A group of major American Jewish organizations have added their voices to the controversy over the exclusion of an Israeli rugby team from an international competition in South Africa and its replacement with a club from the US.
The 12 groups — including the Anti-Defamation League, American Jewish Committee, Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law — sent a letter the San Clemente Rhinos and USA Rugby on Friday protesting the decision of the Rhinos to join the competition in place of the excluded Israeli side, the Tel Aviv Heat.
The letter urged the Rhinos to both condemn discrimination against the Tel Aviv side and accordingly withdraw from the Mzansi Challenge in South Africa, which involves teams from Kenya, Namibia, Zimbabwe and six South African provinces. The Mzansi Challenge is the first division of the South African Rugby Union’s (SARU) Currie Cup.
“The appearance is that an American team is benefiting from discrimination by filling a void created in large measure by the exclusion of the Israeli team,” read the letter. “This creates the impression that both your team and USA Rugby support the discriminatory treatment of the Heat — in violation of USA Rugby’s values, the values of international sports, and fundamental American values.”
The letter added: “It would be a significant mistake for you to participate in a discriminatory competition … We are writing to ask that you help tackle this alarming problem by speaking out against this discrimination and declining to participate in a discriminatory competition.”
On Feb. 3, SARU abruptly announced, without giving prior notice to Tel Aviv Heat, that it was withdrawing its invitation to have the Israeli team compete in the Mzansi Challenge after listening “to the opinions of important stakeholder groups” and opting for the team’s exclusion “to avoid the likelihood of the competition becoming a source of division.”
SARU also said their decision was “not due to shortcomings from Tel Aviv’s side.” The announcement was made shortly after supporters of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel pressured SARU to ban Tel Aviv Heat from the Mzansi Challenge, saying the union “will have blood on its hands” if it allowed the “apartheid Israeli team” to compete. South Africa’s Department of Sport, Arts and Culture said on Feb. 8 that it supports SARU’s decision.
Tel Aviv Heat was first invited to compete in the Mzansi Challenge in August 2022 and spent months coordinating “schedules, marketing, logos, venues, and other logistics with SARU officials before they were uninvited,” said the letter sent by the American Jewish groups. Others who signed the letter include the Israeli-American Coalition for Action, Jewish Federations of North America and StandWithUs.
On Thursday, SARU described the participation of the San Clemente Rhinos in the now open slot in the Mzansi Challenge as “a partnership between the Mexican Rugby Union and Rhino Rugby, the official national development program of USA Rugby.” The Rhinos are set to play their first game in the tournament on Saturday.
“Attempts to discriminate against Jewish or Israeli athletes have been unsuccessful in large part because the international community quickly and forcefully expressed their outrage. The Rhinos and USA Rugby must do the same,” the letter stated. “The United States is a global leader in sports and the host of the 2031 Rugby World Cup. The participation of the Rhinos in the Mzansi Challenge under these circumstances would undermine the ability of USA Rugby to take its proper role in international sports.”
Alyza D. Lewin, president of the the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, told The Algemeiner that Friday’s letter signed by the 12 Jewish groups is “a remarkable demonstration of unity” by leading organizations that have “swiftly come together to condemn SARU’s outrageous discrimination.”
“Discrimination has no place anywhere, but particularly not in sports,” she added. “Any team that participates, particularly one that may be benefiting from the discrimination, is complicit in the discrimination. At a time of dangerously rising antisemitism, when anti-Jewish bigotry is becoming more and more commonplace and acceptable, it is essential that everyone stand strong in rejecting it.”
The Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law sent a separate letter to the World Rugby Union on March 16 asking the governing body to immediately reverse SARU’s actions against Tel Aviv Heat and ensure that the team can compete in the Mzansi Challenge.
Others who have asked SARU to reverse its actions against Tel Aviv Heat include the Israel-based International Legal Forum, the Jewish group South African Friends of Israel and UK Lawyers for Israel. The British legal group also reached out to the International Olympic Committee twice about the matter and sent a formal complaint to World Rugby. Israel Rugby Union sent its own formal complaint to World Rugby and a New Zealand-based lawyer filed a legal complaint with the World Rugby Council about SARU’s move. The Israel Rugby Union and Tel Aviv Heat have additionally threatened to take legal action against SARU.
The Tel Aviv Heat’s website contains a tribute to Nelson Mandela — the late president of South Africa and the leader of the struggle against apartheid — quoting his view that sport “has the power to unite people in a way that little else does.”