Moroccan team in World Cup triggers emotions to many Moroccan immigrants

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: Many Israelis wanted to root for the underdog but they couldn't. What stood in their way? Demonstrators waving the Palestinian flag and all it represented.

 FANS IN Jaffa watch Wednesday night’s World Cup semifinal match between France and Morocco. (photo credit: Owen Alterman, i24NEWS)
FANS IN Jaffa watch Wednesday night’s World Cup semifinal match between France and Morocco.
(photo credit: Owen Alterman, i24NEWS)

My paternal grandfather was a man of few words.

He immigrated to the United States in the early 20th century from what he always referred to as Russian Poland. He spoke very little of his life there, and when asked what he did before he came to America, he would always respond, “I cooked for the tsar.”

Growing up, I always envisioned him in one of Tsar Nicholas II’s palaces or winter homes, preparing the Russian emperor’s stew in a massive kitchen. Obviously, that was a figment of a child’s imagination. In all probability, cooking for the tsar meant a kitchen job in some provincial government office or far-flung army outpost.

I think of my grandfather often when I meet older immigrants from Morocco (some of whom are now, through marriage, family members) who, when asked what they did in Morocco before coming to Israel, reply that they worked for the king. It seems that every Jew in Morocco, before making aliyah, worked for the king – perhaps as a cook, a butler, or even as an adviser.

The difference between my grandfather’s story and those of many Jewish immigrants from Morocco is that my grandfather despised the country he left. His memories of Russian Poland were not fond, but rather grim.

 FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 - Quarter Final - Morocco v Portugal - Al Thumama Stadium, Doha, Qatar - December 10, 2022 Portugal's Bruno Fernandes shoots at goal. (credit: REUTERS/CARL RECINE) FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 - Quarter Final - Morocco v Portugal - Al Thumama Stadium, Doha, Qatar - December 10, 2022 Portugal's Bruno Fernandes shoots at goal. (credit: REUTERS/CARL RECINE)

Moroccan immigrants look back fondly at life in Morocco

The same is not true of so many Moroccan immigrants who look back fondly at life in Morocco, often conveniently overlooking what compelled them to leave: poverty, second-class citizenship, antisemitism and, after the establishment of Israel, even pogroms. Many elderly Moroccans look back at their homeland wistfully, remembering their lives there as halcyon days.

That’s why many immigrants from Morocco, and their children and grandchildren in Israel, have been rooting for the Moroccan team in the World Cup. By contrast, were my grandfather alive and Russia competing in the soccer extravaganza, that would be the absolute last team – with the exception of Germany – that he would want to see crowned with any success.

Many Israelis of Moroccan descent, and also Jews and Arabs in the country without any connection to Morocco, joined tens of millions of people throughout the Arab world, from Oman to Mauritania, including people in Jenin, Ramallah, Hebron and Gaza City, who cheered ecstatically when Morocco defeated Portugal on Saturday night in the quarterfinals and were deflated when the team, known as the Atlas Lions, lost to France Wednesday in the semifinals.

“I am happy for the victory; the underdog won,” Michael Elkayam, an artist born in Morocco who now lives in Netivot, told the Walla news site on Sunday after Morocco’s victory over Portugal. “This is my home country; we are delighted. I still can’t believe they won. I watch it over and over again and can’t believe it – it’s just unbelievable.”

And this support among not a few Israeli Jews came despite how the Moroccan footballers celebrated their victories: by waving the Palestinian flag.

“I’m happy, but not because I have Moroccan roots, but mainly because I’m for the underdog, and Morocco – given the tools that they have to work with – plays smart,” Rafi Nidam, the CEO of FC Ashdod, told Walla. “I love this kind of football: the little guy against the big. Their success should inspire Israeli soccer.”

Nidam said that he has visited Morocco more than 10 times and was always welcomed there warmly. “Obviously, it’s not endearing to see them running to celebrate with the Palestinian flag, but I don’t know if that is directed against us.”

WHILE NIDAM might not have attributed any hostility to the choice of the prop with which the Moroccan players celebrated their victories, the author and satirist Meir Ouziel had no doubt.

