Leveling the playing field

Leveling the playing fie

'The soccer field is the only place where Jews and Arabs have the same opportunities," says Itzik Shanan. "It's a place with egalitarian potential, and we want to showcase that potential and prove that change is possible." The "we" Shanan is referring to is his Kick It Out program, an initiative of the New Israel Fund (NIF). Shanan, NIF director of communications in Israel, founded the program in 2003 as New Voice from the Stadium, but he and his team have since expanded and rebranded it. "'Kick' is a symbolic name," says Shanan. "We're kicking racism and violence out of Israeli soccer." Shanan has drawn a lot of inspiration from the Union of European Football Association's Football Against Racism in Europe (FARE) campaign, which began in 1999. "We've learned from [FARE] how to run activities at the grassroots level with youth teams, and we're about to launch a sister city project," says Shanan. "We're trying to set a model that soccer should be setting." Though Israeli soccer has come a long way in ridding the field of violence and racism, these elements still exist in the stands of several stadiums, most notably Teddy Stadium - the home of Betar Jerusalem. "We send 70 volunteers to the stadiums each week to see the positive developments, to see the coexistence that does exist," says Shanan. "But we also send them to monitor the violence and racism, which unfortunately also still exist." Kick It Out took a giant leap forward 10 days ago when it hosted a a panel discussion at City Hall in conjunction with the Jerusalem Municipality. A selection of players from Jerusalem's teams at a variety of professional levels spoke about the importance of such an initiative, including Aviram Bruchian - captain of Premier League's Betar Jerusalem - and Shai Aharon, captain of National League's Hapoel Jerusalem. The event was attended by hundreds of young Arab and Jewish soccer players, representing eight different youth teams within Jerusalem. "This is a very unique opportunity," said Shanan before the players began to stream into City Hall. "These professional players, these stars, came of their own free will to debate issues that are not necessarily pleasant to talk about." The presence of Bruchian was especially noteworthy as the captain of the one team in Israel that has yet to sign an Arab player. The 24-year-old midfielder provided the event's most memorable moment when he welcomed an opportunity to amend that record. "Personally, I would be happy to have an Arab player on Betar," Bruchian said. "I have a lot of Arab friends who play soccer in Israel." Though Bruchian felt that Israel had made strides in welcoming all players onto the field, he was pessimistic about Betar's signing an Arab any time soon. "At this point, it seems as though the Betar fans don't want it to happen," he said. "Sadly, racism still exists in the stands of our stadium. I wish I could say that it doesn't. But I do think that we're on the path to getting rid of it." One municipality official who helped organize the event cited La Familia, a Betar fan club, as one of the most extreme "strength clubs" out there. "They have their own opinions, and we can't change them. But they yell 'Dirty Arab!' and things like that," said the official, who asked not to be named. On May 9, Betar was penalized by the league and forced to play a game in an empty Teddy Stadium after its fans had yelled anti-Arab chants during a game less than a month earlier. Games have also been temporarily suspended when racist slurs have have been chanted. But when Bruchian asked Aharon whether Israel had indeed made progress, the Hapoel captain responded, "We'll have made progress when that question doesn't have to be asked." Mayor Nir Barkat also spoke at the event, focusing on the negative impact that violence and racism have on soccer. "If you look at statistics from around the world, sports don't flourish in places where violence exists," Barkat said. "Sponsors withdraw their support, there's less interest from the fans." Shanan said he was grateful to the mayor for lending credibility and a strong voice to the panel. The crux of the event was the players' presence. "For the first time, we're giving a voice to these players," Shanan said. "In Europe, soccer stars have taken initiative as role models for change, but it hasn't happened as much [in Israel] yet. We want to embrace these players' star qualities and let them know that their role is not just to play football but also to take a social responsibility with these issues. It's their responsibility to set a model for the hundreds of thousands of fans in this country." Those fans and players at City Hall voiced their appreciation of the event. "The next time we're on the field, these lessons will stay with us," said Tigavo, 14, who plays for Pisgat Ze'ev. "It's also good to bring all of us together in one place like this." "What Bruchian said about his fans - I'm concerned that we're not yet ready for widespread change," said Shanan. "But this is so important for that next generation of players, to show them that soccer is a vehicle for change. And I think we accomplished that today."