Sometimes it’s OK for middle-aged sports presenters to say nothing | Soccer

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Last week I received two tweets at the same time just next to each other on my timeline. One read: “Rape. Beheading. Murder. Terror. I know it’s not an easy topic. But you HAVE to do the right thing. Please speak up! Stand with Israel in the fight against terror. You either stand with Israel, or you stand with terror. #HamasIsis #FootballStandsWithIsrael”. The second asked: “why are u so quiet about the genocide thats happening in palastine, don’t want to make all ur zionist friends unhappy?”

While the latter may have simply been asking why I hadn’t posted any view on the subject, the first tweet was from a loyal listener, just a football fan, caught up in this – in direct response to what I had said on the Guardian Football Weekly podcast – a few days after the Hamas attacks and shortly after Israel’s military response began. It was specifically on the subject of whether the FA should light up the Wembley arch before the Australia game.

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Football Weekly has listeners in Israel and in Palestine. My words were simple: “We send you our love and we hope you are OK. This podcast isn’t the place that will have the answers to this and perhaps people come to it for an escape. I hope that is not us excusing talking about this issue but I feel whatever the FA do or don’t do they will get criticism from somewhere.”

As Liverpool’s Mo Salah said on Wednesday:“It’s not always easy to speak in times like this.” Say anything and you take sides, or you don’t go far enough. Say nothing and you are accused of complicity. The writer and musician Robert Rotifer wrote “On the right to be speechless in the face of horror”, in which he differentiates between those caught up in the conflict, those with real human ties expressing their anguish and the rest of us fighting the war on social media. “I think I understand for the first time the importance of the right to be speechless and to say nothing in the face of the incomprehensible, the unsayable, the indescribable. Saying nothing as the ultimate expression of respect, compassion and horror.”

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Even on that I am torn as to whether I completely agree or not. Can you find a middle ground between this and Martin Niemöller’s “First They Came” – speaking up for those with no voice?

How has it come to pass that unless you post something, people do not consider your default setting at the loss of innocent civilian life regardless of race/religion or who is doing the killing as nothing but gut-wrenching sorrow, horror and helplessness?

How is scrolling down your timeline at the moment? Pictures of those Israelis enjoying life in photos from last week or last year without the knowledge of their fate, James Maddison playing battleships with Trent Alexander-Arnold, videos of desperate Palestinians running somewhere holding the injured or dead, a quote of Jim Ratcliffe’s feelings about Casemiro, pictures you think are of this war but turn out to be from another country, another war, another time, a cut together TikTok of an American woman making chorizo mac ’n’ cheese.

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There is a danger in consuming content this way – a series of harrowing and harmless non-sequiturs with questionable veracity while you’re half-concentrating. Max Fisher has written a fascinating book called The Chaos Machine about the dangers of social media; of its troublesome algorithms and multiple damaging effects on society. We would be better without it. He explains how emotive social media posting gets more reaction, entrenches your position and increases your tendency to post even more emotively. There is a corresponding neurological change in your brain – social media is changing us. Naturally with a subject as emotive as Israel and Palestine, this effect is incredibly stark.

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None of this is to criticise those who post – social media has real currency now. Politicians use it, read it and are influenced by it. But it is to try to step back and question its purpose. Does the world need this middle-aged English sports presenter’s 180-character view on the Middle East? Alternatively this is just pure hypocrisy and cowardice on my part – I have spoken up on many issues before. There’s a part of me that doesn’t want to face a pile-on one way or the other. None of us are totally objective here. While I feel no greater connection to Israel or Palestine than I do Bolivia or New Zealand, I have Jewish roots. I feel no more Jewish than I do Christian or Muslim, but subconsciously who knows? I feel I mourn the innocent Palestinians every bit as much as I do Israelis. Could my background make me feel Jewish pain more or does it go the other way to overcompensate? It feels that in 20 years a sports journalist’s remit has expanded from 4-4-2 to geopolitics, but perhaps I’ve just grown up. As for footballers and football clubs, it’s no surprise they can’t get it exactly right. No one can.

Others have called not lighting the arch shameful, but the FA was damned if it did and damned if it didn’t. There is a wider conversation about what to commemorate and what not to. Sometimes it seems so straightforward; it will never be absolutely consistent. The administrators are wrestling with the same dilemmas as all of us. The inalienable truth is that living in peace is an accident of birth and an extreme privilege. Salah said: “All lives are sacred and must be protected. The massacres need to stop. Families are being torn apart.” You don’t need to post that to agree with that. You don’t need to post it to feel it.

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