Racism beyond the 90 minutes

Limiting condemnation of racism to what goes on inside soccer grounds is to ignore the broader context.

Kessel Klochendler 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Kessel Klochendler 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The question of soccer and politics is certainly not tackled properly at a “Kick Racism and Incitement out of Soccer” symposium organized by the New Israel Fund and the British Council in November 2004. Former stars of the English game, Gary Mabbutt and Brendon Batson, stress that without involvement not only of the clubs but of the players themselves, the battle against the scourge of racism in soccer will go nowhere. Their target is racism in soccer – full stop.
Likewise, the other guests at the conference: top English Football Association executives, flushed with the success of their decade-long campaign to stamp racism out of English football, and Brighton University sociologists who’re running a proselytizing campaign to advance brotherhood and sisterhood through the universal game with a program for Arab and Jewish children “playing together” in Galilee. Both are noble pursuits. But the involvement of the British guests in the symposium allows Israel’s soccer bosses, soccer players, policemen, legal officials and politicians to breastbeat (in the way that politicians like to do) about racism in the game without having to come to terms with the real issue.
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The real issue is not only racism in the game. Of course, everyone’s against racism. The universal condemnation of racism during 90 minutes borders on the mundane. Alarm, not self-satisfaction, is called for! Club spokesman Mundar Haleileh, usually calm, composed, collected, is here to represent Bnei Sakhnin. He’s in a quiet rage: The central question is what should be the collective reaction when even one fan yells: “Death to Arabs.” It’s being buried under highminded soccer piety. Instead, what we get is a hodge-podge of concerns – anti-racism, anti-violence, anti-hatred, anti-incitement, anything and everything that is anti-bon ton correctness.
For once, Israeli soccer is one step ahead of England. At least, in one respect: There’s no need to “create awareness” about racism being a common practice in the game – as the distinguished English football visitors stress had been the first step in their rooting out of the problem at home.
But, what after the 90 minutes? What prior to the 90 minutes? Limiting condemnation of racism to what goes on in soccer grounds is to ignore the broader context – whether the racism in Israeli soccer draws inspiration from a complex political situation and from a searing national conflict.
Or, perhaps, for other reasons? Everybody knows Sakhnin are the butt of the worst racism. The club is aware that it too is not immune. Some of their fans are also wont, like in grounds all around the country, to berate African and dark-skinned players from other teams with monkey grunts and other offensive noises.
But, on the most acute level of inter-communal hatred, Sakhnin is the lightning rod for the vicious assaults which Arab players and fans have to take in their guts. And what about the Jewish players who are abused for playing for Sakhnin? And the manager? Strangely though, the victim is not seen as central to the conference.
Nor are the major culprits here – at least in the sense of the club which has come to symbolize the culprits – Beitar Jerusalem.
Studiedly, no one from the Jerusalem club has bothered to attend other than one of its new players, Lior Asulin, Sakhnin’s cup final hat-trick hero who transferred to Beitar last summer. He appears on a panel of top players.
When he made his move from Sakhnin, some diehard Jerusalem fans insisted he undergo a “purification ceremony” to cleanse him of the sin of having played for an Arab club. The farthest Asulin is ready to go is to say, yes, I’ve been aware of that, but I simply take no notice of them – after all I’m just a soccer player. Israelis have an expression for keeping your head down – shrunken head and small minds. Don’t ask difficult questions, don’t ruffle feathers: The stamp of an accomplished soccer politician who’s trying to expunge politics from his soccer.
Also on the panel is Israeli national midfielder Walid B’deir. The conference strays to the general problem of “violence in the game.” Panel chairman Bonnie Ginzburg (the former national goalkeeper) makes an interesting switch. He links racism with the treatment of “the other” in general, how the minority relates to the state, not how the state relates to the minority.
He’s turned the debate on its head, throwing his former colleague a real curve ball: Walid, as an Arab, what’s in your mind, in your heart, when the national anthem is played before an international? The jackpot question! Ginzburg knows he’s on a winning ticket.
This is the piece de resistance of “Everything You Wanted to Know About Israeli Soccer But Were Afraid to Ask” – actually, not afraid to ask.
It’s on all soccer lips, the catechism of Israeli soccer, the question every Jewish Israeli wants to hear Arab players answer: Do you stand when “Hatikva” is played before an international (or jump in unison on the edge of your seats)? The reason they invariably ask the question is precisely because they never get an answer. The position of the Arab players is “Everything You Wanted to Know About Us in Israeli Soccer But Were Afraid to Answer.” The frustration doesn’t deter Jewish fans from continuing to ask the damn question – they want to hear that the Arab players have no answer. They want to feel frustrated by the answer.
Walid tries to brush away his embarrassment: Where the heck did you come from, is his riposte to Ginzburg.
He ducks, declines to speak his mind.
But he’s pressed by Arab fans in the audience. He relents. Okay, okay he’ll “tell it straight”: What I feel is that if, in say 50 years’ time, you add into the anthem another stanza, or even one phrase, one word that relates to us as Arab Israelis, then I’d be perfectly happy to sing it.
