Women's soccer exhibit in Jerusalem, meant to unite, is vandalized

The 'Stand strong' outdoor photography showcase was supposed to unite Jerusalemites

A exhibition in Jerusalem showcasing women's soccer was instead found vandalized, December 2020 (photo credit: ALMA MACHNESS-KASS)
A exhibition in Jerusalem showcasing women's soccer was instead found vandalized, December 2020
(photo credit: ALMA MACHNESS-KASS)
The Jerusalem municipal authority has long championed the city’s image, doing its best to change the perception of the capital as a divided and divisive place, with Palestinians and Israelis – and/or secular Jews and haredim – constantly at loggerheads.
In the days of Mayor Nir Barkat there were attempts to up the local sex appeal ante by, for instance, bringing in a bunch of Formula 1 racing cars to wow Jerusalemites and, presumably, people from further afield. But that didn’t do too much for the grassroots dome scratchers, such as how to stem the migration of young Jerusalemites to Tel Aviv in search of employment and more affordable housing.
All things considered, the idea of having an outdoor exhibition of outsized photographs of professional female soccer players seems to be something of a brainwave, especially if the site in question is close to the entrance to the city. The large billboard prints are clearly visible to thousands of Jerusalemites, as well as out-of-towners, as they make their way along the nether regions of Herzl Boulevard, en route to the Begin Boulevard highway, up toward Bet Hekerem or, in the other direction, out onto Route 1. Surely, such a wholesome and colorful rollout could only serve to enhance Jerusalem’s profile as a more liberal-leaning place that accommodates residents of all walks of life, religious stances and, possibly, sexual preferences.
The Stand Strong show, with works by seasoned photographer Alma Machness-Kass, was unveiled on November 22. It is difficult to know what passersby have felt about the spread, and whether they enjoyed the splash of color and display of sporting action – and some more tender moments. Have the pictures helped to enlighten the average Itzik or Miri that women actually play soccer on a professional level here and across the world? Would there be any adverse response to showing women, in sports gear, in the vicinity of the largely religious neighborhood of Kiryat Moshe, across the other side of Herzl Boulevard?
THE ANSWER to the latter question reared its unsavory head last Wednesday when as-yet-unknown members of the public daubed all the female figures with black paint. Machness-Kass says she is appalled by the desecration.
“Why should anyone do something like this?” she wondered. “Why should it bother anyone that women play soccer?” She subsequently submitted a complaint to the police.
The criminal act takes on a much more sinister complexion when one considers the alarming rise in domestic violence since the start of the pandemic.
“The exclusion of women in the public domain is still very prevalent,” notes Ilana Daniel, head of the Jerusalem branch of Na’amat – Movement of Working Women and Volunteers, whose expansive purview includes promoting gender equality in the employment sector and increasing awareness of women’s rights. “It is serious and shocking.”
Daniel says she is at a loss to fathom the motives for the attack.
“I didn’t expect it. There is no nudity in the photographs. They are simply pictures of female soccer players.”
She says she is all the more disappointed by the fact that it took place in Jerusalem.
“There are quite a few women’s teams in Jerusalem, even though people don’t know that. So, why did someone have to vandalize the pictures in Jerusalem?”
The fact that few know anything about women’s soccer in this country, or are even aware that it exists, was one of the driving forces behind Machness-Kass’s initiative to begin documenting the players. She says she got the notion around four years ago.
“I was driving along the Ayalon Highway [in Tel Aviv] with my two small daughters and there were a load of really large street ads featuring [Israeli-born supermodel-actress] Bar Refaeli,” she recalls.
The youngsters’ interest was duly piqued.
“One of my daughters asked me what Bar had done to be displayed like that, so big, in public.”
It was a toughie.
“I didn’t really know what to tell them, what she had done to deserve such publicity. You know, how do you talk to little girls about objectification and all that?”
That set Machness-Kass on the long and winding road to what eventually grew into Stand Strong, in a quest to highlight the efforts and achievements of women she felt should be lauded, and were worthy of putting out there. And it was only natural for her to turn to soccer.
