Boycotting Israel, on the airwaves

I have a confession to make: I’m a “ham.” Not a poor actor (although I’m that as well), but an amateur radio operator. I’ve been one since the age of 13, when I used my paper route earnings to buy things like vacuum tubes (the first commercial transistor radio came out in 1954), frequency control crystals, wire for antennas, and so on. Even more nerdily, I’m a ham that communicates with Morse code.

In general, the world has passed ham radio by. Who wants to bother when you can talk all around the world for free with a smartphone app? The “magic of radio” is lost on most young people today, with a few exceptions. In most countries local or national governments have placed restrictions on antennas for various (often stupid) reasons. “Electromagnetic pollution” from cheap electronic devices has increased radio noise levels in many places, making long-distance communication more difficult.

But those of us who are still fascinated by communicating long distances with primitive equipment and no additional infrastructure still do it, and we’ve developed various forms of competition to make it more fun. For example, there are weekend-long contests in which we try to make as many contacts in possible in a short time. One of the biggest is coming up in less than two weeks, a 48-hour world-wide event in which an entrant’s score is determined by the number of contacts made, the number of “entities” contacted and where they are located, on each of 5 frequency bands. Entities are not precisely countries – there are both geographical and political criteria, so that Hawaii, for example, counts separately from the USA. And yes, “Palestine” is an entity!

There is also a long-term competition whose goal is to contact all of the 340 entities, on one or multiple bands. This program is called DXCC (“DX” means distance, and “CC” is “Century Club” since the lowest level of the award is given for 100 entities).

DXCC can be a decades-long endeavor, because some of the entities are uninhabited and some administrations – North Korea is an example – do not issue amateur radio licenses to their citizens, nor permit foreigners to operate from their country. Some just have one or a handful of “hams” who may not be active. In some cases, expeditions of radio hams travel to an uninhabited location – sometimes in extremely remote and inhospitable places, like Bouvet Island in the South Atlantic, or sometimes to places where political instability makes the project very dangerous. Several German hams were killed in 1983 when they tried to reach the Spratly Islands and their boat was fired upon by the Vietnamese military. Others have been lost in storms at sea.

These expeditions (called “DXpeditions”) can cost tens, sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars. They are financed in part by the participants, and in part by donations from individual operators and radio clubs around the world.

DXCC is adjudicated by the American national amateur radio organization, which makes the rules and issues the awards. It is the most prestigious award in amateur radio, and like international sports competitions, great effort is expended to ensure fairness and prevent cheating. The criteria for getting credit for an entity are strict: a contact has to be with a legitimately licensed amateur and the applicant has to provide documentation that confirms that a two-way contact actually took place. In the past, this required the applicant to submit a postcard or letter signed by his counterpart. Confirmations were carefully examined, and irregularities could result in disqualification. Today many confirmations are done via an internet-accessible computer system, but there are still very stringent requirements for verification.

Like any other international hobby or sport, there has always been an ethic that politics should not interfere. Amateur radio, since it involves communication, was especially valued as an activity that could promote cooperation and peace. During the Cold War, American and Soviet hams regularly communicated and competed. Many governments strongly supported amateur radio because it helped develop technically and operationally competent individuals, useful for the national economy and the military services. There were only a few countries that didn’t permit their citizens to contact certain other countries. But for Israel it was, and is, a different story.

Every radio station, whether a broadcast station, ship, aircraft, or amateur, has a unique call sign; and the first few letters of the call sign (the “prefix”) indicate the country that it belongs to. Israel’s prefix is 4X. When I first came here in 1979, I operated for a few months (before I received Israeli citizenship) with my American call sign followed by “/4X” to indicate that I was in Israel. I was swamped by callers from the Soviet bloc. It turned out that the Soviet hams were forbidden to contact Israelis, but Americans in Israel were allowed! Since there were at least 19 different DX entities that were part of the Soviet Union, this placed Israelis at a real disadvantage in various competitions. The Soviet ban was lifted shortly thereafter, but many countries continued such prohibitions.

Today, there are countries that boycott Israel on the radio. Some that I have found (friendly hams in those countries have let me know without officially “contacting” me) are Lebanon, Yemen, Iran, Sudan, Libya, and others. If there are five or ten countries boycotting Israel in radio competition, then this places Israeli amateur operators at a serious disadvantage.

The countries in question may claim that the bans exist to prevent espionage. This is silly. Today, it is much easier to send information clandestinely via the internet than by radio. In any event, all a spy outside of the country needs to do is use a call sign that does not start with 4X and they can make their contact!

In the last few years there have been DXpeditions to Iran, Yemen, and Libya by amateur radio operators from various countries. Iran has a few active hams of its own, but teams of operators from other countries have gone there (one from Russia is there now) and made tens of thousands of contacts with amateurs all over the world, even in the US or Iran’s regional rival, Saudi Arabia – but not one in Israel.

This is a very small and unimportant arena, but it is an example of the pervasiveness of the effort to write the Jewish state out of existence. No other country has its legitimacy, indeed, its very being, challenged like this, in every field of endeavor.

This is a form of boycott which is not tolerated in athletics and should not be allowed in “radiosport” either. Athletes that have refused to compete with Israelis in international competitions have forfeited their matches, often lying about their reason for withdrawing. Sometimes they are even fined by sanctioning bodies.

There is one way to stop this discrimination, and that is for the organizations that sponsor radio contests and issue awards to announce that contacts with any country that boycotts another will not count in their contest or for their award. It’s that simple.

Naturally, there is a lot of opposition to this idea. Why should hams in the US, for example, be penalized by losing credit for contacting Iran just because Iran is boycotting Israel? How is that their fault?

It’s not. But it’s up to the sponsoring organizations to maintain a level playing field. By closing their eyes to discrimination, they make it possible. Amateur radio organizations ought to follow the example of international sporting groups and penalize boycotters. It’s the right thing to do.

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