As The Jerusalem Post readers learned on these pages on Friday, Israel Television sports commentator Danny Neuman is facing allegations of racism for off-air comments he was purported to have made before last week’s featured match between Hapoel Tel Aviv and Hapoel Kiryat Shmona.
I am well-acquainted with Neuman, and he is no racist. I ought to know. Our offices are located across the hall from one another on the fifth floor of Israel Television, and we often start our workdays together drinking coffee in the cafeteria.
We have had dozens of private conversations that often deal with sports in general and soccer in particular. We have tended to dwell on the specific case of Betar Jerusalem and my concerns about many of its fans, who tend to express anti-Arab sentiments during matches at Teddy Stadium.
Neuman shares those concerns. He has repeatedly said that racism tarnishes the team for which he used to play, and that it has no place in sport or in Israeli society.
Today, most Israelis think of the word “Betar” as being synonymous with the soccer team. In fact, it is the name of the Zionist youth movement founded by Zev Jabotinsky in 1923.
Like me, Neuman was a member of that movement. That he was also an exceptional athlete, who ended up playing on the team with the name of the movement, was only natural.
In addition to other things, what being a “betari” means for each of us is a sincere and deeply felt respect for the rights of Arabs in the Land of Israel – in the tradition of Jabotinsky.
Neuman understands the importance of complete equality for all Israelis, and that certainly includes soccer players and fans. It is inconceivable, therefore, that Neuman would hold views advocating the expulsion of Israeli Arabs.
Neuman is not well-liked by many soccer fans in this country, for whom Betar Jerusalem is the team they love to hate.
This is similar to the way Boston Red Sox fans hate the New York Yankees and its fans, and the New York Giants fans hate the Philadelphia Eagles and its fans.
As a lifelong Giants fan, I can tell you that many nasty things have come out of my mouth relating to the “horrible” Eagles, their “disgusting, bullying” fan base and “ugly ‘city of brotherly love.’”
Do I literally mean all of those things? Of course not.
I even have friends who root for the Eagles. The point is that sports fans tend to express strong and not entirely rational feelings towards their archrivals.
But this has nothing to do with the real world.
When Neuman shows up at a Hapoel Tel Aviv game, he is treated like Yankee Babe Ruth going back to Boston – hated as the symbol of the Yankee success and Red Sox failure.
To Hapoel Tel Aviv fans, Neuman is not a soccer commentator for Israel Television.
He is that proud, arrogant Betar striker who knocked countless goals into the Hapoel Tel Aviv net.
Neuman played for Betar during some of its greatest glory years, and he symbolized Jerusalem’s battle to prevent Tel Aviv dominance.
The fans insult and try to intimidate him. The mostly pro-Hapoel Tel Aviv sportscasters show him disrespect.
Neuman does not back down or run away. He stands his ground and gives back more than they can handle. In the case in question, what he was “giving back” was off-the-cuff banter to other journalists in a press room, prior to broadcast.
His remarks were not only off the record, but had nothing to do with serious political philosophy.
By all accounts, Neuman is one of the most knowledgeable soccer commentators in the country.
When he gets on the air, his Betar allegiances are left behind. His
criticism of Betar’s lack of on-field prowess this season is heard loud
and clear. So are his heart-felt pleas that Jerusalem soccer fans – and,
indeed, soccer fans across the country – behave with proper decorum.
His unflinching analysis of Israeli soccer is as free of prejudice as
can be expected from a former-star-turned-commentator. But, more than
anything, it is certainly free of racism.The writer is editor-in-chief of IBA English News and president of American Football in Israel (AFI).