Hapoel Abu gosh 248.88.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
When Israel's only official coexistence soccer team visits Germany next week, its goal will not be just to score big on the playing field; it will also aim to showcase a successful model of cooperation and tolerance between Arabs and Jews, fostered through sports for the past five years between two neighboring towns just outside Jerusalem.
As guests of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Hapoel Abu Ghosh-Mevaseret Zion's youth team will visit Berlin to present the club's unique model of mutual acceptance and coexistence to the German public - and, of course, to play two matches, one against Hertha BSC Berlin's youth team and one against the Jewish team Maccabi Berlin.
"Our project is not only about playing soccer. More importantly, it's about improving relations between two communities who live side by side in Israel," the club's Jewish president, Alon Liel - a former Foreign Ministry director-general and a resident of Mevaseret Zion - told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday.
"It's also about fostering understanding and accepting each other's culture," stated the club's Arab chairman, Muhammad Jaber, who also manages the community center in the mostly Muslim Abu Ghosh.
He added, "This is a special team that has been playing and training together for the past five years. The players have grown up together, and while there were some clashes between them at first, all of them are now very proud of their Jewish-Arab team."
Hapoel Abu Ghosh-Mevaseret Zion's adult team currently plays in the country's Southern Regional League and hopes to advance to the National League next year.
While Jews and Arabs do play together on other Israeli soccer teams, Hapoel Abu Ghosh-Mevaseret Zion is the only club that strictly adheres to joint and equal Jewish-Arab management - three from each town - and has a clear aim of promoting coexistence between the two communities. Its main goal is to show how playing soccer can help bridge cultural, linguistic, ethnic and religious divides.
"Football unites people," said Stephan J. Kramer, secretary-general of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, which will oversee the visit of the 21-member delegation. "However, it also can cause animosity, and in extreme cases, football stadiums can become an arena for racism and violence."
Kramer explained to the Post that in Germany, such behavior at soccer events has become increasingly commonplace.
"The [Hapoel Abu Ghosh-Mevaseret] team shows how common ground can be found between two populations of different backgrounds and how neighbors can become friends," he added.
"There is a lot of racism in football today, and the situation in Israel is especially difficult," said Liel, pointing to recurring incidents between players and fans of the country's premier league teams. "We hope that our approach will help encourage change and acceptance, because sports cannot be a place where racism is allowed to grow."
The youth team's manager, Eldad Hayet, whose son, Or, plays on the team, said that like any soccer team, this one also had its disagreements. However, "they are never based on the player's cultural or religious differences," he said.
"In a country with so many problems, I am proud that we can show how Jews and Arabs can work together in such a positive way," he added. "This proves that if two communities want to work with each other, then it is possible."
During its visit to Germany, the 16 team members and its five managers will also meet with German politicians and media representatives to demonstrate how they have used the popular sport to build bridges between the communities.