Sinai Says: Riots, racism and the future of Israeli soccer

It is with a depressing regularity that racism rears its ugly head in Israeli soccer.

Betar Jerusalem fans 390 (photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
Betar Jerusalem fans 390
(photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
It is with a depressing regularity that racism rears its ugly head in Israeli soccer.
Just when you hope that the problem has been eradicated, you hear that hundreds of Betar Jerusalem fans rioted at Malha Mall, chanting racist songs at Arab workers.
According to videos of the incident taken by Betar fans and eyewitness accounts, the disturbance lasted for approximately 40 minutes, with supporters chanting “Death to Arabs!” and “Muhammad is dead!” before police and mall security guards stopped them.
Police finally opened an investigation to look into the incident on Sunday, six days after it occurred, and although no injuries or damage was reported, it is still quite inexplicable why a single arrest has yet to be made.
Everyone is aware of the problem, including Betar, which strongly condemns every incident of violence and racism and has been trying to eliminate racist elements from its fan base, but no one has been able to come up with an effective solution for such disgraceful behavior.
And not only are matters not improving, but according to Rifaat “Jimmy” Turk they are actually getting worse.
The 57-year-old Turk became the first Arab to play for the Israel national team in 1976, ending his career with 33 appearances for the blue-and-white.
The legendry Hapoel Tel Aviv midfielder was a Tel Aviv council member for 10 years until 2008 and set up The Association for Sports, Culture and Education in Jaffa in 2000 with the aim of helping struggling youth regardless of ethnicity and religion.
Turk has been the target of abuse his entire life and he believes that racism is at an all time high.
“The racism has only gotten worse with time,” Turk said.
“It may not be as much in the open as it was in the past, but that is only because it has become more sophisticated.
“For example, in the recent players’ poll to determine the Premier League’s player of the year, Ahmed Saba won by a huge margin but not one of 19 Betar Jerusalem players selected him.
“That is racism.
“You can say all you want that this is a democracy and everyone is entitled to their opinion, and I agree with that. But if that isn’t racism than what is? “Betar doesn’t want an Arab player and that’s fine.
“The problem is that the club allows the fans to dictate the decisions.
“Anyway, if I was asked, I wouldn’t recommend to an Arab player to play for Betar.
“You shouldn’t play somewhere where you are not wanted.”
While the police and judiciary system usually take all the blame for the situation, Turk believes it is the Israel Football Association which holds the key to putting matters right.
“The biggest problem is the football association,” he claimed. “They just sit around and do nothing. They waste time setting up committees, but do nothing.
“They take money from the country to fight racism, but they don’t. The racism has only gotten worse in recent years and they have not done a thing.
“You sit at home watching a match on TV and you hear 6,000 people shouting ‘death to the Arabs’, but the referee doesn’t hear a thing. But when a player says the smallest thing to him he sends him off straight away.
“The IFA is responsible for this. A referee like that who doesn’t mention such incidents in his report needs to be suspended for six months.
“The IFA can pressure the police and the Knesset, but they don’t want to take on the racists.
“If I came to Bloomfield and shouted ‘death to the Jews’ the police would break every bone in my body in three minutes.”
IFA spokesperson Michal Grundland said in response: “The IFA fights and will continue to fight violence and racism tirelessly with all the means at its disposal.
“We regret Jimmy Turk's words which have no connection with the daily reality as the IFA does all it can to eradicate these ugly incidents from the stadiums.
“We will continue to demand the involvement of all the relevant bodies to help the IFA to fight violence and racism in the stadiums which is hurting everyone's game.”
Despite the many racist incidents in the stands, Arab players are getting more opportunities than ever on the pitch. There are currently more Arabs than ever in the Premier League, playing in every team apart from Betar.
Turk is disappointed that of the dozens of Arabs in the league, very few dare to speak out against racism.
“There are Arab players who only care about themselves. They don’t speak out to defend themselves and the Arab players who will come after them,” he said.
“Take someone like Walid Badier or Salim Toama. You have never heard them say a word about fighting racism which makes them also part of the problem.
“Nevertheless, even if they don’t speak out it doesn’t make it okay for the crowd to curse. When they curse Arabs they are also insulting me.”
While soccer is often singled out as the source to racism, Turk believes that the sport actually holds the solution to this ignominy that blights the local game.
“Nothing in the world has the power of soccer,” he said. “Some 95 percent of my friends are Jews and most of them I met through soccer.
“Nothing can connect people like soccer. It is more than a game.”