STUDENTS IN THE Equalizer program pose for a photo before a soccer tournament in Jaffa on Tuesday.
(photo credit: ELIYAHU KAMISHER)
In soccer cleats with scraped knees, 150 kids from 12 elementary schools took to a Jaffa pitch on Tuesday for their January tournament organized by an organization called Sha’ar Shivyon, known as “The Equalizer” in English.
Kids from nearly every sector of Israeli society – Jewish, Arab, children of asylum-seekers, religious and secular – hurdled up and down the soccer pitch.
Accompanying the kids was a delegation of British MPs who were in Israel seeking to learn ways to combat racism in soccer culture.
“The program is great,” said 11-year-old Malawi, a striker on the Levinsky school’s team and a son of Eritrean asylum- seekers. “I like my team, I enjoy everything.” But Malawi was not really interested in being interviewed – he wanted to play soccer – so after 30 seconds he ran off down the field.
Entering its eight year, The Equalizer is an educational- sports initiative which seeks to improve access of afterschool education and sports in periphery communities. The program has around 3,000 participants from 200 schools around the country and requires students to attend an after-school study center twice a week in order to participate in soccer practice and games.
“We needed to be able to say if you don’t study then you can’t play soccer,” CEO and founder of The Equalizer Liran Gerassi told the delegation of British MPs on Tuesday.
“When you say you will take away their soccer it encourages them to come every week to the study centers.”
According to an April 2016 report by OECD Israel, large gaps still remain in educational attainment and success in the ultra-Orthodox and Israeli- Arab communities. Only 51.3% of 18-year-old ultra-Orthodox students and 82.2% of 18-year-old Israeli-Arabs completed upper secondary education in 2013, compared to 98.2% in other Hebrew speaking education sectors. Israel’s periphery communities generally suffer from lower education, higher crime, and less access to high-wage jobs.
“All the schools need more attention. There just isn’t enough activities after-school and there’s always room to do more,” Omer Kleiman the manager of The Equalizer’s central district schools said.
“Football is a good prism to look at racism and antisemitism. Football needs to challenge these beliefs,” British Labour MP John Mann who chairs the parliamentary group Against Antisemitism told The Jerusalem Post during the tournament.
Mann applauded the work of the The Equalizer, yet said that Israel Premier League may not be doing enough to stem hatred at soccer games. “There needs to be decisive action against racism,” Mann said, “Where are the Israeli football authorities in challenging racism?”
Violence at soccer matches, which sometimes takes on anti-Arab motivations, has been an issue of national concern. In July, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan and Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev agreed to fund a police unit that deals specifically with the issue. Waves of arrests have also taken place against members of La Familia a Beitar Jerusalem fan club notorious for stoking violence at games.
“It’s fantastic to see people from so many different backgrounds and the only thinking that they care about is football,” said Nusrat Ghani a member of the Conservative Party told the Post.
While teams at Tuesday’s tournament generally formed along ethnic and religious lines – an Israeli-Arab team from Jaffa played a team composed largely of Israelis of Ethiopian decent – issues of violence or race were not on the kids’ minds.
“They speak the language of soccer,” Gerassi said when asked by an MP how Arabic speaking students and Hebrew speaking students compete in different languages.