This week’s sports headlines in Israel have been taken up with the attack on Ali Khatib, an Arab footballer from the Hapoel Haifa team, by two members of the Maccabi Petah Tikva team following their match last Saturday. The brawl comes a little over a week after hundreds of Beitar Jerusalem fans assaulted Arab cleaning personnel at the capital’s Malha shopping center on Monday.

This is in sharp contrast to the tranquility of the fascinating exhibition on the topic of a Hundred Years of Football in Israel/Palestine which has recently opened at the Eretz Yisrael Museum in North Tel Aviv. A combination of history, politics, sociology and, not least, the sport itself, the exhibition has already proved to be a major attraction for thousands of visitors, including many who would not normally be seen entering a museum known for its depiction of the regions’ history – both recent and ancient.

The exhibition highlights the political nature of Israeli football (soccer) past and present. It describes the origins of the game in the early years of the 20th century and the boost it received from the British mandate authorities who organized many of the teams around their military units, alongside the earliest Jewish and Arab teams which were organized by the local populations.

It shows the tensions which existed at various times between Jewish and Arab teams and the attempt to organize a separate Arab league during the 1940s, which was subsequently disbanded following the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.

One of the more fascinating political parts of the exhibition concerns the deep rivalries which existed between the Maccabi and the Hapoel teams, each of which represented different social movements, and the way in which they combined forces during the 1950s and 1960s to exclude, as far as possible, the teams associated with the revisionist Beitar movement.

The exhibition depicts the way in which sport in general, and football in particular, was used as a means of portraying Israel on the world scene. The two most important international events were probably the games played between Israel and the Soviet Union in 1956, at which a crowd of over 80,000 including many Soviet Jews flocked to see the Israeli team, and the appearance of Israel in its only World Cup Finals to date, in Mexico in 1970, when the national team achieved an honorable draw with the famous Italian team of the time.

And for those football fans less interested in the social and political history of the game, there is plenty of material relating to the country’s best known teams, including pictures and videos, artifacts ranging from medals, trophies, players shirts, magazines and club mementos, an attraction for nostalgic adult and children supporters alike.

Israeli football has come a long way since those early days of playing on sand dunes with makeshift goals. Following their expulsion from the Asian competitions in the 1970s, and a brief spell during which Israel was forced to play in the Oceania group along with Australia and New Zealand, Israel has enjoyed full membership in the European regional groupings for the past 20 years.

This has enabled Israeli teams to participate in the prestigious European Champions League, the Europa League and the national European Championship – the finals of which are to be played later this summer, but alas without Israel who were unsuccessful in their attempts to qualify for the finals. It has become common place for the best Israeli players to be poached by European clubs, with a few, such as the late Avi Cohen, as well as Ronny Rozenthal, Eyal Berkowitz and, most recently, Yossi Ben-Ayun, to play for some of the leading clubs in the world’s No. 1 tournament, the English Premier League.

Alas, despite the intense following of the local football leagues here in Israel, Israeli teams have rarely progressed very far in the European competitions, while their national team – with the single exception of the 1970 World Cup in Mexico – have never qualified for the final stages of these tournaments. While the rivalry between teams is as passionate, in some cases even more passionate, than that in some of the leading soccer countries’, this is not matched with a significant rise in the professional standards of the players and their respective teams.

The level of the game in Israel is akin to the level of the lower leagues in some of the leading European countries, but that does not prevent the players from demanding exorbitant wage packages and celebrity treatment, as though they were the Zionist version of a David Beckham, a Lionel Messie or a Ronaldo.

MOST ISRAELIS have their favorite foreign football team, while the hundreds of thousands of Olim (immigrants) who came from European countries retain their strong loyalties and affinities to those teams which they supported in the Diaspora.

The country’s stadiums are below par compared to their European counterparts, and the behavior of the local supporters – in an era in which violence and racism have been strongly combatted throughout the European game – leaves much to be desired.

The recent activities of the Beitar Jerusalem fans who semi-lynched Arab workers in a Jerusalem shopping Mall, or the general negative reception of Arab players by many Israeli supporters when they come on to the pitch, is a sort of behavior which would no longer be tolerated in Europe and which could easily lead to the teams being banned, or deducted points in the league table, for their lack of sportsmanship (at best) and outright racist behavior (at the worst).

And yet it is quite an experience to go to an Israeli football game. To be present at an Israeli State Cup Final between Beitar Jerusalem and Hapoel Tel Aviv is an experience never to be forgotten, especially when your seats (on which no one ever sits but only stands) are in the heart of the Beitar section.

To hear Israeli football fans scream religious chants when their team scores a goal, or to see a large group of supporters praying the evening or afternoon prayers on the terraces immediately prior to the start of the game, is a unique Israeli-type experience never to be forgotten.

The soccer exhibition is well worth a visit, even for those who have no particular love for or interest in the game itself. It provides a unique insight into the interface between sport, society, politics and nationalism. But it does raise questions as to why a country, which has succeeded in becoming an important international player in so many areas of culture, business and the sciences, has miserably failed to match these achievements in the arena of sports. The intensity of the football fanaticism in Israel is not matched by an equal degree of success on the playing field.

So, if you are looking for something different to do with your family during the Passover holiday week, it is worth taking some time out to visit the football exhibition. It provides yet another insight into the diverse and complex mosaic of what the State of Israel is all about.

The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben Gurion University. The views expressed are his alone.

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