not Israel, and I am also going to score and win there. The Zionist flag won’t be shown in the Champions League.
No matter your feelings on the issue, that's not exactly a...savvy...thing to say ahead of a football match.
As I said earlier, you're probably aware of the long-term tensions in the Middle East surrounding the State of Israel. Created in 1948 as a homeland for the Jewish people who had so recently suffered the horror of the Holocaust, Israel has always been a controversial nation. You see, the area set aside for the new Jewish state was already home to millions of people with roots reaching back millennia.
Before and during the Second World War, many Jews had emigrated to what was then Palestine to escape the persecution which was rampant in Europe. Unfortunately, this led to tensions with local Arab communities over the perception of British bias toward the new Jewish communities. Those tensions were only exacerbated by existing and continuing anti-British sentiment.
In the 1930s, continued mistreatment of the local population by the British led to a widespread revolt in Palestine, which was, at times, targeted at the new, Jewish residents, due to the perception of British favouritism. Sadly, as a result of this and British promises to limit Jewish migration to Palestine, Jewish communities also became more radicalised and militarised, sowing the seeds of the future conflict.
With the rise of anti-semitism in Europe and, ultimately, the Holocaust, the Jewish people looking to settle in Palestine soon exceeded the limits put in place by the British. Because of the awful persecution in Europe, many Jews decided it was worth to risk illegal migration rather than continue to face the conditions at home. Some succeeded, but, unfortunately, many who tried ended up in British refugee camps as a result of their attempt.
After the war, the question of where to send these refugees arose, with many suggesting mass settlement in Palestine. Due to fears of such migration sparking an even larger Arab revolt than the one a decade earlier, it was ultimately decided by the United Nations to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab areas. Tensions resulting from what was perceived as an unfair plan led to the outbreak of civil war between the two communities, which caused many Arab Palestinians to leave or be expelled from their homes.
This fundamental conflict between who has the right to live in the former Palestine has come to define to the larger conflict which has continued to the present day. Through the years, it has come to be less about the State of Israel and the Palestinian refugees and more of an ideological conflict. Sadly, many people -- far too many -- see it as a clash of Jews and Arabs or even Muslims generally. As a result, legitimate grievances are too often attributed to "the other side" as a whole.
This is the world into which Mohamed Salah, an Egyptian, was born. Though in the Western world, pro-Israel feeling is the norm, and anything else seems foreign to those outside the situation, it's important to remember that not everybody sees things the same way.
Doubtlessly, Salah has heard people disparage the state his entire life. Even if, by some miracle, he hadn't, he certainly had after his club side were drawn against a Israeli one. Salah, as a man with 27 senior caps at age 21, is certainly a popular figure in his homeland. Sadly, many in Egypt felt it necessary to bombard him with requests to refuse to play in Israel to suit their own ends.
It's impossible to know for sure how much of Salah's decision is based on his own beliefs and how much is due to pressure from others, but it's still rather worrying to me. Not that he doesn't have at least some legitimate cause to dislike the state of Israel, but to bring it onto a football pitch is the exact opposite of the best way to deal with it. Ultimately, it doesn't really matter which side you support in this or any conflict. Sport is supposed to transcend such things.
Didier Drogba is widely-known as a man who stopped a civil war in the Ivory Coast through football. Now, I'm not suggesting the Arab-Israeli conflict can be solved through a series of football matches, but this sort of antagonism definitely won't help.
Beyond the simple Arab-Israeli conflict, there's too often a darker, more insidious side to those who claim to oppose Zionism and the State of Israel. As Nicolas Anelka's quenelle fiasco has shown us, there's a fine line between opposition to Israel and outright anti-semitism. French humourist Dieudonné M'bala M'bala was once a benign, left-leaning comedian, but now, he's the sort of man who publicly regrets the closure of the gas chambers.
I'm sure he, like many people, was drawn into the conflict through the genuine plight of the Palestinian people. There's a definitely a debate to be had on that point, and an understandable reason to be anti-Israel. If it stopped there, it would be fair enough. Unfortunately, though, it rarely does. Far too often, anti-Israeli sentiment becomes skewed into anti-Semitic sentiment.
While the state of Israel is a best characterised as a Jewish one, and many Israeli politicians profess to speak for the entirety of the world's Jewish population, this isn't the case. Despite this fact, anti-Semitism is often used as a crutch by some on both sides to de-legitimise the other. Many anti-Zionist speakers and organisations employ lazy and inaccurate anti-Jewish stereotypes and myths in lieu of pursuing a constructive debate of legitimate issues.
It's just as true, though, that many pro-Israel groups use that anti-Semitic behaviour as an excuse to dismiss legitimate, but uncomfortable, debate. I really shouldn't be surprised, though. It's historically been human nature to reduce a complex issue to its easiest and most self-beneficial reading.
Whether you think Mohamed Salah was motivated by simple politics or had something more in mind when refused to shake hands with his Israeli opponents, I'm sure you can understand why it makes me uncomfortable. I am a Jewish man, but I'm also not blindly pro-Israel either. There's a discussion or a thousand to be had about the issues. The problem, though, is when people hear the first thing I said about myself and not the second.
Mohamed Salah is a gifted footballer, and will definitely help Chelsea, but his decisions late summer leave feeling incredibly uncomfortable about him as a person. It's always difficult, as a Jewish person, to know if those who announce themselves as anti-Zionists merely dislike the actions of a country or if they deeply-regret that fact that you're alive.
I can give Salah the benefit of the doubt, due to his age and nationality. I'd be willing to bet that he's probably just a kid who gave in to huge political pressure.
Now that he's at Chelsea, I just hope he can learn to keep his political statements off the pitch and let his game do the only talking.