There is much talk in Israel these days, and it is quite justified, about
violence and racism in sports. Yet I believe that while these ugly phenomena
must be eradicated, sport is globally, and also here, an important pathway to
coexistence, integration and social cohesion.
In ancient Greece, it was
decided that during the Olympic sporting events, there would be a total
truce. Sport became then the symbol of peaceful coexistence and for a
different type of human relations: competition according to agreed-upon rules
The London 2012 Olympics this July and August will be a great
global get-together of the world’s youth competing for medals, records and
country – with billions of people watching from around the world. Undoubtedly a
beautiful moment, but without a global truce; on the contrary – this will be the
most secured Olympic Games in history, with almost £500 million spent on
protecting the events and the Olympic Village from terrorism, and it is doubtful
that anyone in the world will put down their arms.
Yet in general sport
is an important activity and industry for furthering peaceful coexistence
between peoples and nations. While terrorism and violence do erupt during sports
events, they are counter-balanced by the coming together of competing athletes.
Sports in many areas of the world have been and still are conducive to peaceful
coexistence and social cohesion. There are many examples: the role and position
of African-Americans has been dramatically altered by their enormous success in
sports. During the infamous Berlin Olympics in 1936, under the hateful eyes of
Adolf Hitler, Jesse Owens made all Americans proud by winning four gold medals.
And through the years African-Americans have come to dominate in a variety of
sports, from track and field to basketball, boxing, American football and much
more. This has helped in the greater integration of American society and in the
erosion of still lingering racism in certain parts of the country.
Europe, the European Football Federation, UEFA, has perhaps done more for
integration than most other pan- European mechanisms. The UEFA Champions League
is today more attractive than any other European competition, as we witnessed in
the widespread enthusiasm around the Chelsea-Bayern Munich championship final
last weekend. Local patriotism often overshadows national patriotism when it
comes to affiliation with soccer clubs. You can be Italian (or Israeli for that
matter) and still your greatest support will go to F.C. Barcelona (every child
in the world is proud to wear a Messi jersey).
Asia grew closer to the
West thanks to sports – the Beijing Olympics of 2008 brought the world closer to
more than a billion Chinese, more so than any other event or process. Ping-pong
games between the US and China in the early 1970s marked the start of
normalization between the two nations.
As for Africa, the continent too
often thought of only in terms of poverty and disease; thanks to sports, it is
also invading the consciousness of the world with success stories – from the
African soccer stars on European teams (from Didier Drogba of Ivory Coast on
Chelsea) to the long-distance runners who won almost every medal in the World
Championships and the Olympics, representing mostly Kenya, Eritrea and
As for our region and Israel, we are part of the global
sporting phenomena as sport is for many, including here, the “new religion,” and
it is not a fundamentalist one. It entails a combination of positive and
negative reflections of society, yet gives an opportunity for the positive
outlet of emotions and patriotism. Take the Palestinian Authority – last week
the Palestinians lamented the Nakba Day, in memory of the creation of the
independent State of Israel, which according to their narrative created the
Palestinian refugee problem. We expected furious marches on Jerusalem; instead
in Ramallah, the PA, under the guidance of the man in charge of Palestinian
soccer, the well-known security operative Jibril Rajoub, created the “Nakba
Football Tournament” and thousands of Palestinians rejoiced in their national
team’s goals against six other national teams, rather than taking part in
As for Israel, from the very beginning of the
nation-building process, sport was, and in many ways still is, a great
integrator, in particular soccer.
New immigrants play with veterans,
Sephardi with Ashkenazim, Arabs with Jews, religious with secularists,
foreigners with Israelis. And the affiliation of supporters is for their teams –
be it Ashdod or Kiryat Shmona, our new soccer champion – over every other
identity. If you are Hapoel Tel Aviv you are red, if Maccabi, you are yellow,
even before blue and white.
There are also ugly expressions that occur
around sports, most recently violence among fans and players as was witnessed in
the last Tel Aviv derby, or in the recent Petah Tikva-Haifa match. While soccer
has brought, in general, a rapprochement between Jews and Arabs, who play on the
same teams, and even on our national team, there are ugly exceptions of racism,
most prominently those pronounced by the Beitar Jerusalem club. Their supporters
love to chant “Death to the Arabs” and the team officially announced that it
will not hire any Arab players.
This phenomenon should be outlawed. The
violence and racism in our sports are reflections of phenomena in society at
large, they are important warning lights.
Yet as it does the world over,
there is no reason why sport should not play a cohesive and integrating role in
the Middle East and in Israel. I witnessed many times in the activities of the
Peres Center for Peace’s Sport Department, young teenagers – Israeli Jews,
Israeli Arabs, Palestinians – boys and girls competing together on the soccer
pitch, basketball court and swimming pool, forging new friendships.
a combined Israeli-Palestinian youth team scores a goal in these tournaments,
the players all embrace, forgetting their national identity, proud of their
As we want to work for peaceful coexistence, within the country and
the region, sports here, as all over the world, can bring people together from a
very early age. Arab countries should put an end to their unjustified ban on
competing with Israeli teams, and on our side, those responsible for sports
should eradicate violence and racism and then see it as a great integrator; it
is a real opportunity both internally and regionally. Sport is not just a game –
it expresses profound traits and feelings of people as to their identity,
ambition and self-expression; it is a great unifier and, when it is not, it is
the best sort of competition. If we internalize this, then maybe a 2030 Olympic
Games in Tel Aviv and Ramallah together is not impossible – it would certainly
bring more than just a truce.The writer is president of the Peres Center
for Peace and served as Israel’s chief negotiator for the Oslo Accords.
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