The Last Word: Are Israeli soccer fans really racist?

Are Israeli and English racism in soccer comparable; is it possible to kick racism out of Israeli soccer?

sports flares 88 (photo credit: )
sports flares 88
(photo credit: )
Back in the 1970s black supporters and players were simply not welcome at a large number of soccer grounds in the UK. English soccer was largely the realm of white, working class people, and when black players began to appear in the first teams of top club sides, they were often greeted with racist taunts and pelted with bananas. Thirty years later, the picture is very different. England has become a truly multicultural country. Although there are still extremist elements around, by and large the problem of racism in football has disappeared. It would be rare to find a soccer fan who would have a problem with Ashley Cole, Patrick Vieira or Claude Makalele joining their favorite team simply because they are not white.
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As well as the natural progression in English society, the Kick Racism Out of Football campaign, launched 12 years ago, helped cement the idea that racism was totally unacceptable in English soccer. Last week it was announced that an Israeli-British charity is bringing English legend John Barnes to Israel for the launch of Kick It Out Israel - an attempt to rid Israeli soccer of what many people see as the same racism problem that once plagued the UK game. These plans may be well intended, but they beg the question: Can you really compare Israeli and English racism in soccer, and will it ever be possible to kick racism out of Israeli soccer? Although there are an increasing number of African players in the Israeli Premier League, from Congolese midfielder Mazua Ensombo at Betar Jerusalem to Nigerian-born and soonto-be Israeli Toto Tamuz at Hapoel Petah Tikva, it is the fans' attitude towards Arab players that most concerns anti-racism campaigners. These champions of political correctness are always quick to accuse Betar fans of being the most racist of them all. The Jerusalem side has never employed an Arab player, and the mere suggestion by owner Arkadi Gaydamak that the team acquire the services of Bnei Sakhnin captain Abas Suan drew massive protests from hard-core Betar supporters. At nearly every match Betar supporters sing about how much they hate Bnei Sakhnin and how they will never accept an Arab player at the club. This may appear on the face of it to be mere racism, comparable with an English right-wing National Front supporter saying he doesn't want any black players at his team. Although the anti-Arab chanting is clearly a problem, it is important to acknowledge the very different backgrounds between Brits and Israelis. While one must, of course, be totally dismissive of such discrimination, it is obvious that the political and sociological tensions between the communities have played a large part in the continuing problems, and the anti-Arab chants can be seen as an expression of this. The majority of Betar fans are working class, Likud supporting, Sephardim, many of whose families came to Israel after being forced out of Muslim countries such as Iraq and Syria, and who have witnessed the murderous results of Palestinians terrorism. For these Betarim, there is little difference between the Arabs of the West Bank and those living in the Galilee. It is also important to note that it is not all oneway traffic. Having witnessed the violence at Doha Stadium in Sakhnin in January, I can testify to the fact that the Bnei Sakhnin supporters are often as much to blame. I was forced to travel back to Jerusalem in a bus with a massive hole in one of the windows after fans of the Arab team went around smashing the windows of the Betar buses before the Jerusalem fans were allowed out of the stadium. And it is not only Betar supporters who appear to have a gripe with Arabs. A Channel 1 documentary on the subject broadcast last year revealed that most Israeli clubs have a core of right-wing supporters who are, to put it mildly, anti-Arab. This can not be excused, but the background can also not be ignored. Perhaps the situation can be better compared to the rivalry between Celtic and Rangers in Scotland, where until 1989 no Catholic ever played for Rangers. When former Celtic player Mo Johnston signed for Rangers, many fans demonstrated outside Ibrox Stadium burning their scarves and season tickets. But even this comparison is simplifying the issue. Ultimately, the conflict between Israelis and Arabs in soccer is more than just racism. It is a symptom of the tensions within this country and the entire region. Until the conundrum of Arabs and Jews making peace with each other is solved, it will be nigh on impossible - though all power to those who do - to convince many Jewish-Israeli soccer fans that they should accept Arabs with open arms. [email protected]