Arsenal hopes soccer will boost harmony in Israel

Exclusive: Top English club plans series of programs for Jewish and Arab youngsters.

sefton arsenal 88 298 jh (photo credit: J. Horovitz)
sefton arsenal 88 298 jh
(photo credit: J. Horovitz)
Arsenal, one of the world's leading soccer clubs, is about to launch a series of major programs in Israel, using soccer to help foster community spirit and to improve relations between young Jews and Arabs. Alan Sefton, the director of "Arsenal in the Community" programs - which have already enjoyed success in promoting understanding and education in the UK and have been exported, too, to crisis areas such as Soweto and Chernobyl - is coming to Israel next month to finalize the frameworks. Arsenal has also been approached to bring its soccer programs to Palestinian areas, Sefton said, but has yet to decide whether to do so. The London club has already been involved in soccer programs in northern Israel, launched after an approach from the Misgav regional council which sought to get young Jews and Arabs (including Beduin) playing together in the bitter aftermath of the 2000 riots. This past summer, said Sefton, a week-long program saw nine Jewish and nine Arab teams participate in a tournament which had its finals in the Arab city of Umm el-Fahm's stadium - a telling location for such sporting interaction given that the same stadium has hosted major Islamic Movement rallies. "Our managing director, Keith Edelman, was in Israel at the time," Sefton said, "for the Maccabiah; he had a son in the water-polo. And he was going to come and make some presentations, but they couldn't find a taxi-driver who would agree to take him there." Now Arsenal is stepping up its involvement. Sefton is organizing a year-round program for twinned Jewish and Arab teams to play against other twinned teams on a regular basis, with a mixed team to fly to London next summer and take part in Arsenal's International Festival of Football event. (This past summer's event, he noted, featured teams from Iraq and Egypt.) The idea is also to set up a program for coaches and staff. In partnership with the association of Israeli soccer coaches, Arsenal is also set to launch a program of Israel-wide soccer schools - "regular football schools where kids come during the week," Sefton said. "They use our name and follow our coaching program. I come out to coach the coaches, with the main emphasis on using good community skills to get children playing." He said the program, to which he noted Umm el-Fahm has already signed up, would be open "to any community that wants to do it." As distinct from the "twinned teams" project, these soccer schools were not primarily aimed at fostering Jewish-Arab interaction, but rather at boosting community spirit. "Hopefully, there are widespread social and educational benefits," he said. Some of the new programming was being funded by the British Council, he said, adding that these were "humanitarian, not commercial" initiatives by Arsenal. "We are certainly not looking to make money out of this, although we do take our part if money is being made on our projects abroad - to reinvest back into the programs," he said. "It won't be to finance Thierry Henry's new contract," he joked, referring to Arsenal's world-class striker. Speaking to The Jerusalem Post in an executive box overlooking the plush grass of Arsenal's Highbury Stadium in north London, Sefton, who is Jewish, and whose parents made aliya and whose sister lives in Safed, highlighted a simple ideological imperative behind the Israel interaction projects. "Whatever your political persuasion," he said, "you have to disregard all that. Kids have to mix. If they don't, the misconceptions solidify and you retain a status quo of hatred which in my view is unacceptable." Along with Sefton and Edelman, David Dein, the club's vice-chairman and a major Arsenal shareholder, is also Jewish. Based on his experience in the UK, Sefton enthused that "you can do so much through football." By way of proof, he asserted that the arrival at English soccer clubs over the past few decades of so many black players, and more recently of large numbers of overseas players, combined with relentless campaigning against racism, had helped reduce off-field racism in Britain. A "Kick Racism Out of Football" campaign is under way in the UK right now. Sefton noted that Arsenal, managed by Frenchman Arsene Wenger, had in recent weeks fielded teams without a single English player, and "there's been no danger of supporters not identifying with the team. It may not be particularly good for English football (to have so few native-born players on the field), but we don't face supporters abandoning the team because of its non-English nature." On a far deeper level, like many other English clubs, Arsenal has long been engaged in outreach work to the local community to try and foster education and other positive values via soccer - an enterprising trail that Israeli educators might be interested in following. "We have a variety of educational programs, in London and the southeast of England, partly funded by the government, including nine full-time 'Arsenal teachers.' "The programs teach English literacy, numeracy and computer skills in partnership with schools and local associations," he said. He noted that a recent survey had shown that half of all school-age children in inner London "don't want to go to school," and said that education through football was often able to help motivate reluctant students. Soccer-obsessed kids who didn't normally want to read, he said, would nonetheless read material about their favorite players; those who loathed math would nonetheless contentedly study statistics if they related to goals scored by their heroes, matches won, points accrued. Just recently, he said, he had been approached by a geography teacher who has built a six-week program, with different content for each grade, based on Arsenal - "learning geography via a focus on Arsenal's rivals in London, nationwide, in European competition. That's his starting point," said Sefton, "and I've no idea where he goes from there, but I'm sure it will work. The scope in a football-mad country is immense." On the "religious side," he added, Arsenal is also engaged in promoting Jewish-Muslim understanding locally. In the past few weeks, it invited London schools with large Jewish and Muslim components to team up with each other and, as well as playing football together, prepare presentations relating to their respective religious holidays - Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Succot, and Ramadan and Id al-Fitr. "We have eight pairs of schools involved," he said. They were set to make their presentations at a gathering at Highbury during this week's English schools' half-term holiday. Most of the schools approached were happy to be involved, Sefton said, although "in some cases of Jewish schools I was told that 'we have to ask the rabbi' and I knew it was finished." Still he said, this was a pilot project, and he anticipated inviting representatives from the non-participating schools to this week's gathering so they could see exactly what was involved and hopefully be won over.