“The Palestinian flag is a flag of the destruction of Israel,” he wrote in a scathing column in Maariv. “...Everyone, or at least everyone who gives it a little thought, knows that the Palestinian flag is an expression of a desire for the establishment of Palestine over all of the land of Israel. The West Bank is the west bank of the Jordan River, all the way to the Metzitzim Beach in Tel Aviv.”

Ynet’s correspondent to the World Cup, Yair Katan, wrote that while he could understand why Israelis of Moroccan descent rooted for the team in the red and green uniforms, he didn’t understand why other Israelis without any ties to the country would do the same after the team’s demonstrative waving of the Palestinian flag.

In a column, he wrote following Morocco’s loss to France headlined “the big mistake of Israelis rooting for Morocco,” Katan asked, “Do you prefer the exciting story and the underdog without considering at all the fact that these players constantly display Palestinian flags and are clearly against Israel?”

He continued: “It is impossible to ignore the reality that resonates here in Qatar: this tournament is so blatantly pro-Palestinian that even foreign media write about it with bewilderment.”

The tournament, which won’t allow spectators into stadiums wearing T-shirts emblazoned with rainbows in support of the LGBT community, or any sign of support for the protesters fighting against the regime in Iran, has no qualms – Katan wrote – about allowing “Free Palestine” chants or letting the Palestinian flag fly from soccer stadium rafters.

 Fifa World Cup 2022 branding is seen at Hamad International Airport. (credit: REUTERS/HAMAD I MOHAMMED) Fifa World Cup 2022 branding is seen at Hamad International Airport. (credit: REUTERS/HAMAD I MOHAMMED)

“There are quite a few Israelis for whom it is easy to put Moroccan flags on their Facebook feed and tell how they jumped for joy at the few goals scored by the Atlas Lions,” he wrote. “If they were here in Qatar today and saw what I saw, maybe they would think twice.”

All of the above reflects the conflicted emotions many Israelis and Jews have felt during the World Cup, which will end on Sunday with the final between Argentina and France.

On the one hand, there is a desire – a natural desire – to want to be a part of the party. Yet there always seems to be that little thing that keeps you from fully participating.

When Qatar announced that Israelis would be allowed into the country for the tourney, there was an unrealistic sense among some that – yes – Israel was becoming part of the neighborhood.

Yet when Israeli spectators and journalists went to Qatar and experienced the animosity of so many Arabs from different countries, that sense exploded.

Raz Shechnik, a Yediot Aharonot sports reporter who covered the matches for the paper, wrote a long Twitter post along with his colleague Oz Mualem in which he said, “We feel hate, wrapped in hostility, unwanted. How did one lovely Qatari respond at first glance after asking and being told we are from Israel? ‘I would like to say welcome, but you are really not welcome. Get out of here as fast as possible.’

“On the street we are met with hateful looks by Palestinians, Iranians, Qataris, Moroccans, Jordanians, Syrians, Egyptians and Lebanese. The Saudis were the exceptions; from them we got smiles.”

Shechnik wrote that the experience was sobering. “I have always been a centrist, liberal and open, with a desire for peace above all else. I always thought that the problem lies with the governments, the rulers. Ours too. But in Qatar I came to realize how much the hatred is the staple of the people on the street. How much they want to wipe us off the face of the earth. How much everything related to Israel arouses intense hatred in them.”

For those Israelis who thought that Israel could join a regional party because of the Abraham Accords, the experiences that they read and heard about from compatriots in Qatar were a sharp slap in the face. Shechnik wrote that he previously believed that the governments and rulers kept Israelis and Arabs apart. In actuality, the problem is with the people. Israel now has peace with the governments and the rulers of six Arab states, but – as the experience of those who identified themselves as Israelis in Qatar demonstrated – the masses have not yet received that memo or, if they have, do not like it much.

So the party in Qatar was one that Israelis could not fully enjoy. So, too, the joy over Morocco’s Cinderella run. Many Israelis wanted to root for the underdog, wanted to join the world and see this football David overcome the Goliaths of the sport, but they couldn’t. There was that little thing, that demonstrative waving of the Palestinian flag and all it represented, that stood in the way.

Some may argue that this sums up an age-old Jewish dilemma: wanting to fit in, wanting to be like everyone else, wanting to take part in what everyone else is taking part in, but not being able to do so, constantly bumping into that something that keeps them apart.•