“I come from a footballing family,” she says. “Oded and Gad Machness are my cousins,” she adds, referencing the twins who were members of the all-conquering Maccabi Netanya team of the early 1980s, and who both played in the national side. “I started going to matches when I was six.”
MACHNESS-KASS soon embarked on a venture to document the ins and outs, the sweat, the technical subtleties, the blood and guts on-field action and some of the behind-the-scenes goings on that comprise the women’s game in this country.
“I have spent three and a half years taking pictures at games, at training sessions, and I even get to go into the changing room at half-time. I like that the best,” she laughs. “I get to hear all the talk about the tactics, how the game is going an all that. That’s great.”
What clearly isn’t “great” is the current state of the billboard prints close to one the city’s religious areas. One would have thought that the municipality might have expressed horror and disgust at the turn of events.
“When I asked the spokesperson’s department for a response to the defacement I received the bland official statement: ‘The Municipality of Jerusalem condemns all acts of vandalism or violence.’ My pleas for something a little more pertinent addressing the nature of the crime that had been committed, and the possible ramifications in terms of sending out a message in the context of violence against women, fell on deaf ears. I wondered whether the municipality had been less than enthused about the exhibition taking place in the capital in the first place. That did not even elicit a reply.”
Machness-Kass was particularly keen to have her photographs displayed in Jerusalem.
“I could have done it in Tel Aviv, but what would have been the point?” she posited. “It was important to show Jerusalemites that women, too, play soccer and are free to do so, in a domain that is typically considered a male-only area of life.”
That ties in with the show title.
“That came from a male coach shouting at one of the players, telling her to stand strong,” she says as she plays me the recording on her cell phone. “There are hardly any female coaches at any level of women’s soccer,” she adds. “That’s crazy.”
It is indeed. Even in the so-called enlightened UK, until recently the national women’s football team had a male coach. And while women’s soccer is getting increasing media space and time across the world, especially in the United States, where the national team has won the World Cup and Olympic Gold Medal four times, to mention just a few of its achievements, here there is not a lot of state support and almost no media coverage at all.
“The state budget for women’s soccer here was NIS 5 million a year, and [Minister of Culture and Sport] Hili Tropper added another NIS 2 million,” Machness-Kass notes. “He has actually allowed the women’s league to begin the season soon. All the male leagues were allowed, but until recently only the women’s league wasn’t given permission to start, because of the pandemic.”
ONE OF the pictures in the exhibition shows a seemingly tender scene in which two women are seen attending to a soccer player. It looks like they are administering first aid to her ear.
“Actually they are helping her to remove an earring,” the photographer explains. “Women are not allowed to wear any jewelry during games, which is another way of denying women freedom of expression. [Portuguese soccer megastar Christiano] Ronaldo wears an earring when he plays, but Israeli women soccer players aren’t allowed to do that.”
Daniel Sofer, at 32 a seasoned professional and former member of the Israeli women’s national side, says she was very disappointed when she heard about the crime in Jerusalem.
“I was shocked, but not surprised,” she says. “I read newspapers and see the news. I know what goes on, especially in places like that,” she adds, presumably referencing the more extreme sectors of the religious population, although she would not be drawn out on that. “But I never dreamed something like this would happen. This is such a wonderful exhibition, and wonderful work by Alma that should help to educate people a bit about women’s soccer here. I hope people do take notice.”
FOR NOW, Machness-Kass is waiting for the crime investigators to get in on the act. The police spokesperson released a statement saying, “After receiving the complaint an investigation began that is still ongoing. Action is being taken to trace suspects as part of the investigation. We will continue investigating the case thoroughly and professionally in order to uncover the truth.”
Be that as it may and, one assumes, there are surveillance cameras in the area that could help to move detective matters along, Machness-Kass is planning on replacing the defaced prints with new ones. Hopefully the fresh batch will survive a little longer – possibly even to the Stand Strong closing date at the end of January.