My Story: The great game

This match is a good metaphor for Israeli politics. There is passion and even hatred but people know where to stop.

cartoon soccer 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
cartoon soccer 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Forget all the wimpy claptrap about Israel disappearing. Anyone who believes such nonsense has obviously never been to an Israeli soccer game. One thing for sure: With Israelis so tough and determined over team loyalties, anyone who threatens our freedom and existence has pretty dim prospects. I'm at the State Cup final between Betar Jerusalem and Hapoel Tel Aviv along with 50,000 others. The crowd is mostly male and young but quite a mixture. It's a laboratory of essential Israeliness, not as an exact cross-section of the country but as a reminder of just how three-dimensionally real Israel actually is. This event has nothing to do with the Arab-Israeli conflict, Israel's image in the Western media or Middle East politics. And that's precisely the point. What a cultural clash this match seems. In one corner, the Tel Aviv Worker team. Colors are red and white. It comes out of the pre-state labor movement (and Labor Party). This is one aspect of basic Israeliness. The glorification of labor is a big part of the Zionist movement's history, a large part of how the state and society were built. We have no capitalists and little capital, so the people who do the work have to create the companies and thus the jobs. After centuries of being forced into mercantile pursuits, Jews must return to the land and the factory, basic production, and depend on themselves. Now, it is something of a joke, though also integrated into the mentality and society. While Israel may have become less egalitarian in many ways, the psychology is still there. When workers come into my house, we sit around, drink coffee and are on a first-name basis. A strong sense of community persists. In school, kids in a class stay together several years. More effort - sometimes relatively too much - is placed on teaching social skills and personal interaction than on academics. A BIG BANNER over the fanatic fan section read "Long Live Hapoel!" which could be more literally translated as, "Long Live the Working People," adorned with a hammer and sickle. Then there's the other side. Betar Jerusalem, colors black and yellow, equally legitimate as "basic Israel." Betar was the last place to fall in the revolt against the Romans. It's the name of the youth movement of Herut, now Likud. Its self-image is nationalistic, poorer, Sephardic, Middle Eastern and religious, reflecting Jerusalem's ethos as much as any political stance. Betar fans are intense. If there's any soccer hooliganism it's from them, though tame stuff compared to Europe. In the last minute after Betar won a critical game recently, fans flooded the field in celebration. As a result, the game was canceled, a disaster for their team. SECURITY IS TIGHT, the police out in force. All plastic water bottles are confiscated at the gates. "But it's plastic!" one fan protests while handing it over. "You can still throw it on the field," says the policeman. The stadium is packed, half yellow, half red. Yet while there's a sense of war, civility is good, by Israeli standards fantastic. When players fall, the guy on the other team who knocked them down often helps them up. About one-quarter of the players are foreign, non-Jewish and often black African, though Hapoel has one Ethiopian-origin Israeli player. Hapoel's big fan favorite is Fabio Junior, from Brazil. Despite the overtones, the rivalry is good-natured. Israelis scream at each other, but confrontations that in the US would end in violence stay verbal. This game is a good metaphor for Israeli politics. There is passion and even hatred but people know where to stop. And tragic events to the contrary - the 1995 assassination of Yitzhak Rabin being the most obvious - only reinforce those limits. There is an underlying sense of something so much in common that it cushions these conflicts. Few remember that a couple of decades ago the Ashkenazi-Sephardi and religious-secular rifts were thought likely to bring down the state. Now they are at most minor nuisances. Another element is the subtext of Jewish/Israeli history embedded in the society. Those noxious noisemakers going off full-blast in my ears are modeled on the shofar and sound just like one. When another team's fans wanted to convey their certain victory over Betar, they proclaimed, "The walls of Jerusalem will crumble!" Israel has a foundation as solid - more so in many cases - than that of any other country. The basic view of Israel in the world, whether pro or con, is pretty flat. It comes from media reports and focuses on the Arab-Israeli conflict. As a result, the actually existing country gets short shrift. Yet Israel is a fully realized state with a mass of subcultures, an overarching national ethos and sense of unity, a distinctive language and a powerful set of cultural-psychological norms built on history, both 3,000-year history and 60-year history. The worldview is different here, based on relying on ourselves, not dealing with assimilation, existing in a Jewish environment in which religion as a direct factor is greatly diminished yet, indirectly as a diluted cultural influence, very powerful. Friday evening to Saturday evening is the weekend; Jewish holidays are the public cycle of the year; and so on. From far away, Israel is small and its future may appear dim. From close up, apart from a small set of café intellectuals often the main source for foreign journalists, Israel looks very strong. Oh, and what happened in the game, you ask? Double overtime, 0-0; settled by a sudden-death penalty shoot-out, alternating one-on-one, face-off between players and goalkeepers. Betar won. Left meets right. End of the game: fireworks and unity. Colors: blue and white. The writer is director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs Journal.