A group of England fans will be the first organized group of soccer supporters to visit Yad Vashem after they arrive this week for the Euro 2008 qualification match against Israel on Saturday.
On Friday, the London England Fans supporters group will visit the Jerusalem Holocaust memorial as part of their "fan-friendly" campaign, which will also see them supporting a 16-team children's soccer tournament on Friday afternoon in Tel Aviv with teams made up of Arab and Jewish children.
Organized by Football4Peace, an organization that uses sport to bring children from different communities together, each team will be outfitted in English club shirts ranging from Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur to Wycombe Wanderers and Wealdstone.
On Friday morning, the fans will travel to Yad Vashem where they will lay a St. George Cross wreath with two cards from the supporters reading: "Never Forget" and "Never Again."
When England played Poland in 2004, England fans laid a wreath at Auschwitz, as they also did during last year's World Cup in Germany, when they visited Dachau.
Mark Perryman, convener of London England Fans, said: "Israel is in the news every day for all the wrong reasons, terrorism and war. Yet it's a country immersed in history. We wanted to use the trip not just to see England win but to spread some fan friendship, and when we lay a St. George Cross wreath at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial, honor the memory of the human horror of the concentration camps."
Maccabi UK has organized a huge Shabbat dinner for the supporters group at Kfar Maccabiah in Ramat Gan on Friday night. With the majority of England fans traveling to Israel not Jewish, Maccabi is hosting a special Shabbat meal to bring both sets of supporters together and introduce the fans to Jewish culture and customs.
Maccabi has previously worked with England fans groups in Manchester and London to promote better understanding of Jewish culture, and this eve-of-match meal continues the dialogue.
Prior to the game on Saturday evening, the group will travel north to watch Bnei Sakhnin, the first Arab team to compete in the UEFA Cup in 2004. They will visit the stadium to play a fans' match against supporters of Bnei Sakhnin and have a traditional Arab lunch before returning to Tel Aviv.
"The trip is an opportunity to continue a number of fan-friendly traditions," Perryman said. "At Yad Vashem, we will be making a point that war isn't something to turn into a football chant or a joke. Instead, with dignity we will respect the memory of the Holocaust, a terrible period in human history that should never be forgotten.
"Football is a great way to unite people and this is a great opportunity to see sides of Israel we never see in the media. The kids' tournament will show the force for good football can be, and show off our club shirts from top to bottom of the divisions.
"The Shabbat meal is an opportunity to engage with a culture many of us remain ignorant of, and it is out of ignorance that intolerance grows. We also wanted to visit an Arab team in the Israeli league, to hear how football can unite and divide; we thought it would make a very special trip and we get to play in the club's magnificent new stadium!"
Steve Murray, from the England supporters' group and Web site 365EnglandFans, told The Jerusalem Post: "Around 6,000 fans are expected to travel, 4,450 of which will be official ticket holders. Unlike the past two friendlies [between England and Israel] in the '80s, when many fans, including myself, were in Israel for a week - allowing time to explore the many famous sites close to Tel Aviv, such as Bethlehem, Jerusalem, the Dead Sea and even a few made it to Eilat - such is the demand for tickets for England matches now and the need to travel to most, if not all of the games, to stand a chance of being guaranteed Euro Championship or World Cup tickets that many fans opt for day trips or short breaks of only a few days. For a country rich in history like Israel, this is a pity.
"The glorious seafront of Tel Aviv will be a must see for many, along with bars around Dizengoff, and for those who can make it, the bustling markets and streets of Jerusalem, if only to say they've been to the areas they learned so much about in their religious education at school or at Sunday school.
There are many Jewish-community-organized delegations from the Zionist Federation, New Israel Fund, Union of Jewish Students and various youth groups making the trip to see the game.
Perryman said most fans would fly out of England on Friday and Saturday, as well as some on Thursday, and that some had left on Monday. He said that many also arrived on a British Airways flight on Wednesday morning.