A little bit of acceptance would go a heck of a long way. Is this the local remedy against racism? Is Walid telling it “straight”? Well, sort of. A bit of a cop-out, really. Although in the circumstances and under pressure, a fairly elegant sidestep. Nor does his answer satisfy Arab fans. Mundar cringes: Again, that red herring of the anthem. Again, everybody’s comforting himself in the certitude of his own position. Again, the real issue – racism – isn’t being tackled. Again, answers to racism, evaded. Another squandered chance.
AWAY FROM the cosy confines of the conference at the elegant Accadia Hotel in leafy Herzliya, and onto the scruffy streets of Sakhnin, the elemental issue plays out differently in the stands. The “See Only Wisdom, Hear Only Wisdom, Speak Only Wisdom” trio are on duty as usual: BILAL: I want to tell you guys something – I’ve changed my mind. Now that Walid’s central to the national team, my heart tells me to support Israel.
AHMAD: Even more so now that Abbas Suan, the Sakhnin star midfielder and captain, is also in the squad.
TAREK: B’deir? Actually, I don’t respect him at all. I’d even say he’s the most disliked player in the whole sector. Didn’t you know that his grandfather was among the people killed in the Kafr Kasim massacre, one of the 51. [On the eve of the Suez Campaign, in October 1956, some 50 Arab Israelis were gunned down by Israeli border police in the village of Kafr Kasim when they came home late from their fields in violation of a curfew.] And, did you know that B’deir once, after the national team was in Europe, and they visited a ghetto or a concentration camp or something, had come back, so I heard, saying that these people had suffered and that now he could even understand why “Hatikva” means so much to them.
BILAL: Look, I can support Israel, but I can also agree that this isn’t our song. I’ve got my anthem “Biladi, Biladi”: [the Palestinian anthem “My Land/Country, My Land/Country”].
AHMAD: Right. Still, I think Walid’s got a point: Give us a new Israeli anthem, one that speaks for us all – a real song of coexistence – then I’d be prepared to drop “Biladi, Biladi.”
TAREK: By the way, look what Mahmoud Ghalia says in Ma’ariv, now this is a scoop, it’s top of the sports pages. Here look: “Israel FA chairman Iche Menachem was so moved when he recently heard a young Jewish boy and a young Arab girl singing a duet at a Labor scouts gathering. They sang a popular Lebanese song ‘Al-Ard Bit’asi’ – The Land Suffers, by Wadie a-Safi. The theme of his song is: ‘enough bloodshed, enough war.’” Now, Mahmoud says, “The IFA boss had the idea to approach that same Arab teenager to check whether she’d sing for Israel at the National Stadium before World Cup matches.”
BILAL: So, what happened? AHMAD: Let me see that story.
TAREK: Hang on a sec – you can rely on Mahmoud to get it right. He says the young singer, Riham Hamadi – she’s from Kabul just over the hill – naively thought that the intention was for her to sing the antiwar song of Wadie a-Safi. But, when it came out that what Menachem wanted was her to sing “Hatikva,” she and her family politely declined.
AHMAD: Good for her, she was right to refuse.
BILAL: Pity in a way, though. Had she sung the anthem, it could have brought hearts together.
TAREK: A Jewish heart? You know “Hatikva”: “Lev Yehudi” – a Jewish heart – that’s what they sing.
BILAL: So what, we’re all human beings. So “Hatikva” talks about “Jewish heart,” so what? That doesn’t matter. A compassionate heart – that’s what counts. Just so long as it’s not a black heart.
BLACK HUMOR (back at the Accadia Hotel) is the contribution of another of the star panelists, Giovanni Rosso, the Maccabi Haifa and Croatia ball wizard: “I can’t quite understand all this fuss about ‘Death to Arabs.’ Let me remind you that I’m from a country where we don’t only chant ‘Death to’ – we put each other to death, literally.”
Rosso’s right, a New Israel Fund fund-raiser points out to the English guests: The Israeli government is taking the beast seriously. It’s just endorsed a new law, recently passed by the Knesset, providing for swift justice for offenders in the stands to be prosecuted for incitement.
Mundar’s had enough: Show me one single offender whom they’ve brought to book. I’m afraid “Death to Arabs” is still on the books. I’m afraid that’s still the anthem Arab fans hear most in our soccer grounds. In Europe, “Death to Arabs” would mean a ground closed, the banning of the club – literally death to soccer.
That’s the last thing Sakhnin want.
Especially now that their ground is at last being destroyed to make way for their new home. A home where Sakhnin hope their sensitivities will be respected. A place where, for instance, Beitar fans shouting “Death to Arabs” will no longer be tolerated. A place where, in the dream of Sons of Sakhnin fan par excellence Abdullah Ghanaim – who singlehandedly destroyed the stands of the old stadium with his jackhammer in the hope that Sakhnin could “host the whole nation” in the new stands – Beitar fans will respond to hospitality in kind.