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Inspired by Kaepernick, US college athletes 'take a knee' during Israeli national anthem

Volleyball players Hunnan Bhat and Omar Rezika have faced calls for suspension after expressing solidarity with Palestinians
Hunnan Bhat and Omar Rezika took a knee during playing of Israel's national anthem at Yeshiva University [Facebook]
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New York City

Two US college athletes have been hailed as "bold" and "courageous," but are also facing calls for suspension after they chose to kneel during the Israeli national anthem.

Following in the footsteps of former NFL star Colin Kaepernick - who refused to stand during the American national anthem to highlight police brutality and racism - Brooklyn College athletes Hunnan Bhat and Omar Rezika are understood to have 'taken a knee' in protest of Israel's illegal occupation and apartheid policies in the occupied Palestinian territories.

According to a Facebook video from a recent volleyball game that has since gone viral, the two men took the action during a contest between New York's Brooklyn College and Yeshiva University.

Yeshiva describes itself as "the world's premier Jewish institution for higher education," and plays both the American and Israeli national anthem before its sporting matches.

'Criticism of a foreign country should not be equated to anti-semitism. And it should not be used to silence people from standing up to the crimes of Israel,'

Raja Abdulhaq, Palestinian activist

Hamza*, the president of the Students for Justice in Palestine society at Brooklyn College, said despite the duo facing a torrent of online abuse, their actions were well received on campus.

"Kneeling has a long history and people know the backlash that comes with it," he told Middle East Eye.

"Their actions will help invigorate the conversation about Israeli occupation in Palestine." 

However, several right-wing and Zionist organisations immediately tried to slate the protest gesture as "antisemitic."

The Simon Wiesenthal Center, an organisation that describes itself as a Jewish human rights group, called their actions a "flagrant display of antisemitism." 

It also falsely claimed that the two students refused to shake hands with their opponents after the game. 

Others on social media called on Brooklyn College to suspend the students. 

Meanwhile Ari Berman, president of Yeshiva University, accused the duo of disrespecting the Israeli flag.

"We are proud to be the only university who sings both the American and Israeli national anthems before every athletic competition and major event." Berman said.

"Nothing makes me prouder to be an American than living in a country where our religious freedom, our Zionism and our commitment to our people will never be impeded and always be prized."

However, writing in The Nation, sports editor Dave Zirin described Berman's comments as "ironic". 

"Berman prizes 'living in a country where our religious freedom, our Zionism and our commitment to our people will never be impeded and always be prized,' yet this educational leader is willing to demonize two teenagers for exercising our most cherished freedom: freedom of speech," Zirin wrote.

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"Berman also doesn't see the irony in the fact that this was the national anthem of another country during which the players kneeled, not the country in which the players were in fact living or playing.

Responding to Berman's criticism, a spokesperson for Brooklyn College said the institution "condemned all forms of antisemitism and hatred."

But the spokesperson added that kneeling as a form of protest was "protected by the First Amendment."

Raja Abdulhaq, a Palestinian activist and community organiser based in New York, lauded the duo's protest gesture, describing it as "courageous." 

He told Middle East Eye that accusations of antisemitism were "abhorrent", with the students simply "standing up for human rights and justice in Palestine."

"Criticism of a foreign country should not be equated to antisemitism. And as we know, antisemitism is a very dangerous thing. And it should not be used to silence people from standing up to the crimes of Israel," he added.

Brooklyn College and Yeshiva University did not immediately respond to MEE's request for comment.