Gunning for coexistence

An Arsenal-supported project in the Galilee brings 150 Jewish and Arab youngsters together on the soccer field.

soccer boy drawn 88 (photo credit: )
soccer boy drawn 88
(photo credit: )
While Arsenal was losing to Barcelona in soccer's Champions League final last week, the Galilean hills around Karmiel were alive with the sound of Jews and Arabs screaming at each other - in the name of coexistence. Eight teams of mixed Jewish and Arab 14-year-olds competed in a soccer tournament intended to build bridges between their communities. All the teams wore the same shirts - albeit in different colors - bearing a large Napoleonic style cannon. The barrel-chested youngsters were proud to be carrying the emblem of English Premier League team Arsenal, known to fans and foe alike as "The Gunners." The young Gunners of the Galilee and their Arab and Jewish coaches are part of a project backed by the famous London club, which is committed to similar educational soccer projects throughout Britain and countries including Nigeria, Thailand, South Africa, Egypt, Bosnia and Ukraine. Shalom Liav, a Galilean soccer coach, organized last week's tournament on the well-tended field of Nahaf, a 10,000-resident Muslim village nestling on the lower slopes overlooking Karmiel. At age 19 Liav made aliya 27 years ago from South Africa, where he played in a Cape Town youth league team. "Soccer was put aside as I knuckled down to build a kibbutz," recalled Liav, one of the founder members of Kibbutz Tuval, who now lives in the nearby community settlement Koranit. The son of British immigrants to South Africa, he never stopped being an ardent Arsenal supporter. "My father was a real Cockney, as he was born within the sound of the Bow Bells. He was a committed Arsenal supporter and went to their matches in the l940s before emigrating to South Africa, and I just inherited it," said Liav, who graduated from a Wingate Institute soccer coaching course. Arsenal's involvement in the western Galilee's Misgav region began some years ago when Alan Sefton, the Jewish manager of the Arsenal in the Community plan, visited the area and got the ball rolling with a group of local Jewish and Beduin teens. Since then, eight Jewish and Arab communities - including the mixed city of Acre - have joined the Arsenal in the Galilee project, which now involves some 150 youngsters. When Carole and Richard Maraney made aliya from London a year ago, they didn't cut their connection with the Arsenal Football Club, either. They adopted the Misgav project and are committed to helping Shalom and his team further expand. The morning of the tournament, the Maraneys returned from a visit to London bearing a message of support from Sefton and Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger. The world-famous coach will meet 16 of the youths - eight Jews and eight Arabs - chosen to be Team Galilee in the Arsenal International Festival of Football this summer at the Royal Holloway College in Berkshire. Carole Maraney said her lawyer husband was "born an Arsenal supporter" as were their friends Stan and Lee Freeman from Haifa, who turned up at the Nahaf stadium kitted out in Arsenal paraphernalia. "My father was a follower of Arsenal in Germany during the l930s, long before he ended up as a refugee in London," Stan Freeman told Nahaf mayor Matar Omar and Amin Salach, a Druse from Kfar Samia near Ma'alot who represented the national Sport Authority. "Isn't this wonderful!" exclaimed Salach, spreading his arms wide to incorporate two teams warming up for the semi-final, while dozens of young supporters jumped up and down, noisily banging tins on the opposite side of the field. Meanwhile, Jewish and Arab fathers argued with the referee of the previous game and muttered to their boys, who played on the same team, "We were done in by the ref." "The imagination boggles as to what could be achieved if this project were to spread and incorporate Muslim, Druse, Christian and Jewish youth throughout the Galilee," said Salach. The final between mixed teams of Arab and Jewish youths from Acre and Karmiel-Nahaf proved a nail-biting and vocal affair. The game finished in a tie, and the evenly matched teams had to line up for penalty kicks. Tension was high. Both teams put on brave smiles. Jewish and Arab players comfortingly patted each other on the back as their coaches encouraged them to do their best. Acre did just that much better and walked away with the final. But in reality, every player, coach, family supporter and Anglo immigrant who brought love of the Gunners and the Beautiful Game to the Galilee was a winner that sporting day, in the name of coexistence in Israel.